Fire bans increase as resources get stretched

Coconino National Forest officials are expanding fire restrictions forest-wide Tuesday as an increasing number of wildfires in the Southwest stretch firefighting resources.

That means all federal and state public lands in Yavapai County will have fire-use restrictions. The only place people can have campfires is inside developed, named campgrounds and day-use areas.

The restriction areas include the Prescott, Coconino and south Kaibab national forests, U.S. Bureau of Land Management properties and state trust lands.

"With the long July 4 weekend coming up, there will be an increase of dispersed campers," Coconino Fire Staff Officer Bruce Greco said in a Thursday press release. "The weather forecast indicates sustained moisture is not yet imminent, and there's increasing wildfire activity regionally and nationally."

Federal officials moved the Southwest to the highest level of wildfire preparedness (5) late last week as resources became scarce with the increase in major wildfires across the region.

Prescott National Forest officials do not plan to step up to Stage II fire restrictions before the three-day Independence Day weekend, public information officer Debbie Maneely said Friday.

Still, fire danger on the Prescott National Forest was extreme Friday.

Smoke in the Prescott-area sky likely is coming from the 15,000-acre Ethan Fire southwest of Phoenix, where a wildfire is burning in thick salt cedar along the dry Gila River bed, said Barry Wallace, Prescott Fire Center dispatcher.

Parts of Arizona, New Mexico and California have been experiencing clusters of dry lightning that have sparked numerous wildfires.

Federal officials recorded several lightning strikes in the Prescott Valley, Mingus Mountain and north Chino Valley areas Friday, but as of Friday afternoon they had not sparked any wildfires.

The Yavapai County mountains face a 10-percent chance of thunderstorms today and 10 percent chance on Monday, according to the National Weather Service's forecast. Then it is supposed to clear up through Independence Day.

Southeast Arizona already is getting thunderstorms with heavy rains. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for Tucson on Thursday.

While steady monsoon rains tend to arrive relatively early during La Niña years such as this, above-average spring snowpack in the Rockies often points to a late onset, observed Curtis James, assistant professor in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Meteorology Department that offers a bachelor's in Applied Meteorology in Prescott.

And widespread soaking monsoon rains do not usually occur in Arizona until the Gulf of California sea surface temperatures exceed about 30 degrees Celsius, James added. As of Friday, those temperatures were around 27 degrees.

"Combining these indicators which are somewhat conflicting in nature, I don't expect the onset of deep monsoon moisture for at least a couple of weeks (in Prescott), and I have little reason to expect that precipitation amounts will differ significantly from normal," James said one of his periodic forecast e-mails Friday.

Land managers have called for help from national fire teams to battle at least three Arizona wildfires: the 8,000-acre Distillery Fire near Vail, the 8,135-acre White Tank Fire near Arivaca is and the 7,500-acre Hot Air fire along Highway 191 in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. The Distillery Fire was inactive on Saturday, with little smoke showing, while the White Tank fire was 55 percent contained. The Hot Air fire southeast of Alpine also slowed its advance after rain soaked the area Friday afternoon. Officials say it has consumed about 8,000 acres, about 12 square miles.

Two local firefighters are heading up two of these national teams: Pruett Small, Central Yavapai Fire District battalion chief, and Tony Sciacca, former Prescott National Forest district fire management officer.

For more information, see www.regionalinfo-alert.org and www.azstatefire.org, or call 877-864-6985.

Contact the reporter at jdodder@prescottaz.com