Well-timed rains, the brief imposition of campfire restrictions and citizen cooperation this year have dramatically reduced wildfires so far this season, Tonto National Forest Fire Management Officer Gary Roberts said Monday.
Last year, 73 wildfires broke out in the Payson Ranger District between Jan. 1 and Aug. 14, which stretched exhausted fire crews to the limit -- although firefighters managed to keep any of them from flaring out of control. Fires in the district consumed 4,300 acres, most of them in the 4,044-acre Promontory Fire on the Rim.
This year, 30 fires broke out in that same period, burning just 16 acres.
This year's total acreage jumped up this week, when lightning sparked a six-acre fire near Ellison Creek on the edge of the Dude Fire and a seven-acre fire just below Milk Ranch Point, above the Highline Trail. Fire crews quickly snuffed out the Ellison Fire and as of Thursday had the Ranch Fire 100 percent contained.
The dramatic drop gave crews such a break that at one point a group of hotshot firefighters reportedly hiked up the East Verde to haul out trash left by thoughtless campers, hikers and daytrippers.
"This is quite an anomaly," said Roberts happily, his fire season expression of chronic concern yielding to a grin.
He attributed the decline in large measure to the wet winter and a strong monsoon. Last year between Jan. 1 and Aug. 7, the district got 10.8 inches of rain. This year in that period, rainfall totaled 15.4 inches.
Fortunately, money for forest thinning projects has been raining down on the district, thanks to a decision two years ago to finish the environmental and management studies on some 200,000 acres worth of thinning projects.
Most recently, the district got $400,000, which it will use to thin the trees on a thick, 480-acre patch on the outskirts of Pine. The Forest Service had originally given the $400,000 to another national forest, but when that forest couldn't get the necessary studies done in time -- the national office invited other agencies to compete for the windfall.
Moreover, thanks to the damp monsoon conditions the district this week plans to burn off 75 acres of debris piles from thinning efforts behind the Randall property between Pine and Strawberry, west of Highway 87 and south of 428 Road. Later in the week, crews will burn another 200 acres of debris piles west of Strawberry and Highway 87, south of Fossil Creek.
The Payson Ranger District has thinned or finished controlled burns on nearly 30,000 acres around Pine, Strawberry, Payson, Star Valley and other Rim communities in recent years -- with all the studies completed for about five times that much.
Thinning dangerously overgrown trees on an untreated patch of forest costs about $825 per acre, said Roberts.
Crews will go through and cut much of the brush and many of the small trees, leaving behind about 30 tons of brush and wood per acre, piled up in about 20 heaps. Once those piles dry out in the fall or late winter, crews will burn them in place.
The latest thinning project will be south of Pine along Hardscrabble Road and should be completed in about a month. RCO Foresting, from California, won the bid for the contract.
Three months of near-record rain and snow this winter interrupted a decade of almost unrelieved drought. But the rain stopped abruptly in about late February, yielding to three months of bone-dry conditions.
Fire crews braced for the worst. Although four years of breakneck work have created rough firebreaks around Rim communities, a bad fire could take to the tops of the trees and cause devastation roaring in out of a forest filled with tinder-dry trees, crowded together in five or 10 times their normal density -- thanks to a century of logging and fire suppression.
The Tonto Forest responded by banning fires anywhere in the forest, even developed campgrounds. Coconino and the Apache Sitgreaves forests soon followed.
By the start of June, the situation again looked dire. June is the worst month for wildfires, since early monsoon thunderstorms often deliver lots of lightning strikes, but not much rain. Most of the worst fires in Rim Country history have started in June.
Forest managers normally measure fire danger with instruments that determine the "Energy Release Component," which essentially measures how quickly a piece of wood will burn, based mostly on its moisture content. On May 8, not a single place on any forest in the state measured below 90 percent, said Roberts.
Fortunately, a relatively wet monsoon then kicked in the beginning of July. A series of drenching storms passed through the state, including one this weekend that once again deluged Pine and Strawberry.
Currently, most forest's ERCs stand at 20 to 30 percent and fire danger in the Tonto Ranger District is considered "moderate."