With crews already snuffing out up to five small fires a day throughout the Tonto National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service announced fire restrictions would begin Wednesday.
Restrictions prohibit most types of fire or fire-causing activities, including smoking outside of a cleared area or operating internal combustion power tools, welding equipment and torches throughout the forest.
This time last year, Hotshots were already battling two forest fires in the 4,500-square-mile Tonto, including the Sunflower Fire that eventually consumed 18,000 acres.
A Valley man later pleaded guilty to starting the fire during a bachelor party with a shotgun round.
Tonto Forest Chief Fire Officer Clay Templin said the Forest Service has banned target shooting in the forest while fire restrictions are in place.
“We understand that it is a popular activity, but it has such a high potential to start a fire,” he said.
In the last three years, target shooters have sparked 23 fires in the Tonto National Forest. Gila County alone suffers at least 100 fire starts in a typical season. Fortunately, since 2006, a system of water sources spread throughout the county has held all but two of those fires to 15 acres or less. The exceptions were the Water Wheel and Poco Fires. The Water Wheel Fire threatened both Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines before a fortunate shift in the wind drove it back on itself.
Crews have been out shoring up the 45 water resource locations, including 26 with water dip tanks and military surplus water holding bladders.
“In the heavily forested areas, this allows for no more than a five-minute response time from any fire start to an available water source,” the Forest Service says.
While none of the fires this year has grown, crews remain vigilant, putting out unattended campfires regularly, Templin said.
Officials decided to impose restrictions Wednesday based on a number of factors, including increased dry, windy and hot weather conditions.
Forecasters say northern Arizona will be windy, warm and dry throughout the upcoming Memorial Day weekend and that red flag warnings are likely to exist in many areas over the coming days.
Templin said officials base their decision to close the forest on fuel conditions, historical data and how it will affect communities.
Closing the forest is always a last resort, but something the Forest Service has done in the past few years because of the number of large fires and the dry conditions, he said.
This year, it is still too early to say if the Forest Service will close the forest. Drought conditions continue and the trees in and around Payson appear stressed, he said.
Anticipated high temperatures next month exacerbate the risk of a fire moving through the crowns or lower limbs of these already dry trees.
Luckily, this year has been cooler than last and crews are doing a good job catching fires before they spread, he said.
On average, crews stop 98 percent of fires in the first day.
With the Memorial Day weekend approaching, fire restrictions begin Wednesday on the entire Tonto and Coconino National Forests, unincorporated areas of Gila County and on the Williams and Tusayan Ranger Districts of the Kaibab National Forest. Under the restrictions, visitors can light fires, campfires, charcoal, coal and wood stoves only in developed campgrounds. The restrictions limit smoking to within enclosed vehicles or buildings or in developed campgrounds.