Rim Country heads into another dangerous weekend with the fire danger “very high” and crews battling fires throughout the region.
The “very high” fire rating means Payson, Gila County and the Forest Service have all banned virtually all uses of fire outdoors, including campfires, smoking, fireworks, welding torches and use of vehicles off-road without spark arrestors. Fuels in “very high” risk conditions catch quickly and flames spread rapidly, with wildfires exhibiting dangerous behavior, like fire whirlwinds that can set a whole tree on fire in a flash.
Anyone who sees people with campfires or cigarettes in the forest should remind them that open fires are banned.
In a sliver of good news, the fire danger this week at least dropped from “extreme” to “very high” as winds quieted and temperatures dropped.
This week crews managed to limit the spread of several new wildfires in the region. That includes a 13,000-acre fire on the Navajo Reservation that started from human causes on Monday and the 150-acre DeHose Fire east of Cibecue on the White Mountain Apache Reservation.
Crews have contained and continue to monitor other recent fires including the 3,244-acre Blank Tank Fire on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, the 21,000-acre Slide Fire near Sedona, the 1,175 Jack Fire on the Rim in a canyon popular with campers, the 5,000-acre Galahad Fire on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the 74,000-acre Skunk Fire on the San Carlos Apache Reservation, the 1,500-acre Barlow Fire on the San Carlos Reservation.
Crews have taken advantage of air tankers, Hotshot crews and other resources throughout the region to jump on small fires quickly, before they can grow into monsters. In addition, several of the fires have burned into previously burned areas.
Houston Mesa Fire Department Chief Mark Essary said they find people carelessly smoking and leaving campfires burning every weekend. He noted that he was recently driving into town along Houston Mesa Road when he saw a motorist flick a cigarette out the window. He faced a split second choice between chasing down the motorist or pulling over and checking to see if the cigarette had caused a fire. He pulled over and found that in less than a minute the cigarette had started a fire in the weeds of about two square feet, which Essary quickly stomped out.
Fortunately, relief may lie just over the horizon.
The U.S. Weather Service predicts a wetter-than normal monsoon season, hopefully starting in July and running through August.
The period just before the monsoon represents the peak of the fire danger, since the buildup of moisture often causes “dry lightning” storms, which bring lightning strikes that can start fires without any accompanying rain.
Typically, Rim Country gets about half its annual rainfall during the summer monsoon season. For years, the U.S. Weather Service declared the start of the monsoon season based on an increase in humidity. But several years ago, the Weather Service shifted to arbitrarily starting the monsoon season on June 15. So far this year, humidity remains low and fire danger high.
Rim Country remains in the grip of a drought of historic proportions, with less than one-quarter the normal rainfall since the start of the year. Phoenix hasn’t had a drop of rain in more than three months.
The Salt River Project reports that Roosevelt Lake has dropped to about 45 percent of its capacity. The Salt River is flowing at about 43 percent of normal and the Verde River at about 69 percent of normal. Fortunately, SRP has started putting water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir in the East Verde River, bringing flows there to about 23 cubic feet per second.
Mercifully, long-term forecasts predict a wetter than normal winter, thanks to the development of an El Niño pattern in the Pacific Ocean. This surface warming of the Eastern Pacific typically produces above-normal winter rains in the Southwest. The forecasts for a 70 percent chance of at least a “moderate” El Niño pattern developing, after a five-year absence linked to a series of dry winters that have parched forests and drastically lowered water levels in reservoirs on the Colorado River. A sharp warming trend this spring eased off in recent months, causing forecasters to hedge their bets. Although the El Niño typically delivers winter rains in the Southwest, it can also cause hurricanes, damaging storms and megafires in Australia.
In the meantime, the Southwest remains in the grip of the worst drought in centuries. Predictions suggest the region may suffer even worse droughts in the decades ahead due to projected increases in average temperatures linked to not only normal drought cycles for the region but also a rise in heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human pollutants.