Heck, even if people weren’t coughing on one another at the swimming hole in a pandemic, the Forest Service would have to move toward closing the forest.
Rim Country had just enough winter and early spring rain to grow a nice crop of grasses — now turning tinder dry in hot, dry, windy conditions.
So the Tonto National Forest put out a release this week reminding people they can’t go target plinking in the forest, since a ricochet off a rock or even the ejection of a hot shell casing could easily start a fire.
The Coronado, Prescott and Tonto national forests all shut down recreational target shooting because of both “drying trends of extreme grass fuel loads.” The Forest Service wants to reduce the chance of a wildfire that would force firefighters to work in large groups due to the “effects of the pandemic.”
In the last two weeks, the three forests have battled seven different wildfires sparked by recreational shooting. The forests also always enforce a ban on fireworks and tracer rounds.
The National Weather Service expected “red flag” conditions across much of Arizona this week, with temperatures 10 or 20 degrees above normal and flatlanders sweltering in their deteriorating quarantine.
The weather has helped produce a surge in visitors in Rim Country for the last several weekends. The Forest Service has already shut down the most popular gathering places, hoping to avoid not so socially distanced crowds. But that has simply pushed the crowds to some less known areas.
The Weather Service predicts a 15% to 25% chance of showers across the high country on Sunday and Monday. However, throughout the week all the low-desert areas suffered under an “excessive heat watch” or a “red flag warning.” This also produced an air quality alert in the Valley, despite the big drop in traffic due to the ongoing quarantine.
Temperatures were predicted to peak on Thursday, with relief setting in as clouds gather over the sweltering desert late in the weekend.
Payson high temperatures this week climbed toward 90, with overnight lows in the upper 50s.
The Forest Service this week listed the fire danger as moderate in Payson, but high in Globe and the Tonto Basin. Firefighters have already had to contend with two sizable fires this season, including the 842-acre Whitlow Fire just north of Highway 60 now fully contained.
The return of drought to much of California, the above normal temperatures and the quick disappearance of the snowpack have all set the region up for a bad fire season — with the pandemic already overtaxing firefighters. Historically, Rim Country only suffered high fire danger in June, before the onset of the monsoon in July. In recent years, peak fire danger has extended into May with increasing frequency.
The amount of land consumed by wildfires in the West increased fivefold between 1972 and 2018. Climate models predict more of the same in coming decades, driven in part by a rise in average temperatures.
Moreover, declines in the snowpack throughout the West have made it much harder to predict drought, fire season severity, water supply and other key trends, according to a just-published study by researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, NASA and other institutions.
Historically, water managers have relied on a measurement of the snowpack on April 1 to predict what areas will experience drought in the coming, dry months. However, this year the snow had pretty much all melted by the start of April across Arizona. The two-thirds of western states that rely on snowmelt for their water supply will face significant shortages by mid-century, if present climate trends continue, according to the study published in Nature Climate Change.
In much of the West — especially high-elevation areas like Rim Country and the White Mountains — snowmelt provides about 74% of the water supply. Phoenix also relies critically on snowmelt carried by the Salt, Verde and Gila rivers, which supply the reservoirs that sustain about two-thirds of the state’s population.
The researchers correlated the results of 28 different climate models to predict runoff from mountainous areas throughout the West. They calibrated the computer models to actual measurements between 1950 and the present. Then they ran the models forward to 2100, after feeding in predicted shifts in temperature, rainfall and snowpack. The ability to accurately predict drought declined sharply.
Colorado — with its wealth of 10,000-foot-tall mountains — will suffer the least. Mid-elevation areas like California, the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest will suffer the most, according to the projections.