Thunderhead

The monsoon has finally arrived, easing fire restrictions in the area. Despite the much-needed moisture, forecasters are predicting another dry winter.

A strong monsoon has given Arizona a break from a plague of wildfires, just in time for the rest of the West to catch fire.

The forests around Payson have reopened and last week even some fire restrictions were lifted.

All the state’s national forests are now open and the Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves and Kaibab last week lifted all fire restrictions. The Tonto remains under Stage 1 Fire Restrictions, which bars campfires among other activities. See complete details on fire restrictions in story below.

But before you light up that campfire, consider the latest National Weather Service forecast. There is a 66% chance of a cold, dry winter.

Still, the rest of the West loves to see the monsoon rains that have rolled across northern Arizona almost daily for the past two weeks. The pattern should continue this week, with a 20% to 60% chance of rain daily for the coming week in Payson, Show Low and Flagstaff.

Nonetheless, more than 500,000 acres burned across Arizona before the daily scattered storms tamed a host of blazes. In the past week, the handful of new fires have posed little fresh danger and the existing major fires have not grown significantly.

“Fire danger remains high,” noted Coconino Forest public affairs officer Brady Smith. “Visitors are still asked to remain vigilant and avoid activities that could accidentally cause wildfires — refrain from campfires on dry and windy days and remember it is always illegal to leave a campfire unattended. Fireworks are never allowed on any national forest land.”

Some closures remain in effect near still active fires, mostly to protect the public and give firefighters room to work.

The Forest Service continued to put out notices on active fires in the area, including the 262-acre Paradise Park Fire five miles east of Hannagan Meadows, the 130-acre Snake Fire seven miles from Clints Well, the 3,000-acre Middle Fire on the edge of the Mazatzal Wilderness, the 16,000-acre Tiger Fire 11 miles east of Crown King, the 110-acre O’Connell Fire five miles from Tusayan, and the 1,300-acre Elements Fire north of Kingman.

None of the Arizona fires still active are currently threatening structures or forcing evacuations.

On the other hand, fires have flared in California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Montana in the past several weeks, consuming buildings and forcing evacuations. The monsoon taming of fires in Arizona came just in time to shift overstretched resources from Arizona to other states.

Other states have called out the National Guard to cope with a devastating succession of fires in the Pacific Northwest — some of them more than 200,000 acres in size. The nation remains at Preparedness Level 5, which means all resources are fully committed. This forces fire commanders to ration their forces — and shape strategies accordingly. The U.S. has never gone to Level 5 this early.

The acreage of U.S. wildfires has grown steadily in the past 30 years, driving federal firefighting costs above $3 billion. The five worst wildfire years since 1960 have all occurred since 2006, according to the Congressional Research Service — with 9 million or 10 million acres burned each year. In 2020, 59,000 U.S. wildfires burned 1,012 million acres and consumed 17,000 structures.

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center report says after months of mostly normal temperatures, a chill has crept into the measurements — moving toward the same La Niña pattern that produced the dry winter in 2020. That’s not surprising, since La Niña conditions normally set up in multi-year clusters.

The change in the measurements resulted in a 51% chance of La Niña conditions between now and October. However, predictions based on climate models predict a 66% chance of a La Niña winter from November through January, according to the recently released prediction.

The La Niña cooling trend is associated with dry winters in the Southwest. By contrast, an El Niño warming often produces a wet winter.

Pacific trade winds flowing from South America west toward Asia generally drive the La Niña temperature shifts in the eastern Pacific. The trade winds can pile up warm water at the surface, which can draw cooler water up from the depths. Moreover, the trade winds can affect the course of the high altitude jet stream — which steers the major storm systems. If the jet stream shifts to the north, the storms that would ordinarily deliver snow to Arizona might hit Oregon or Montana instead.

So generally, La Niña dominated winters result in wetter conditions in the Pacific Northwest and Great Lakes, colder air in much of the West and dry conditions in the Southwest and Southeast. However, forecasters won’t know for sure until they see how the jet stream responds in the fall.

When it comes to drought, Arizona can’t take much more bad news without big consequences. Already, Lake Mead is just 36% full and Lake Powell is down to 34% — the lowest levels since the reservoirs were filled. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has warned that if there is another winter like 2020, Arizona and Nevada could lose a large share of their Colorado River allotment.

The Salt and Verde watersheds this year recorded their second lowest runoff totals in more than 100 years of record keeping, according to the Salt River Project.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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