Smoke-filled skies from a series of prescribed burns have plagued the Rim Country for several weeks, and residents can expect more of the same through November, weather permitting.
"If the microclimate is right, we're going to go for it," Gary Roberts, Payson Ranger District fire prevention officer, said. "A total of 1,400 acres were treated with prescribed fire on the Payson Ranger District during the month of October, and if ideal conditions persist the district seeks to treat a total of 3,000 to 4,000 acres this season."
The smoke from other forests is also finding its way to the Rim Country.
"There have been a number of times this season when people have called in and said, ‘Where's all this smoke?' when we weren't doing any burning," Roberts said. "It was actually smoke coming to us from the Coconino or the Apache-Sitgreaves.
The smoke problem peaked on Wednesday, thanks to a curve ball served up to the Forest Service by Mother Nature.
"Wednesday was the heaviest day for smoke," Roberts explained. "We had smoke from our district, but there were also burns going on in the Coconino and the Apache-Sitgreaves.
"We uncharacteristically had a wind flow that came from the northeast and pushed stuff down this way.
But Roberts isn't making excuses. In fact, smoke is always worse in the fall.
"We get a lot more temperature inversions this time of the year," he said. "One of the keys to getting smoke out of the area is the days heating up, and with the days being shorter it doesn't heat up as much so the smoke doesn't dissipate as readily as it would with longer days and warmer temperatures."
Although it may not seem like it sometimes, air quality is one of the major factors the Forest Service considers when it evaluates conditions for prescribed burns.
"When there's multiple burns our smoke can go to other places and smoke from other forests can come to us," Roberts said, "but ADEQ (Arizona Department of Environmental Quality) always tries to line things out so as best to diminish the impact of smoke."
Prescribed fire operations on different forests throughout the state coordinate with ADEQ to minimize the impact of smoke. Besides wind speed and direction, factors that must be optimal include temperature, relative humidity and fuel moisture content.
The good news: the prescribed burn season usually winds down around the end of November.
"Once we start getting more into winter and things get a lot wetter, that tends to shut our burning operations down," Roberts said. "It doesn't allow us to get a clean burn; we get a dirty burn and it actually creates more smoke."
In the meantime, areas where you can expect prescribed burns include Milk Ranch Point, Washington Park, Whispering Pines, Kohl's Ranch, Tonto Creek, Bear Flat and Little Green Valley.
"Right now the weather conditions are still looking good and we want to accomplish as much as we can," Roberts said.
The ultimate goal is to reduce fuel loading in the Payson Ranger District from about 22 tons per acre to about seven. That's a lot of smoke, but fire is and always has been an essential component of a dynamic forest ecosystem.
Dealing with smoke
At night, smoke tends to linger in drainages and move down canyon. Most smoke will dissipate during daylight hours within a day or two.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
- If you are healthy, you are usually not at a major risk from smoke, but it's a good idea to avoid breathing it if you can. Children and the elderly are more susceptible to smoke.
- Use common sense. Generally, the worse the visibility, the worse the smoke. If it looks smoky outside, it's probably not a good time to go for a run. It's also a good time to keep your children indoors.
- Keep your windows and doors closed, and avoid using anything that burns such as wood stoves, gas stoves, even candles.
- Signs that smoke is affecting you include scratchy throat, cough, irritated sinuses, headaches, runny nose and stinging eyes.