Despite a wet winter, the Rim Country forest managers are bracing for a dangerous fire season, with fuels already holding about half as much moisture as normal in many areas.
The Forest Service could impose restrictions on fires and other activities soon, about a month ahead of the normal seasonal schedule.
The wet winter and reassuring snow pack in the high country lulled many residents into hoping for the first normal fire season in nearly a decade.
Instead, the chain of storms dried up in February, to be replaced by above-normal temperatures and warm winds that quickly dried out grasses and downed wood, said Dan Eckstein, the assistant fire management officer for the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest.
The situation is even worse in the lower reaches of the sprawling Tonto National Forest, where late winter rains nourished a rich growth of non-native grasses. These introduced desert grasses have now dried out and pose a brush-fire threat to the saguaro and Palo Verde, which evolved without native grasses and so have few adaptations to wildfire.
Fortunately, the snow pack left the high country much wetter, despite the so-far bone-try spring.
Forest managers don't expect to impose fire restrictions on the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, which includes the Rim Country lakes, until mid to late May, according to Bill Jackson, forest assistant fire management officer.
Jackson noted that the last snow is melting fast above 8,000 feet and stream flows have already begun to decline significantly.
"We had a decent snow pack this year, which is something we haven't seen for 10 years now," he said. "But the realization is that we've been in a drought for 10 years and one snow pack is not going to bring things back to normal."
Gov. Janet Napolitano, meanwhile, is pushing the Congress to boost firefighting resources this summer. Testifying before a House committee recently, she pleaded for separate federal funding for catastrophic wildfire response and suppression.
"Large fires that used to burn hundreds of acres have been supplanted with mega-fires that burn tens of thousands of acres -- sometimes in a single afternoon," said Gov. Napolitano.
"It is time to face reality and address the funding requirements to suppress these catastrophic fires," she said.
She described the wildfire threat as a "perfect storm" brought on by decades of fuel buildup, thousands of acres of timber affected by bark beetles and the spread of many homes and communities into forested areas.
In the 1990s, fire suppression consumed about 20 percent of the Forest Service's budget. But a string of massive fires throughout the west in the face of an ongoing regional drought has resulted in half of the Forest Service's budget going to fire suppression. The last fire season cost the federal government about a billion dollars, compared to an average of about $200 million annually in the 1990s.
Forest managers in the Rim Country are already worried about gathering up enough resources to keep small fires from becoming megafires, including engines, helicopters, slurry bombers and crews.
Eckstein noted that already the measurements of fire potential have turned ugly.
"Right now, we're already above the 97th percentile -- meaning only 3 percent of the time is the forest this dry," said Eckstein.
Normally, it rains about 4 inches in the Payson area in March and April, but so far the past two months have brought no more than a trace of rain.
"The warm winds have just sucked all the moisture," out of the forest. "The last few days, the fire danger has been ‘extreme,'" said Eckstein.
He noted that trees and downed wood have all dried out, including the slash piles left on thousands of acres. Most of the burnable wood on the forest floor now holds just about 6 percent as much moisture as it could, he said.
The Forest Service has been rushing to thin the trees and brush around Payson, Pine, Strawberry and other Rim Country communities in the past three or four years and has completed operations on thousands of acres.
However, many of the slash piles remain on the forest floor, potential sources of fuel for an out-of-control fire.
"We've made big strides," in thinning areas around the towns, "but with the winds and warm weather we've had several red flag warnings," said Eckstein.
Fires in southeastern Arizona in the suddenly tinder dry grasses nourished by the mid-winter rains have already drawn Hot Shot crews and aircraft away from Rim Country, he noted.
The lower desert areas of the Tonto National Forest face the most immediate danger, especially since grass and brush fires can devastate native desert plants like saguaro, which often can't come back as a result of the repeated burning of the fire-adapted, introduced grasses.
Ironically, the wet winter has made the problem much worse -- since the long drought had drastically reduced the amount of grass and shrubbery available to carry those ground fires from one saguaro to the next.
"Where as in the last couple of years, grass was really limited, now there's a high fuel loading of grasses and it can do real damage," he said.
Meanwhile at higher elevations, thousands of trees killed by the drought and bark beetles remain to carry fires quickly.
Although Ponderosa pine forests are adapted to low-intensity ground fires that burn through every few years, the managed forests have become firetraps in the past century. Forests that once had 50 to 100 big trees per acre now have thickets of small trees packed in at densities of perhaps 1,000 per acre.