The Tonto National Forest has banned all fires in the Payson Ranger District starting on May 8, the price of a long drought, a short, wet winter and a bone dry spring.
The restrictions have come nearly three weeks sooner than even last year, with the drought in full swing.
The ban applies to all campfires in the Payson and Pleasant Valley ranger districts, but allows fire in established campsites in the lower, desert areas.
Campers can use propane stoves in established campground, but no charcoal burning stoves.
"We had such a very wet winter, it provided for a lot of fine fuels to go ahead and grow. But we've had no precipitation since March, so it all just dried up rapidly," said Fire Management Officer Clay Templin.
The weather service predicted the Rim County could get a stray winter storm today, but that won't affect the closures. It may, however, provide some lighting strikes.
Already, fire crews respond to about one fire per day on the sprawling Tonto National Forest, but so far a quick response has kept the fires contained. Firefighters put out three small fires along Highway 87 Saturday between mile markers 261 and 270. Each was about a tenth of an acre and may have been caused by sparks from a smoker barbecue in truck bed.
New Mexico hasn't been quite so lucky, with several major fires burning already.
The restrictions should remain in effect on the Tonto National Forest until the monsoons get going in July. The weather service is predicting a "normal" monsoon season, when storms up from the south often deliver one third to one half of the annual rainfall.
But between now and the start of the monsoons looks like "a long two months" to firefighters.
Fortunately, the Forest Service has made substantial progress in thinning the dangerously dry and overstocked forest areas hedging Payson, Star Valley, Pine and Strawberry.
Although drying slash piles of brush and wood remain piled up on thousands of acres bordering most Rim communities, the thinning operation should give firefighters a defensive line to prevent an out-of-control crown fire from racing on into town.
"But there's an awful lot of ground out there that needs treatment. It's going to take us another couple of years," said Templin.
The lower desert areas also face a serious threat, thanks to the lush growth of grass, brush and wildflowers during three wet winter months. Flower lovers savored one of the best wildlflower displays in years, but firefighters could pay the price during the long, dry spring.
The saguaro and palo verde dominated Sonoran Desert ecosystem evolved without native grasses to carry brush fires. But grasses introduced to provide feed for cattle have now made the region fire prone. Unfortunately, the native cacti and plants aren't adapted to fire -- and ground fires often wipe out native plants for decades.
"We think we'll end up having fires in both timber country and desert. That wet winter, fills our reservoirs -- but it also goes ahead and has the converse affect in the desert."
Moreover, a decade of drought left downed wood and thousands of dead trees tinder dry.
The Forest Service has adequate crews, slurry bombers, helicopters and resources for now, with mutual aid agreements in effect throughout the region.
Moreover, the complete ban on fires in the Payson and Pleasant Valley districts should make it relatively easy to spot violators. Lookouts man a series of towers that allow them to spot even faint columns of smoke and quickly direct rangers to the offenders. Penalties include fines of up to $5,000 and six months in jail.
"We have several law enforcement rangers that are patrolling the whole forest on a variety of issues and we'll try to respond as quickly as we can," said Templin.
Besides fires, the restrictions also ban fireworks, target shooting and smoking except in a vehicle or an an area with no vegetation within at least three feet. Hunting is still allowed, so long as the hunters don't build campfires.
Despite the restrictions, "Most areas of the Tonto National Forest remain available for recreation activity, including all the Salt River system lakes."
For further information regarding recreation sites and fire restrictions, contact the Tonto National Forest at (602) 225-5200, or check online at www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto.
For general information on fire activity and restrictions in Arizona call toll-free 877-864-6985, or visit http://www.publiclands.org/firenews/AZ.php
For general information on fire activity and restrictions in Arizona call toll free 877-864-6985, or visit the. Southwest Coordination Center website: http://gacc.nifc.gov/swcc or http://www.publiclands.org/firenews/AZ.php
Payson and Pleasant Valley ranger districts:
No fires even in developed campgrounds
Fires allowed only in the following developed campgrounds:
Tonto Basin Ranger District
Apache Lake Recreation Areas
Apache Lake Marina
Roosevelt Recreation Area
For further information about restrictions throughout Arizona, please go to the following Web sites: Southwest Coordination Center http://gacc.nifc.gov/swcc or http://www.publiclands.org/firenews/AZ.php or call 1-877-864-6985.
Useful Web sites:
Arizona Fire News: http:// www.publiclands.org/firenews/AZ.php
New Mexico Fire News: http://www.publiclands.org/firenews/NM.php
Incident Information System (nationwide): http://inciweb.org/
National Interagency Fire Center: www.nifc.gov
National Fire Plan: www.fireplan.gov
National Incident Information Center: www.fs.fed.us/news/fire
Arizona Governor's Forest Health Council: www.governor.state.az.us/FHC