If you’d like to know how bad this year’s fire season will be, Rim Country in January had fire conditions not normally seen until May or June.

“We’re now calling them fire years,” said Taiga Rohrer, fire staff officer for the Tonto National Forest.

Jeremy Plain, the north zone fire management officer, spared no words when he assessed this season, after last year’s near-record tally of almost a million acres.

“It is all set up to be another tough go,” he said. “It all boils down to ignitions and starts and where we get the starts. The potential is very big, especially in the timber.”

The two met with officials and first responders from Gila County, the Town of Payson, Arizona Department of Transportation, regional fire districts, SRP, APS, brush pit organizers and others to offer an up-to-the minute assessment of the danger from wildfires this year at a meeting Thursday.

Fuel moisture levels topped the list of concerns, followed closely by steadily rising temperatures.

Add wind to the mix and watch out.

The late Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin seven years ago established the tradition of the fire season meeting with a host of agencies. This year marked newly appointed District 1 Supervisor Steve Christensen’s first fire meeting. The firefighters and regional officials discussed issues that included communications, water sources, areas of responsibility, available resources and fire conditions.

The current conditions of the forest took center stage.

The lack of a monsoon last year and a record-breaking dry winter has set the stage for a possible disaster.

But it is not just the lack of moisture in the standing trees, the downed logs and duff on the forest floor have also turned to kindling, with no stored moisture usually collected from winter snows, said Rohrer.

“There’s also the grass left,” he said of the fine fuels that came up after the winter of 2019-2020.

It all adds up to a grim combination.

“It’s not if, it’s when,” said Rohrer of a wildfire.

Chief Ron Sattlemaier, from the Water Wheel Fire Department, asked about forest closures.

“I’m already getting calls from the public,” he said.

Rohrer explained science will dictate when restrictions and closures go into effect. He used the holiday extreme fire conditions as an example. Dry fuels and lack of snow posed such a threat that only the cold temperatures, lack of wind, shorter days and low visitation prevented an unprecedented December forest closure.

“It takes a lot of resources to close ... and you don’t want to close then open then close again,” said Rohrer.

County resources

Christensen focused on what the county can do to offer support to the Forest Service and other first responders, including communication, evacuation support and water sources for firefighters.

For years, the county has maintained a system of bladders and helicopter dip tanks in areas near settlements. Communities such as Round Valley, Freedom Acres, Whispering Pines and those along Control Road have benefited from wildland firefighters’ ability to quickly fill water tankers or helicopter bays when faced with a fire start. A water drop can stop a spot fire before it gets out of control — if helicopters can get there fast enough.

For years, the county has discussed the deteriorating state of its bladder system. Each year the report notes that the county has no way to replace the aging, seam-popping bladders in the field. The county now has just three of the Army surplus bladders in reserve.

Sattlemaier said he has looked into replacing the bladders in his district with metal water tanks.

“To get up to 55,000 gallons of storage where we currently need it would require 10 tanks. That would be about $30,000 to $35,000 for materials,” he said.

Christensen and Woody Cline, District 3 supervisor, hoped the county can receive state and federal grants for fire mitigation efforts.

The county also provides evacuation support through the Sheriff’s Office and Health and Emergency Services.

Carl Melford, head of the emergency services, announced improvements to the Everbridge communication system the department uses to communicate with the public about emergencies.

Melford can now more precisely target an area with information, such as evacuation orders for a specific neighborhood.

“Everyone receives a notification with an email, text and phone call,” he said.

The county just needs the community to sign up.

For more information or to sign up, go to readygila.com/everbridge/.

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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