This coming week the National Weather Service predicts Payson temperatures will break the 100-degree mark, posing “extreme” fire danger.
“Extreme fire danger means that fires start quickly, spread furiously, and burn intensely,” said Tonto National Forest Fire Information Officer Paige Rockett. “Visitors are reminded that, due to drought conditions, hot temperatures, and increased fire danger, the forest is in elevated fire restrictions which began at 8 a.m., Wednesday, June 19.”
Conditions will likely remain dangerous until the monsoon rains start, which may not be for another month, say forecasters.
Already the Kaibab and Coconino Forests have declared their entire forests are in extreme fire danger, the highest level.
Meanwhile, an 800-acre fire that started Friday, June 21, eight miles East of Whiteriver underscored the danger. On Monday, 374 firefighters had the fire 30 percent contained with little growth on that day despite red flag warning conditions, including wind gusts up to 35 miles an hour. The Forest Service has already spent $600,000 on that fire.
Payson Ranger District Fire Management Officer Don Nunley said the forest remains bone dry, prompting constant patrols by the handful of rangers and fire officers in the district.
An “extreme” rating precludes campfires, charcoal, coal or stove fires, smoking (except in an enclosed vehicle or building), firing guns (except when legally hunting), operating an internal combustion engine and using welding or any other open flame equipment.
If Nunley and his crew see activity that could cause a fire, they talk to the offenders.
“More times than not, we educate,” he said, “but if they have a campfire next to a sign prohibiting campfires then we’ll give them a ticket.”
Nunley said changing the fire danger from “very high” to “extreme” really does not make a difference to his crew — either way conditions remain ripe for a massive forest fire.
“It really doesn’t get much drier,” he said of the fuels. “Nothing will change until the rains come.”
However, it sounds like the Rim Country will have to wait another month or more for the cooling, dampening monsoons to arrive according to Chuck Maxwell, a meteorologist for the National Geographic Area Coordination Centers for the Southwest area.
“The monsoon is a complex weather pattern,” he said. “Right now, the pattern is not very favorable.”
He said a high-pressure zone over southwestern Utah is holding moisture away.
“The air circulates in a clockwise direction,” he said, “so this high pressure zone brings dry air to the Rim Country keeping the moisture at bay.”
Maxwell predicted that the monsoons will bring a normal rainy season, once they get started in mid July.
In the meantime, conditions now mirror last summer. Drought, fine fuel (grasses) moisture content, seasonal precipitation, length of fire season and the monsoon prediction are the five factors Maxwell and his colleagues use to determine wildfire danger.
So far, he said he is impressed with how the Rim Country has avoided any serious fires. By contrast, Colorado has 11 fires burning. In New Mexico, the Silver Fire has burned more than 76,000 acres, with 500 firefighters struggling to contain the blaze.
“It’s about the fuel situation, you gotta have dry grass, brush and timber,” he said.
Ally against fire
The Rim Country has an ally in the fight against fire in the form of Supervisor Tommie Martin. She spent a career in land management and grew up on a local ranch. Living in wildfire country sensitized her to fire danger.
Each year, she gathers together local, county, state and national officials from road maintenance crews to Hotshots to discuss water sources, evacuation routes and evacuee housing plans.
This year, the only significant fire in Gila County started near Young, but no emergency back up water sources, such as bladders, were used to stop it confirmed Cheryl Sluyter from Martin’s office.
“They used Frog Pond water,” she said.
Maxwell said the Rim Country has not had much lightning this year, which also contributes to a lack of wildfires.
But in recent weeks, Payson and surrounding areas have had a few fires that burned or threatened structures due to human causes. Firefighters managed to keep the fires from spreading into the interlocking branches of the trees and brush that dominate most Payson neighborhoods.