As a heat wave builds in the midst of an epic drought, fires have broken out across the state. The fire danger will remain high at least into July, according to the National Weather Service.

Fortunately, the weather service still predicts a near-normal monsoon will dampen the “significant wildland fire potential” expected to grip the Southwest for the balance of May and all of June.

On the other hand, AccuWeather’s forecast now suggests we have just a 50/50 chance of a wet monsoon while still facing the prospect of another hot summer.

The fire restrictions imposed this week could well give way to forest closures soon, as the Forest Service copes with the dangerous conditions.

Western representatives in Congress are scrambling to mount a federal response. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, a member of the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus, sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee urging a big increase in funding for wildfire preparedness, mitigation and response. The Forest Service in recent years has spent $2 billion to $3 billion annually fighting fires, which now consumes some 60% of its budget.

“In Arizona, the 2020 wildfire season saw 2,520 wildfires burn nearly 980,000 acres of state, federal, and tribal lands in almost every corner of our state — nearly doubling the 520,000 acres that burned in 3,627 fires over the previous two years combined,” said O’Halleran. “As a member of the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus, I’m working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure that our appropriations will fully fund desperately-needed wildfire preparedness, mitigation, and response operations.”

The National Interagency Fire Center reported that U.S. wildfires burned 10.27 million acres as of Dec. 31, 2020 — the highest yearly total since accurate records began in 1983. Colorado experienced the three largest wildfires in state history.

The much hotter than normal conditions will likely continue through the summer, “with odds tilted in favor of a wetter than average monsoon across Arizona” in July through September,” according to the May forecast from the National Weather Service.

Both the National Weather Service and AccuWeather predict another bad fire season throughout the West. Last year, nearly a million acres burned in Arizona despite a relatively wet winter. California and other western states suffered billions in damage and dozens of deaths in one of the worst fire seasons on record.

Fires are already burning across Arizona, including:

• Tussock Fire: 5,500 acres near Wickenburg, 15% contained.

• Copper Canyon Fire: 2,875 acres near Globe, 68% contained.

• Flag Fire: 1,300 acres near Kingman, 88% contained.

• Bonito Rock Fire: 1,668 acres near Cibecue, 40% contained.

• G22 Fire: 2,000 acres near Heber, 70% contained.

• Gila River Fire: 240 acres near Florence, 40% contained.

• Maggie Fire: 475 acres, 100% contained.

But fire crews nationally are already stretched thin covering fires in multiple states, including the 7,000-acre Three Rivers Fire in New Mexico, the 13,000-acre Archie Creek Fire in Oregon, the 1,300-acre Owens Fire in California, the 21,000-acre Cameron Peak Fire in Colorado and scores of others.

Fire officials predict the tinder-dry conditions and the building heat will produce dangerous conditions for the next two months. They’re urging people to clear the brush and tree limbs overhanging roofs from their properties and sign up for Everbridge — the emergency notification system. Prepare for evacuations by packing bags with critical documents and supplies so that you can leave the house on 15 minutes’ notice.

Drought conditions have intensified across the West, with severe to exceptional conditions across all of Arizona — including Gila County and the White Mountains.

Phoenix first topped 100 on May 5 and soared again this week. A northward bulge in the high-altitude jet stream has created the heat wave in the Southwest, with temperatures 10 degrees above normal for most of the region. Much of the region got just 1% to 4% of the normal rainfall in April, which is normally a relatively wet month.

The dry spring follows a meager snowpack and the near-failure of last year’s monsoon. As a result, streams across the region have dwindled.

At midweek, White River near Fort Apache carried just 29 cubic feet per second (cfs), the Black River near Point of Pines had just 19 cfs, Carrizo Creek near Show Low had just 1 cfs, the Salt River flowing into Roosevelt had 124 cfs, Tonto Creek had dried up before reaching Roosevelt and the Verde River near Phoenix had 81 cfs.

The Verde is at about 66% of normal with the Salt at just 18%. Roosevelt still holds 75% of its capacity, but Lake Powell and Lake Mead on the Colorado continue to dwindle toward levels that will trigger the first full-scale rationing of water to Arizona and Nevada in history.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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