Conditions Don't Yet Warrant Forest Closures

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The deep concerns of the residents of the Rim Country about the risk of fire are also my concern. Around Payson, the slightest wisp of smoke on the horizon can give land managers and citizens the jitters. About 80 Tonto National Forest employees, along with their families and friends, call the Payson area home, and we share their concerns about what this fire season may bring.

As the official responsible for implementing fire restrictions and forest closures on the Tonto, I am carefully monitoring the situation. The February Fire, driven by strong down slope winds and extraordinarily low humidity for the time of year, displayed erratic fire behavior; sometimes burning in the winter night like it was the middle of June. No sooner did we get a grip on the February Fire than the Horseshoe Fire popped up farther down the Rim.

Closures are only one tool available to address the situations. It's also important to recognize that closures don't prevent all fires, require considerable resources to enforce, and also affect local citizens. From everything I've gathered about where we now stand, conditions don't yet warrant forest closures. Lower temperatures and nighttime humidity recovery are moderating fire behavior. That isn't to say that fire danger isn't elevated or that the forests aren't dry. It is and they are, but we want to use the right tools to deal with these conditions. Right now that means fire restrictions, which are in place the earliest ever, and which will probably expand soon if present trends continue. As the season progresses and temperatures begin to rise, these restrictions will almost certainly increase, and closures may well follow.

These conditions have been recognized at the highest levels of government, and additional resources provided by "severity funding" are further helping us prepare. With this extra money, additional resources, such as Hotshot crews, will be brought on early so they are ready to attack any new starts. A single-engine air tanker base will be set up at the Payson airport, so initial air attack resources will be close at hand if needed. Increased prevention efforts and patrols will also be in place.

So far this year we have had four fires on the Payson Ranger District. The February Fire, at 4,243 acres, was by far the largest. There are two important factors to keep in mind about this fire. 1) Much of the acreage, about half, was the result of our own burnout operations. 2) Much of the February Fire's initial growth was driven by unusual conditions for this time of year. Of the other three fires, the Horseshoe was quickly contained at eight acres and the other two at four acres and one tenth of an acre. Aside from the unusual circumstances surrounding the February Fire's growth, we have been successful in quickly controlling these fires. Fires are a year-round occurrence on the Tonto -- we've had 27 so far this year -- which is more than normal, but not excessively so.

Both the February and the Horseshoe fires started on other national forests above the Rim before moving onto the Tonto, so any restrictions and closures in place on this forest would not have prevented those fires. That's one reason we work closely with neighboring forests when implementing restrictions and closures, as we did with the Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests on current restrictions.

I want you to know that the Tonto National Forest fire managers, including Payson Ranger District staff, are among the best. Their collective years of experience with weather and fuel conditions in the local area will be among the factors weighed most heavily. Remember, they live there too, and are not taking the situation lightly. I will continue to rely on the advice of local fire managers and the best available science in making these decisions, and will always take great care before denying the public access to their public lands.

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