Despite weekend storms bearing lighting, forest firefighters reported not a single blaze in the Payson Ranger District over the weekend -- thanks to the onset of one of the best, early monsoon seasons in years.
So if you glimpse columns of smoke in the distance, it's probably crews setting fire to piles of brush and small trees they cut down last year to form a fire a break around Rim Country communities, especially Payson, Strawberry, Pine and Kohl's Ranch.
"Isn't this weather just great," chortled Payson Ranger District Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts, looking out on thick clouds and a pit pattering drizzle.
Crews went into the forest near Diamond Point on Friday to begin re-thinning some
areas cleared five or six years ago, part of an emergency grant of $178,500 from the Forest Service to help protect forest communities. Starting Tuesday or Wednesday crews should shift the re-thinning effort to areas near Kohl's Ranch, he said.
All told, the district will in the next six weeks thin some 1,400 acres in the immediate vicinity vicinity of Pine, Strawberry, Payson and Kohl's Ranch -- clearing about 30 acres per day.
In the meantime, crews will also burn off about 500 tons of brush and cut trees in the Blatner Brush disposal pit this week, mostly vegetation cleared from private property.
The pit is located off Highway 260, south of milepost 259.7, between Preacher Canyon and Lion Springs and the 436 Road.
That's part of a program to enable private landowners to clear brush and trees on their property that could pose a fire danger and then dispose of it in the pit.
In contrast to the eight or nine fires started in the Payson Ranger District by lightning strikes over the Fourth of July Weekend, the rain that the storm delivered this weekend snuffed out any problems, said Roberts.
The storm on Saturday delivered an inch of rain, followed by a quarter inch on Sunday. So far in July, the storms have dumped 2.72 inches on Payson -- bringing the total since the first of the year to 11.74.
The year represents a distinct break in a decade of drought that had turned millions of acres of tree-crowded forests into a tinderbox. Ponderosa pine forests are naturally fire resistant -- with 50 to 200 big trees per acre surrounded by grass and open space. But after a century of logging and fire suppression, millions of acres of Rim Country forests are crowded with 1,000 to 2,000 trees per acre.
However, the fire danger has eased considerably in recent weeks, prompting all three Rim Country forests to remove campfire restrictions.
"We had lighting," over the weekend, said Roberts, "but we had no fires. Monsoon. Usually, by sometime in spring we're already having fairly large fires -- threatening fires -- even catastrophic fires. We've gone thru May and June and we're into July -- and we've got the moisture here. For the last 10 years, we're used to having an incident management team on the district at this point dealing with a major fire -- and we haven't had that this year."