Monsoon Opens Forests, Douses Fires

Storm reopens forest, Fossil Creek, dumps three inches on Pine


A storm dropped more than three inches in three hours on Pine Sunday night, filling normally dry creekbeds to overflowing.

A storm dropped more than three inches in three hours on Pine Sunday night, filling normally dry creekbeds to overflowing. Photo by Max Foster. |

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A Sunday night storm dumped more than three inches of rain on Pine, signaling the onset of what forecasters say should be a near-normal monsoon season.

The deluge dumped three inches in three hours on Pine, flooding Bradshaw Road and filling long-dry Pine Creek.

Portions of Pine even got pelted with large hailstones by the fierce but fickle monsoon, but Payson generally got much less rain —with two stations reporting less than a quarter inch in 24 hours.

However, the storm also dumped 5-6 inches of rain on the fire-ravaged slopes around Crown King east of Rim Country, causing mudslides that briefly isolated the disaster-weary community.

“We’re seeing a pretty good surge of moisture,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Megan Schwitzer. But she said monsoon storms that draw wet air up out of the Gulf of California often flood out one area and merely moisten neighboring areas.

She noted the chance of rain will diminish for the rest of the week, then rise again next weekend, but the region should remain in a monsoon pattern on into September.

The weekend storm dumped enough rain to dramatically reduce the fire danger, after months of bone-dry conditions. Until this storm hit, the year’s rainfall totals in Payson were about one third of normal.

The rainfall this weekend more than doubled the moisture content of most of the downed wood fuels, dropping the fire danger from “extreme” to “moderate.”

“So far we’ve dodged the bullet,” said Payson Ranger District Fire Management Officer Don Nunley, saying Rim Country has been perched on the edge of disaster for two months of “extreme” fire danger. “We were right there. We could have had a very catastrophic fire for sure.”

The Payson District of the Tonto National Forest will likely lift the fire-based forest closures on Wednesday, re-opening some of Rim Country’s most popular campgrounds and the swimming and fishing areas along the East Verde River and Tonto Creek.

Fire restrictions will remain in effect throughout the district, including a ban on campfires outside of developed campgrounds with fire rings.

The reopened campgrounds include Houston Mesa and Horse Camp.

The road to Fossil Creek from Camp Verde will also re-open on Wednesday, according to a release from the Red Rock Ranger District in the Coconino Forest.

The road down to Fossil Creek from Strawberry will remain closed, however, due to concerns about the condition of the road and the impact of large crowds.

However, the closures of three campgrounds because of recent bear attacks will remain in effect. That includes the Ponderosa Campground, Sharp Creek, Christopher Creek Campground the Lower Tonto Creek Campground, the Upper Tonto Creek Campground and Forest Service Roads 405, 405-A, 893, 1625, the Ponderosa Campground Road, State Highway by-pass and Trail 37 to the wilderness boundary. That closure will last into September, unless lifted sooner.

Nunley said forest officials this week heaved a huge sigh of relief as the monitoring stations in three spots in the Payson Ranger District revealed that the dried out deadwood fuels have absorbed moisture not only from the rain but from humidity levels around 50 percent.

Three computerized monitoring stations check the dryness of wood samples every hour. Before the rain, the fuels had 1-4 percent moisture content — depending on the size. After several days of rain and high humidity, those averages rose to between 7 and 14 percent, said Nunley.

That change in the moisture content of the downed wood makes a dramatic difference in the way a fire behaves. Although Nunley noted that a lightning strike or an abandoned campfire can still easily start a fire, crews will have more time to respond due to the damp fuels. As a result, the Tonto National Forest has begun to release its claim on air tankers and hotshot crews now more badly needed elsewhere, said Nunley.

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