The forests of northern Arizona and the Town of Payson this week imposed Stage 1 fire restrictions, barring outdoor fires and smoking except in developed campgrounds.
The Apache-Sitgreaves, Kaibab, Tonto, Prescott and Coconino forests all imposed Stage 1 restrictions.
So did the Bureau of Land Management Phoenix and Colorado River Districts, and the Arizona Department of Forestry on lands throughout northern Arizona south of the Grand Canyon.
Most counties and cities in the region are expected to add their own restrictions as well, starting on May 5.
Under Forest Service Stage 1 restrictions, fires, campfires, charcoal, coal and wood stoves are prohibited, except within a developed recreation site. Smoking is also prohibited, except within an enclosed vehicle, building or a developed recreation site. Fireworks are always prohibited on all national forest and state lands.
Violations are punishable by fine or imprisonment or both. Violators can also be held liable for the costs of fighting any resulting fire — which can cost millions.
Campers can use a device that is solely fueled by pressurized liquid petroleum or LPG fuels that can be turned on and off, providing the area is cleared of all overhead and surrounding flammable materials within three feet of the device.
For information on the current restrictions, visit wildlandfire.az.gov/fire-restrictions. Additional information about the stages of fire restrictions, forest orders, and general forest conditions can be found at fs.usda.gov/kaibab and fs.usda.gov/coconino.
Most of the national forests in New Mexico have fire restrictions in effect — many of them stage two, which bars fires and smoking even in developed campsites and use of machinery like chain saws, woodcutting, blasting, welding or other high-risk activities. New Mexico has already suffered six major fires this year.
The next protective step could involve closure of the forests — with the resulting serious impact on tourism in northern Arizona.
Some areas remain closed due to fire damage, including Fossil Creek and areas around the Tunnel and Crooks fires.
Fortunately, the 9,400-acre Crooks Fire near Prescott is now 75% contained, thanks to the dogged efforts of 826 firefighters battling flames in thick brush fanned by hot, dry winds. Critical fire weather continued this week, with low humidity, dry fuels and 20- to 30-mile-an-hour winds.
Meanwhile, the 19,000-acre Tunnel Fire is now 95% contained, with just 73 firefighters left on the line to monitor the embers — which could be fanned into renewed growth by the strong winds and dry conditions.
This week, most of northern Arizona and northwest New Mexico remained in a fire weather watch. The rest of New Mexico and much of Texas sweltered under windy, red flag warning conditions.
The National Weather Service predicts above-normal fire danger from now until the onset of the monsoon — likely in mid-July. The forecast calls for a normal, or above-normal monsoon. That’s good when it comes to reducing the fire danger. However, it also means that we could see flooding on freshly burned areas — like the Tunnel and Crooks fire scars.
The Forest Service is already surveying the area burned by the Tunnel Fire to assess the flooding risks. The fire burned in the same area as the Schultz Fire. Monsoon rains on that burn scar caused severe flooding, killing a little girl and damaging dozens of homes.
Last year, 500,000 acres burned in Arizona. The year before, some 900,000 acres burned. Forecasters say the next two months could rival those two devastating years.
In the past decade, wildfires have increased dramatically in frequency and size across the country. Fire experts blame a combination of rising temperatures, the effect of the worst drought in 1,000 years and the increased density of trees on millions of acres due to a century of grazing, logging and fire suppression.
Nationally last year, 59,000 fires charred 7 million acres. In 2020, 59,000 fires burned 10 million acres. Firefighters got a break in 2019 when 4.7 million acres burned. But the total rose to 8.9 million acres in 2018 and 10 million acres in 2017. Back in the 1980s, the average annual total hovered at around 2 million acres.
This year, the heat has already set in, with the Salt River early this week running at 55% of normal and Tonto Creek at 50% of normal. Fortunately, the Verde River remains at about 90% of normal, according to the Salt River Project’s Daily Water Report.