Rim Country faces another windy week of hot, dry conditions with no hint of the fire-quenching monsoons in sight.
Now in the normal peak of fire season, with temperatures in the 90s and humidity of about 11 percent, fire crews are white knuckling each week.
They all fear precisely what’s happened in Colorado, where in five days, the largest wildfire in that state’s history, has killed two people, consumed 473 homes and charred almost 16,000 acres.
Northern Arizona has also suffered a handful of fires, which fire crews have so far held to modest sizes.
The 15-acre Secret Fire in the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness area near Loy Canyon north of Sedona continued to burn Monday in remote, rugged canyons.
The Wild Bill Fire burning just northwest of Flagstaff has burned about 26 acres in the same thickets of ponderosa pine that several years ago spawned the devastating Schultz Fire. That fire destroyed homes and scorched slopes so badly that the monsoons caused destructive floods. Crews this week had that fire more than 50 percent contained.
The Frog Fire in late May burned 22 acres six miles northeast of Young, but 100 firefighters brought it quickly under control.
The human-caused Soldier Basin Fire five miles east of the Nogalas Airport burned about 11,000 acres in late May before 160 firefighters got it under control.
The Island Lake Fire in the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge on the Colorado River burned about 3,200 acres during the first week in June.
The Chino Fire west of Nogales burned 50 acres, but damaged no structures.
But the high-risk period stretches on ahead of firefighters, thanks to the overcrowded forest and the tinder-dry trees.
As a result, the Forest Service has banned, except in developed campgrounds, virtually all activities that pose a fire risk, including smoking, campfires and target shooting. Violations could result in a $5,000 fine. Tourism officials in Payson are braced for the next step — a forest shutdown. That could put a dent in the tourist economy on which the region has grown completely dependent.
The U.S. Forest Service has cleared buffer zones around the edge of most Rim Country communities, with the exception of Tonto Village and Christopher Creek.
A Forest Service study released this week found that such thinning projects can dramatically reduce fire intensities, which gives firefighters a chance of making a stand to keep a crown fire from sweeping through a community as it has in Colorado. Such thinned buffer zones are credited with saving both Alpine and Springerville two summers ago from the Wallow Fire, the largest fire in the state’s history at nearly 600,000 acres. That study looked at how well 600 different thinning projects had worked.
The Tonto National Forest must scramble every year to scrounge up leftover money to maintain and expand the thinned buffer zones. A number of communities have also received state and federal grants to help residents thin their properties and adopt a firewise standard.
Ironically, Payson’s Building Advisory Board recently rejected the Payson Fire Department’s effort to adopt firewise building codes. Such codes would mandate fire-resistant roofs and building materials, bar flammable, overhanging wooden eaves that easily catch fire when flames come close to a house and adopt firewise codes when it comes to landscaping. Big fires can throw sparks out miles from the fire front, easily float over a cleared buffer zone and set roofs or brush close to a house on fire. Payson’s current ordinance bars cutting of native trees, which helps explain why the whole town is a fire-prone sea of interlocking trees that often crowd up close to houses built of highly flammable materials.
The whole state remains in moderate to extreme drought, with the welcome exception of Northern Gila County and several adjoining areas. The area around Payson is merely “abnormally dry,” despite the lack of a trace of rain in weeks.
Water levels in Roosevelt Lake have dwindled to about 51 percent of the reservoir’s capacity. The lake loses about 459 acre-feet daily to evaporation — which means the sun steals more water from the surface of the lake in four days than Payson uses in a year. The Salt River, where it enters Roosevelt, is now carrying 117 cubic feet per second — compared to a normal flow at this time of 184 acre-feet.
By way of comparison, the East Verde River is currently flowing at about 20 cubic feet per second, thanks to water put into the headwaters by the Salt River Project from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.