Arizona wildfire season gets dampening relief from monsoon

Arizona wildfire season gets dampening relief from monsoon
Posted at 3:30 PM, Jul 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-12 18:31:27-04

Dozens of wildfires are burning across Arizona ---- but what a difference a week makes.

The arrival of monsoon rains has reduced the wildfire threat and helped firefighters contain previously worrisome blazes across the state. Effects have included lifting of evacuation orders, reopening of highways and the firefighters being released for duty elsewhere or newly focusing on post-fire cleanup and flood-prevention work.

Also, at least one national forest in the state -- Coconino in northern Arizona -- has already scaled back its campfire restrictions, effective Thursday.

However, an Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management spokeswoman said the state is not out of the woods yet, with 35 wildfires burning Wednesday.

"The monsoon effect is obviously helping," department spokeswoman Tiffany Davila said. "I'd like to keep my fingers crossed on this ... right now."

Even in areas where fires have been largely contained and now merely smoldering, crews continue to patrol and remain on standby in case there are flare-ups or new ignitions from lightning strikes, she said. "We'd rather jump on them when they happen."

According to a department report, 1,399 fires this year as of Wednesday had burned 471.1 square miles (1220 sq. kilometers), compared with 1,224 fires that had burned 280 square miles (725 sq. kilometers) at the same point last year.

Aaron Hardin, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Tucson, said Arizona's monsoon started slow but "just finally got really started with deep moisture" early this week.

"That helped out the fire a lot," he said about rains that fell on a fire in the Santa Catalina Mountains overlooking Tucson.

"As long as we get more rains, the fire danger should go down. Some areas haven't gotten a lot of rain so we still have to worry about more fire starts," Hardin said.

The Tucson-area fire forced the evacuation of the summer-retreat community of Summerhaven on Mount Lemmon, but residents and employees were allowed to return this week.

Some crews assigned to that fire have been reassigned and the fire management team is scheduled to be replaced Thursday with a lower-level team.

Other major fires dampened by rains include ones on Mount Graham near Safford in southeastern Arizona, north of Phoenix area and on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

Davila says more rain and continued higher humidity are needed before fire conditions are such that Arizona crews can be released to help fight fires in other states.

"We need to have the full impact of the monsoon season to suppress a lot of the fire activity across the state," Davila said.

"Once our fire season winds down, our crews will venture off to California, Oregon, Washington, to wherever they're needed, Davila said.