Arizona’s long-delayed monsoon finally gusted into the state last week, immediately tamping down the fire danger and blowing open the door to reopening the forest.
The series of storms prompted the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest to lift fire restrictions, in place for more than a month.
The influx of wet, cool air from the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of California brought thunderous bolts of lighting and moderate rain. The forecast calls for a roughly 30-60% chance of storms almost every day this week.
The storms broke a dangerous 100-day rainless period in the Valley, finally cooling a record-breaking string of hot days. The high country has also had a dry year so far – with the onset of the monsoon pattern delayed by nearly a month.
“The campfire ban was an effort to prevent overtaxing federal, state and local fire and medical resources. With the onset of the monsoon season and lower fire danger, we feel comfortable terminating the campfire ban. We urge visitors to follow all campfire rules and make sure their campfires are 100% out before they leave,” said Gary Strickland, forest fire management officer.
Humans cause about 80% of the wildfires in the U.S. and fire danger ratings list the communities of the forested White Mountains as among the most wildfire threatened communities in the country.
The monsoon spawned flash flood watches and warnings from Tucson all the way to Wickenburg, reaching as far west as Gila Bend and as far east as Globe and on up into Show Low.
Overall, Arizona gets about half its annual rainfall during July and August, thanks to the monsoon pattern – especially in the desert regions. The White Mountains normally get two to three inches in July and August. Last year was one of the driest monsoons on record and this year was on pace to match it before the rains finally started.
Fluctuations in sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific generally drive the monsoon, with El Nino sea-surface warming usually spawning a more vigorous monsoon.
However, computer climate models predict the gradual heating of the atmosphere has already caused the monsoon to come later in the year and grow more erratic – with both more dry years and more violent storms. The delay in the onset of the monsoon will extend the state’s already deadly fire season.
Last week’s storms finally lowered the extreme fire danger. The U.S. Forest Service and its firefighting partners continue to work the perimeter of a dozen fires statewide, but the high humidity and rain that accompanied the monsoon storms tamed existing fires statewide.
This season the giant Bush Fire forced the evacuation of the Tonto Basin and threatened Payson. The much smaller Polles Fire for a time threatened to force the evacuation of Pine. The size and intensity of wildfires in Rim County has increased dramatically in the past 20 or 30 years.
Several major fires got started in the White Mountains as well, but conditions were not quite as dry and windy. Nonetheless, the White Mountains have in the past seen the state’s two largest recorded wildfires – the Rodeo-Chedeski and the Wallow.
Fortunately, last year’s nearly normal winter refilled the state’s reservoirs. As of last week, Roosevelt Lake remained about 93% full, despite three bone dry months and rising water demands in the Valley. The Verde River reservoirs, however, have declined to only 64% full – mostly because SRP emptied Horseshoe Lake in its attempt to manage the system to benefit wildlife.
Overall, the system of reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers remains 90% full, compared to 74% at this time last year.
Despite last week’s splatter of storms, the Salt River had just 27% of its normal flow, the Verde River about 55%.
Despite the onset of the monsoon, almost all of Arizona has returned to either “abnormally dry” or “moderate drought. New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and northern California are in the same state. Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado have returned to “extreme drought,” according to the Weather Service’s drought monitor.
The Navajo reservation continues to suffer from moderate to extreme drought, continuing a water crisis on the hard-pressed reservation, which must increasingly rely on expensive water hauling to sustain many families in the midst of the pandemic.
The Apache Sitgreaves Forest warned people to continue to take extreme care with fires, even with the restrictions on campfires and other activities lifted.
· Never cut whole trees or branches, dead or alive. Live materials will not burn and dead standing trees, snags, are often homes for birds and other wildlife.
· Do not burn aerosol cans, pressurized containers, glass or aluminum cans. They could explode, shatter and/or create harmful fumes.
· Keep the fire to a manageable size.
· Never leave your campfire unattended.
Ensure campfire is fully extinguished:
· Allow wood to burn completely to ash, if possible.
· Pour water on the fire. Drown all embers, not just the red ones. Pour until hissing sound stops.
· If water is not available, stir dirt or sand into the embers with a shovel to bury the fire.
· Scrape any remaining sticks and logs with a shovel to remove any embers.
· Continue adding water, dirt, or sand and stir with a shovel until all material is cool.
· If it is too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave.