Firefighters are finally getting some help from the weather, with scattered rain showers last week and a forecast monsoon pattern this week, according to the National Weather Service.
The moisture came just in time, with dangerous fires burning across the state in one of the scariest fire seasons on record — with hundreds of thousands of acres burned already.
The forests of northern Arizona mostly remain closed to ensure some fool with a campfire doesn’t start another blaze — but if the predicted daily rain showers show up this week, the forests could also start to reopen.
“Isolated showers and storms are possible in northeastern and east-central Arizona daily this week,” said the National Weather Service. Breezy N/NE winds will set up over most of northern Arizona Monday.”
Payson has a roughly 40% chance of rain every day from Tuesday through Sunday.
The most dangerous fires at the moment are in lower elevation forests.
The Rafael Fire four miles north of Perkinsville has blow up to 76,000 acres, but is now considered 48% contained. A total of 633 firefighters have so far kept it from reaching any of the scattering of forested communities. The rain, lower temperatures and calmer winds have proved a boon to the firefighters. The forecast calls for the fire to get up to .25 of an inch of rain on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Backbone Fire that started in Fossil Creek Canyon has also quieted with the shift in the weather. Police allowed the residents of Pine to return to their homes on Saturday, nearly a week after they were asked to evacuate. Residents of Strawberry were allowed to return home Sunday. But both communities are at “Set” in the “Ready, Set, Go” evacuation system.
As of Monday morning, the Backbone Fire was 43% contained. About 700 firefighters are currently assigned, a reflection of the danger the fire posed to Pine, Strawberry and even Camp Verde.
The Wyrick and the West Chev fires are also posing much less danger to nearby communities. The Wyrick Fire started some 13 miles from Forest Lakes and about 13 miles northwest of Heber. The Wyrick has so far burned 7,600 acres, with the nearby West Chev fire at about 1,100. The fires forced the evacuation of Woods Canyon Lake and initially spread rapidly — but are now about 62% contained.
Fire commanders say the fire behavior is “moderate,” which means it’s mostly staying on the ground and not getting into the upper branches of the big trees where it can grow into a crown fire. The fires continue to move to the west and the light rainfall over the weekend had little impact.
The fires burning in the White Mountains have also moderated.
The Horton Fire five miles northeast of Hannagan Meadow is now more than 11,000 acres, but is 12% contained. The fire is burning through heavy logging slash in the burn scar of the 2011 Wallow Fire. Fuel moistures remain “critically low” and the fire continues to grow, running, torching and flanking. Embers from the fire have been starting spot fires as much as half a mile from the fire front, demonstrating the extreme danger such active fires present to forested communities like Show Low and Pinetop. Firefighters hope the predicted rains starting Tuesday will knock the fire to the ground, where it will creep and smolder rather than jump from one cluster of trees to the next.
The Bear Fire south of Hannagan Meadow is now 22,000 acres. Only 22 firefighters are working the fire as of Sunday, burning 25 miles north of Clifton. The fire has closed a portion of Highway 191 and endangered some remote cabins and the Rose Peak Lookout. However, the predicted rainstorms this week will further slow the spread of the fire. The lightning-caused fire is the biggest of a cluster of fires in the same area, started by the same storms.
The other big fires that started several weeks ago are now also increasingly under control. That includes the 34,000-acre Pinnacle Fire south of Bylas, which is 60% contained. The 180,000-acre Telegraph Fire near Superior is 91% contained.
Half a dozen smaller fires continue to burn in southern Arizona. Phoenix has just a 10% chance of rain this week — which means a robust monsoon pattern has not yet gotten established.
The monsoon has arrived just in time to keep that host of big fires from spreading out of control.
And the monsoon that will reduce the fire danger in Arizona and New Mexico came just in time to prevent the federal firefighting effort from getting overwhelmed by a rising number of fires now in California, Colorado, Idaho and Utah. Those areas have all suffered extreme drought, but can’t rely on the monsoon to cut short the summer fire season.
The drought and the record-breaking heat wave in the West after a dry winter and spring kicked the fire season into high gear throughout the Southwest perhaps a month sooner than normal. The Forest Service has been spending $3 billion year fighting fires in recent years, but this fire season hit so many places so hard all at once that the federal government has been rationing fire crews.