A slew of Memorial Weekend citations for violations of existing fire restrictions has increased the odds of forest closure.
With rainfall one-third of normal and the fire season off to a frightening early start, local officials worry that the current ban on fires, firearms and firecrackers might not be enough to prevent a fire in the tinder-dry forests.
However, Forest Service officials will only say they continue to evaluate whether to close the forest, but have not made a firm decision on when — and whether — they’ll act.
“Speaking only for the Tonto — it will not be closing” this weekend, said Fire Staff Officer of the Tonto National Forest Clay Templin. He said his staff appraises the danger weekly and will send out notices as soon as they make a decision, based in large measure on how dry the vegetation becomes.
Templin communicates with all agencies in the Southwest that manage land to determine the conditions.
Templin ultimately decides what to do about forest closures, said Paige Rockett, public relations officer for the Tonto National Forest.
“We’re constantly getting input from all districts on conditions,” said Rockett. “It’s (closure) a scientific process.”
Closures are based on weather patterns, fuel status, and remoteness.
Hot, dry, windy weather prompts the Forest Service to declare red flag days, which means fires will spread quickly once they start.
Rockett explained that all agencies regularly take samples of trees and brush to determine the moisture content. The more moisture, the less likely the fuel will catch fire.
Since January, Payson has gotten just 2.44 inches of rain. Normally, we would have 7.9 inches by now. The resulting dryness of the brush, downed wood and trees could cause an early forest closure.
In addition, officials will close remote areas difficult for firefighters to reach more readily if fire danger rises, said Rockett.
The restrictions already ban almost all fire-related activities from smoking to campfires outside of developed campgrounds. A closure would bar people from leaving the roads — and shut down many roads. Last summer, the closure went so far as stringing yellow police tape along Tonto Creek, normally one of Rim Country’s most popular tourist destinations.
The high-stakes decision on whether to close the forest also depends on the weather and the projections made by the Southwest Coordination Center (SWCC).
Predictive Services Meteorologist Chuck Maxwell said a mixture of factors, from weather, to fine fuel conditions, to temperature, precipitation, spring and early summer weather patterns and the monsoons all contribute to fire danger.
For this year, Maxwell predicts severe drought conditions in the western and northern sections of Arizona not necessarily relieved by monsoons, which normally don’t start until mid to late July in Rim Country.
Maxwell found that this year, due to the local nature of weather patterns, grass density, dryness and production varied widely.
With La Niña influencing winter weather patterns, areas west of the Continental Divide had a warm, dry winter. Projections currently call for a cooler-than-normal spring and early summer, which could delay the monsoon weather pattern. And that means a longer-than-normal fire season.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, monsoons kill the fire season in mid-July,” said Maxwell.
The National Fuel Moisture database indicates our fuel moisture levels are currently lower than in previous years.
Moreover, the Salt River Project (SRP) shows that the total reservoir system, including Roosevelt, Horse Mesa, Mormon Flat and Horseshoe, at 62 percent full.
Maxwell noted that the delay of the monsoon season could limit the period of dry lightning storms that often start fires in June and July, but also extend the period when abandoned campfires can spark disaster.
“With a 50-50 mix of human and natural causes of fire, it’s a much less predictable issue,” said Maxwell.
Maxwell said because of SWCC’s predictions, fire prevention resources have moved into the area. Hotshot vehicles have rumbled through Payson on a regular basis since the Sunflower, Gladiator and other fires broke out.
“The more resources you have in an area, the better chance to keep a fire controlled in the early phases,” said Maxwell.
The Sunflower Fire is now 17,618 acres and 80 percent contained some 20 miles south of Payson. It continues to burn pockets of thick brush, but is trapped by the natural firebreaks created by older burns.
The 16,240-acre Gladiator Fire is now 45 percent contained and the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office has lifted the evacuation order on Crown King, Pine Flat and Turkey Creek. The forest around both fires remains closed.
To close or not to close
Forest closures spark all sorts of debate.
Businesses lament the loss of tourist dollars, while locals living deep in the woods praise the wisdom of choosing public safety over lost revenue. Many remember the Water Wheel Fire, which started opposite an informal camping area alongside the East Verde River. The resulting fire would have destroyed Beaver Valley but for a last-minute shift in wind direction.
Forest Service officials say they’ll try to keep as many areas open as possible, even if a closure becomes necessary.
One of the mandates of the Forest Service is to promote recreation in the forest. In her 11 years with the Tonto National Forest, Rockett says she has never seen the whole forest closed.
“It would be impossible to close all parts of the forest,” said Rockett. The Tonto National Forest covers over 3 million acres, too much land for the Forest Service to enforce a complete closure.
That’s good news for forest recreationists and the businesses that support them, but potentially worrisome news for people concerned about a Rim Country version of last summer’s 600,000-acre Wallow Fire in the White Mountains.
“Here’s what I tell everyone, ‘Know before you go,’” said Rockett. “There’s always something to do in the forest.”
To get information on what to do in the forest during the wildfire or monsoon season, Rockett urges travelers to check out the Tonto National Forest Web site (www.fs.usda.gov/tonto).
The Web page has press releases on the latest forest news, fire restrictions, forest area closures and legal notices. It also indicates which camping sites are open, which allow fires and where to fish and hike.