The Tonto National Forest went on full alert this week, braced for the onset of the worst fire season in years.
The second biggest fire in state history in the White Mountains over the weekend grew to more than 380,000 acres or 608 square miles, forcing the evacuation of Springerville, Eagar, Sunrise, Greer, Alpine and Nutrioso and a host of subdivisions, including Escudilla Mountain Estates, Blue River, Bonita, White Mountain Acres and others. The fire also spurred pre-evacuation warnings in Springerville and Luna, N.M.
The Forest Service issued a red flag warning for four days this week, alarmed by the 40-mile-an-hour-plus winds, predicted dry thunderstorms and bone dry fuels.
The Forest Service shut down the entire Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests to public entry. The Coconino and the Tonto National Forest have also banned all fire-producing activities, both in the open forest and in developed campgrounds.
Meanwhile, the fifth-largest fire in state history continues to burn near the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona. The Horseshoe 2 Fire has already charred 106,000 acres or 166 square miles. To add to the woes of firefighters, the 80,000-acre Murphy Fire in southeast Arizona continues to burn just west of Tubac.
In addition, the Tonto National Forest set up an emergency fire center in Phoenix, marshalling crews, helicopters and other resources to pounce on any new fires in the 6-million-acre Tonto Forest.
“While large fires such as the Wallow Fire on the Apache National Forest are being staffed up with personnel and equipment to meet suppression challenges, we are mobilizing additional resources from across the country to assist with ongoing and potential fire threats,” said Helen Graham, deputy fire staff on the Tonto National Forest.
The region reported near normal rainfall this winter, but dried out abruptly in the spring. Rim Country has had less than half the normal amount of rainfall since January, thrusting the area back into drought conditions.
The dry, windy conditions have boosted fire dangers throughout the region.
Unfortunately, hikers and campers continue to ignore fire restrictions that ban campfires and most other fire-causing activities throughout the region.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office responded to repeated calls of illegal campfires over the weekend. The activity log included a June 4 call in Verde Glen, another call in Young and a third incident on Tonto Creek Road.
Many local residents say that despite the restrictions, campers routinely leave smoldering campfires, which the residents often put out when they find them.
The threat of a massive wildfire remains the single greatest threat to every community in Rim Country, thanks the combination of drought and a century of management policies that have resulted in a 10- to 100-fold increase in tree densities across millions of acres.
The massive, 600,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire awoke the Forest Service to the danger of mega-fires that could consume whole communities, sterilize the soil and wreak long-term havoc on forest ecosystems.
The Forest Service has spent the past five years hand-thinning buffers around most Rim Country communities. However, the buffer zones aren’t complete and many have already started to grow back, which makes wildfire an ongoing threat.
The Wallow Fire has underscored that vulnerability, even in the White Mountains, which had a good snowpack this winter. However, as soon as the snows melted, the spring rains failed and the fire danger rose sharply.
Firefighters have proved almost helpless against the Wallow Fire, which consumed everything in its path and spawned embers that started spot fires.
Crews did take advantage of a lull in the hot, dry winds to start backfires over the this week along several portions of the line. However, the winds kicked up again on Monday, mocking their efforts.
Crews have little chance of taking on the fire directly at this point, but have concentrated on protecting the scattered settlements in the vast swath of densely overgrown forest.
At a briefing in Springerville, firefighters said they probably won’t be able to contain the fire until the onset of the monsoon season, which might not come for several weeks.
CLICK HERE for more information about the Wallow Fire.