Scary Fire Season Smolders

Crews snuff out Tonto Basin Fire as forest restrictions tighten and drought deepens

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The failure of the spring rains and a rainfall total less than one-third normal has pushed the fire danger to extreme throughout Rim Country and contributed to two nearby fires over the weekend.

Firefighters quickly got control of a quarter-acre blaze on the shores of Roosevelt Lake, but continue to struggle with a 1,200-acre fire near Superior.

A cigarette butt most likely sparked a small brush fire in Tonto Basin this weekend, fire officials say. While Forest Service firefighters stopped the blaze at roughly a quarter acre Friday, things could have ended much worse, said Steve Holt, Tonto Basin Fire chief.

The flames burned within inches of several homes in the Roosevelt Lakeview Park Trailer Park, scorching the skirting around one trailer. One resident was allegedly smoking and claimed the wind blew the cigarette butt away, sparking the blaze, Holt said, who did not speak with the homeowner directly.

At 11 a.m., Tonto Basin Fire and the Forest Service got calls that a home was on fire in the park, however, the flames were only in the vegetation. The Forest Service had mostly squelched the fire by the time Tonto Basin firefighters arrived.

With homes sitting only feet apart in the park and dry, drought conditions, Holt said he worried the whole park would burn down.

“You wouldn’t want to see a fire in there,” he said. “It would be ugly.”

The home closest to where the fire started sits on the south side of the park, near Cottonwood Wash, Holt said.

Holt said he sent everyone on-duty to the fire and put another team on standby concerned the fire would spread to homes.

Luckily, he said, the Forest Service has a number of visiting wildland firefighters in the area due to the threat of wildfires who acted quickly and got it out before it could cause any major damage.

An investigation of the fire is ongoing.

The Forest Service is planning to close the 167-resident mobile home park overlooking Roosevelt Lake after a decades-long lease of the land expired.

Homeowners have until January 2013 to move their trailers and leave.

The Forest Service concluded in 1995 that the lease of the 21 acres conflicts with the Forest Plan and residents would have to leave when the lease expired.

Gila County remains in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, maintained by the National Weather Service.

The Salt River Project reports that Roosevelt Lake has dwindled to 59 percent of normal and the Verde River Reservoirs to about 29 percent of normal. All the reservoirs supplying the Valley now have 61 percent of their capacity, compared to 82 percent at this time a year ago.

Another symptom of the drought lies in how much water runs in the streams draining Rim Country. The Salt River where it enters Roosevelt Lake has just 50 percent of its normal flow. The Verde River at Tangle has just 59 percent of its normal flow.

Unfortunately, the week’s weather forecast for Rim Country calls for more hot, dry weather — with no trace of the longed-for monsoons. The Payson forecast calls for clear skies and daytime highs in the low 90s for the next seven days.

As a result, the Tonto National Forest on Friday toughened fire restrictions. The ban now applies to virtually all fire-related activities anywhere in the forest, including smoking, campfires and charcoal fires. The only exception remains Forest Service-approved grills in developed campgrounds and recreation sites. The ban also applies to shooting guns, fireworks and any off-road vehicles off the road or even on developed roads without spark-arresting devices.

Violations carry a $5,000 fine and/or imprisonment for up to six months.

Reportedly, the Coconino National Forest will also this week shut down the only remaining road into Fossil Creek, due to the alarming number of abandoned campfires found there every weekend — despite the ban on camping and fires anywhere along the creek.

Meanwhile, the other weekend blaze continues to burn just south of Superior, forcing the closure of State Route 177 on Monday. That brush fire prompted an attack by three aircraft and six engines, seeking to keep the fire away from structures in temperatures above 110.

Meanwhile the human-caused 16,240-acre Gladiator Fire continues to burn in the Prescott National Forest near Crown King. Now 90 percent contained.

On the other hand, neighboring New Mexico continues to struggle with one of the worst fire seasons in history.

The 278,000-acre, lightning-caused Whitewater-Baldy Fire continues to burn north of Silver City close to the Arizona border.

The fire has consumed 20 structures and bedeviled the 644 firefighters struggling with just 37 percent containment in steep, brush-choked terrain.

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