Lightning strikes have sparked fires throughout the Tonto National Forest in the face of the retreat of the August monsoon and a sweltering heatwave.
The most dangerous fire is the 2,700-acre Mistake Peak Fire about 11 miles east of Punkin Center, which is about halfway between the Highway 87 turnoff and the north end of Roosevelt Lake.
On Monday afternoon, the Forest Service had already spent $2 million trying to contain that fire, which sent smoke drifting throughout Rim Country on Sunday. The cause of that fire remains undetermined. The Mistake Peak Fire continues to burn under the face of the Rim on rugged slopes covered with scrub oak, pinyon pines and juniper.
The high temperatures pose a deadly hazard to the roughly 120 firefighters deployed so far.
Several inches of rain that fell in July and reduced the extreme fire danger that persisted through May and June gave way to a dry August, when Rim Country normally gets about three inches of rain. As a result, Payson so far this year has received about 5.3 inches of rain, compared to the long-term average of about 14.3 inches at this point.
The Forest Service update on the fire observed that the above-normal temperatures and the rough terrain raise “concern for firefighter safety.”
The National Weather Service puts the chance of rain at 10 to 30 percent every day through this week, with highs between 85 and 95 on most days.
Firefighters battling the Mistake Peak Fire have closed Forest Roads 236, 236-A, 486 and 416. They’ve also closed FR 71 at the FR 609 and FR 236 junction — as well as FR 609 at the FR 236 and FR 486 junction.
On Monday, one airplane kept track of the fire’s spread while fire crews worked on creating firebreaks along roads that lie in the fire’s path.
Meanwhile, lightning strikes have started other smaller blazes scattered throughout the Tonto National Forest. The fires include:
• Charlie Fire (50 acres): This fire started Sunday just north of Maverick Mountain, forcing the Forest Service to divert two National Guard Blackhawk helicopters from the Mistake Fire.
• Ice Man Fire (30 acres): A second lightning caused fire north of Maverick Mountain has so far shown little activity, with a single engine company assigned to keep track of it.
• Hollywood Fire (11 acres): The 11-acre fire east of Highway 87-mile marker 205 didn’t spread much on Sunday and was considered contained by Monday.
• Sundown Fire (1 acre): This small blaze near Canyon Lake showed “no activity” on Monday.
The evaporation of the monsoon in August has driven the fire danger on the just reopened stretches of the Tonto National Forest up from moderate to “high,” with the entire state remaining in drought conditions.
The flow of water in the Salt River stands at about 21 percent of normal and Roosevelt Lake holds just half of its capacity. Tonto Creek has dried up before it reaches Roosevelt Lake and the Verde River is now carrying about one-third of its normal runoff for this time of the year.
On the other hand, the Salt River Project now has the pumps on the Blue Ridge Reservoir cranked up, putting high flows into the East Verde River.
SRP’s system of reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers is just 55 percent full, compared to 73 percent full at this time last year. The lakes still hold about 1.2 million acre-feet, but lose about 527 acre-feet annually to evaporation. That means the system loses more to evaporation in four days than Payson uses in a year.