A frightening fire season nearly started with disaster when piled up brush caught fire on the outskirts of Whispering Pines right after the last storm of winter, fire chiefs from throughout the area learned at a pre-fire-season gathering last week.
Fire crews from Whispering Pines scrambled to reach the brush piles, which burst into flame — crackling and spewing sparks in a way you’d expect in May rather than in March right after a rain.
“It was just sparking and jumping,” said Whispering Pines Fire Chief Ron Sattelmaier. “We had a 15- to 20-mile an hour wind pushing it. If we hadn’t had that rain the week before, we would have lost some houses.”
The report sounded a sobering note during the annual gathering that dre
w representatives from five fire departments, the Department of Public Safety, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Forest Service and a host of other agencies.
Rim Country had a bone dry winter, with only a trace of rain in months that normally deliver about six inches. The region went without rain for about 69 days before a March storm finally delivered about 1.5 inches.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin welcomed the high-powered gathering charged with defending every community in the region from the growing danger of wildfires. The largest wildfires in state history have all burned in the last decade, in the midst of one of the worst droughts in 1,000 years, according to tree ring studies. The drought comes just as a decade of grazing and fire suppression has increased forest densities 100-fold over natural conditions.
Payson Ranger District Fire and Fuels manager Don Nunley said the district has canceled efforts to burn slash piles and conducted controlled burns normally scheduled in the wet month of March.
He noted the unusual behavior of the fire in Whispering Pines. “We’d had 1.8 inches of rain the week before, but it still burned and still tried to broadcast (spread). We’ve got pine needles cracking already,” he added, which is a measure of the lack of moisture in the forest fuels. Downed wood and even live trees react much differently to heat and flame when they dry out.
“We’re not going to be doing any burning until summer (monsoons) hit,” said Nunley.
He said he’ll constantly monitor the moisture content of the fuels and apply for extra money for fighting and preventing fires when moisture levels reach a certain “severity” level. A drop in fuel moisture could also prompt the Forest Service to close the forest to visitors.
The Forest Service also plans to get lookouts into all its fire-monitoring stations the first week in April and probably base a firefighting helicopter and other aircraft at the Payson Airport perhaps two weeks earlier than last year — probably in mid April.
Historically, most of the region’s major fires burned in June, when fuels dried out from the ending of the spring rains. The onset of the summer monsoons in July then dampened the fire danger. However, in recent years the peak danger period has included both May and June — with the monsoons sometimes delayed into late July or early August. Now, the danger period seems to be extending on into April.
The annual fire preparation meetings sponsored by Gila County have made the region a model for cooperation between local fire departments, police and the Forest Service.
Pine-Strawberry Fire Department Chief Dave Staub praised the Payson Ranger District staff for the increasingly close cooperation, singling out Payson Head Ranger Angie Elam and Nunley.
“That cooperation wouldn’t happen without those people right there,” he said. “They’re awesome to work with.”
Gila County Sheriff Lt. Tim Scott promised to give the thin-spread Forest Service rangers backup when it comes to enforcing fire restrictions, once they’re imposed. Every year, hoards of visitors descend on the forest — and every weekend rangers and volunteers scramble to smother campfires left smoldering.
“It’s going to be zero tolerance,” said Lt. Scott of such violations, “if the forest gets to the point where it’s going to be totally closed. There’s just too many people just plain being stupid.”
The Whispering Pines Fire Department in conjunction with the Forest Service has pioneered a program that enlists trained volunteers to go out on Friday and Saturday to talk to campers to make sure they understand the rules and the danger.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Posse of volunteers will also patrol to look for illegal fires and educate campers and visitors.
Supervisor Martin said, “I’m going to be pushing for early closure” if the forest continues to dry out at such an alarming rate. “And I’m pushing Coconino (Forest) to close Forest Road 300 when that’s warranted. That’s the driest part of the Coconino — and a big problem for us.”
Forest closures can hammer Rim Country’s tourist-dominated economy, especially if the forest shuts down early and stays closed.
But the somber gathering for deputies, firefighters and chiefs live with the much greater danger that a runaway fire could devastate the economy for decades.
They all had the searing memory of last summer’s Yarnell Fire firmly in mind, but the point gained a new urgency with a brush fire that almost got away just up the slope from the slumbering homes of Whispering Pines.