State Ravaged By Fire, But District Gets A Break

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While the rest of the state burned, a wet winter helped keep the number of wildfires originating in the Payson Ranger District at a four-year low.

The district, which encompasses 376,644 acres, experienced 71 wildfires between Jan. 1 and the official end of the wildfire season on Aug. 31. During the same period in 2004, 86 wildfires occurred in the district.

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The Edge Complex Fire was ignited July 16 by a lightning strike 14 miles north of Apache Junction and quickly pushed to within three miles of Punkin Center and Tonto Basin.

The 2005 total is the lowest since 2001, when 65 fires originated in the district. The highest number of fires over the past decade was 108, recorded in both 2002 and 2000, and the lowest number was 45 in 1998.

The 2005 total is well below the average number of fires over the past 10 years -- 82.

Gary Roberts, Payson Ranger District fire prevention officer, also released statistics showing the percentage of fires caught at .5 acres or less. They revealed that the district dropped from 81.39 percent during the 2004 season to 77.46 this season, but Roberts explained that in this case the wet winter worked against firefighters.

"There is a direct correlation between our lower percentage of catching wildfires at .5 acres or less in 2005 and a very wet 2004-2005 winter that gave all of Arizona, including the Rim Country, a lot of light, flashy fuels that spread wildfire very rapidly," he said.

Roberts also emphasized that the district's performance in 2005, while less efficient than 2004, was well above the national average of 68 percent.

"The Payson Ranger District has beaten that average for the past 10 years, most of which were plagued by drought," he said. "Our 10-year average for catching wildfires at .5 acres or less is 86.3 percent."

While the Payson Ranger District experienced a lighter-than-normal fire season, Roberts said the state is en route to a record-setting year for most acres burned. The current total of 723,918 acres is already more than the previous high of 629,876 in 2002, the year the Rodeo-Chediski Fire ravaged 468,638 acres.

Over half of those acres -- 379,262 -- were burned in 196 fires in the Tonto National Forest.

"Our worst fears were realized," Vinnie Picard, deputy public affairs officer for the Tonto National Forest, said. "Last year when we had all of this precipitation it was great; it filled up all of our reservoirs.

"But it really spurred a massive growth of vegetation in our lower lying areas. In the Payson area, the fires never really took hold because of the increased moisture.

"But at the lower elevations we were really hammered. When you look at the statewide picture -- over 720,000 acres is a huge number. Of that about 370,000 were in the Tonto National Forest alone this year, so our lower elevations took a beating."

By far the two largest fires in the Tonto National Forest, both of which impacted the Rim Country, were the Cave Creek Complex Fire and the Edge Complex Fire.

The lightning-caused Cave Creek Complex Fire, the second largest wildfire in Arizona history after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, consumed almost 250,000 acres and threatened Pine and Strawberry in late June and early July.

Burning in rough terrain with steep slopes, the task of firefighters was complicated by the abundance of fine fuels, high temperatures and low relative humidity. Dan Oltrogge's Type 1 Incident Management Team finally turned the blaze back, but not before Pine and Strawberry residents were told to prepare to evacuate on short notice.

Just a month later, the Edge Complex Fire threatened communities south of Payson. It was ignited July 16 by a lightning strike 14 miles north of Apache Junction and quickly pushed to within three miles of Punkin Center and Tonto Basin.

Passing thunderstorm cells then caused the fire to behave erratically and steep, rough terrain limited access to it. After the fire threatened the communication center on Mt. Ord, closed down the Beeline Highway, and forced the evacuation of Sunflower and several communities around Tonto Basin, firefighters caught a break when a monsoon rain helped extinguish it.

The fire topped out at 71,661 acres.

Picard said next year could be worse.

"It's kind of wait and see, but a lot of people who are smarter than me point out that when you have a wet year, it's really the year after that, you have more problems," he said. "You have a higher seed count. There are more invasives in areas where they shouldn't be.

"We'll have to wait and see what this winter brings us. If we have similar levels of moisture, we're in for a tough summer again at those lower elevations.

"If we stay dry, then when those fires do start in the Payson area they will be tougher to control."

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