Rash Of Thunderstorms Spark 50 Wildfires

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A thunderstorm crackling with lightning hurled itself at thin-stretched fire crews over the holiday weekend, but despite nearly 50 small fires sparked by lighting strikes, Forest Service crews and the storms itself snuffed them all out quickly.

The weekend's rain prompted the Tonto and Coconino forests to join the Apache-Sitgreaves in lifting all fire restrictions starting Wednesday -- at least for the moment.

The storm that inflicted a dazzling crash of lightning strikes throughout the forests also brought up to an inch of rain to many areas and could turn out to be the first monsoon storm of the season in the Rim Country.

Fire managers predict the monsoon weather pattern will establish itself in the next week and should last for the next month or so. Although the fire danger remains serious in the region's forests, the period of greatest danger was posed by the "dry lightning" storms that come before the monsoon -- delivering lightning strikes, but little moisture.

If the monsoons do settle in to deliver a significant amount of rain, fire crews can be shifted to areas like California -- where thousands of acres continue to burn out of control, officials said.

During the long weekend, the Payson Ranger District on the Tonto National Forest reported seven fires, all caused by lightning except for a small blaze touched off as a result of a fatal car crash on Highway 260 just outside of Star Valley.

Crews limited all of the fires to about one-tenth of an acre, said Gary Roberts, the district's fire management officer.

"We didn't have any fires at all on the Fourth of July, which is a pretty good thing," said Roberts. "Overall, people have been very observant of the fire restrictions," although lookouts called in several illegal campfires to Gila County Sheriff's deputies and fire crews, said Roberts.

The Coconino Forest has had 34 fires start in the past week, but the largest grew to just six acres -- a small surge from the four or five fire-a-day pace of the past two weeks, said Richard Thayer, dispatch center manager. On one day at the height of the storm, crews responded to 15 fires.

The Apache-Sitgreaves also had six or seven fires over the weekend, consistent with the three to seven fire-a-day pace of the past couple of weeks, said spokesman Bob Dyson.

Only a handful of the fires this season could be traced to human beings, he said.

"That was pretty remarkable considering all the people we had in the forest," said Dyson.

The Sitgreaves has reported the largest fires of the season so far in Arizona, with about 8,000 acres having burned in the Clifton Ranger District as part of the Hot Air Fire. A lightning strike started that fire in a remote, roadless area and the Forest Service elected to set up a perimeter and let it burn. As it happens, the area had been scheduled for a controlled burn during a wetter, cooler part of the year.

"Of course, we never would have done a prescribed burn in June," said Dyson, who said the fire lost energy when it hit an area that had burned six or seven years ago.

Several other fires are burning in the Blue Ridge Wilderness area near the New Mexico border, which the Forest Service is not actively fighting.

The Payson District has three engines with a total of 15 firefighters, a 19-person hotshot team and a helicopter with nine assigned firefighters.

Fires on the Payson Ranger District over the weekend included:

  • Milk Fire (July 3) -- Lightning sparked a fire at Milk Ranch Point just north of Strawberry, but crews limited its spread to two-tenths of an acre, thanks to a hotshot crew from Idaho and a helicopter that dropped off firefighters who went down to the fire line. The helicopter then dropped 100-gallon buckets of water on the edge of the fire scooped up from a water tank positioned at Camp Geronimo. That fire was spotted by a member of the helicopter crew stationed at the Payson Airport.
  • Shannon and Pine fires (July 3) -- The crew of a Payson fire truck spotted this lightning-caused fire at the west end of Control Road 64 and crews from the Pine/Strawberry Fire Department held it to one-tenth of an acre. Nearby, a citizen reported a second lightning-caused fire, which Forest Service crews also held to one-tenth of an acre.
  • Crackerjack Fire (July 3) -- The crew of a firefighting helicopter spotted this lightning-caused fire southwest of Verde Park off Crackerjack Road just north of Payson. Fire crews held it to one-tenth of an acre.
  • Myrtle Point Fire (July 5) -- The lookout at the Diamond Point tower spotted this lightning-caused blaze in a steep, rugged, brush-filled area below the Rim that remains the bane of firefighters in the district. Heavily loaded crews climbed the steep terrain to get to the fire and held it to two-tenths of an acre in an area that "turns your legs to rubber," said Roberts.
  • Star Valley Fire (July 5) -- The only human-caused fire of the weekend was triggered when the driver of a pickup truck lost control on Highway 260 and smashed into a tree. Forest Service engine crews held it to one-tenth of an acre with the help of trucks that can deliver about 500 gallons of water per minute.
  • Catch Fire (July 5) -- A lightning strike set a dead snag on fire across from the Rancho Tonto Catch-a-Trout fish farm at the east end of the 29 Road.

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