Alarmed by the effect of a bone-dry spring on the forest, a slew of national forests last week banned campfires and a host of other high-risk activities.
Since January, Rim Country has received just under four inches of rain — half of normal. Some areas had a few spatters of rain on Monday morning, but not enough to break May’s perfectly dry tally.
The Salt River’s flow at Roosevelt Lake has dwindled to less than one-third of normal. Tonto Creek at Roosevelt has half its normal flow and the Verde River at Triangle is flowing about 12 percent below normal.
To underscore the danger, fire crews spent the weekend struggling to contain the Pickett Fire, which has so far consumed 1,000 acres near Boyce Arboretum outside of Superior.
Rim Country communities remain among the most fire-threatened in the county, hedged by a forest with tree densities more than 10 times greater than natural conditions, thanks to a century of grazing and fire suppression. In the past five years the Forest Service has thinned rough fire breaks to partially protect Payson and Pine, but the entire region remains vulnerable to massive fire.
Traditionally the worst fires in Rim Country start in June, before the onset of the monsoon season returns moisture to bone-dry fuels. Several studies suggest that the gradual rise in average global temperatures has already resulted in much drier springs and an earlier onset to the fire season in Arizona.
The Tonto National Forest cited “drought conditions,” high temperatures and extremely low humidity in banning most fire-causing activities throughout the forest, which includes all of Rim Country below the edge of the Mogollon Rim.
The restrictions include a ban on building, maintaining, attending or using a fire, campfire or charcoal-burning device. Forest visitors can’t even smoke cigarettes outside of cleared areas — like a campground.
The ban also covers use of power tools, welding equipment and vehicles without properly operating spark-arresting devices. The ban also applies to shooting guns, except for hunters with permits.
“Because of the ongoing drought, dry forest conditions and exceptionally low relative humidities, fire restrictions are needed to protect forest users, structures and natural resources from the increased potential for dangerous wildland fires,” said Tonto National Forest Fire Staff Officer Clay Templin. “We continue to remind the public that fireworks are prohibited on the forest at all times.”
Forest Service rangers urged residents to report any violations of the rules to the Payson Ranger Station. Even a single violation can yield a fine of $5,000 plus six months in jail.
For information on the restrictions call 877-864-6985 or check out the forest’s Web site at www.fs.usda.gov/Tonto.
The Coconino National Forest imposed the same restrictions on a vast sprawl of forest that stretches from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, through Flagstaff and all the way along the top of the Mogollon Rim to Highway 260.
The state division of forestry also banned all fires on state trust lands, which covers millions of acres statewide.
The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, which covers the area east of Highway 260 atop the Rim and includes all of the White Mountains on Monday issued a “red flag” fire warning due to high winds and dry conditions.
Red flag conditions also impose strict limits on fire similar to the restrictions on the adjacent Tonto National Forest.
That red flag warning covered most of the state on Monday, with humidity below 15 percent almost everywhere and 20- to 45-mile-an-hour wind gusts throughout the state.
The failure of the once reliable March and April rains for the third year in a row have alarmed fire officials, since the dry conditions move the start of the high-risk fire season into May. That means an extra month of extreme conditions before the start of the monsoons.