Rain Dampens Arizona And New Mexico Wildfires

In Arizona and New Mexico, one season seems to have trumped another: monsoon over wildfire.


TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- In Arizona and New Mexico, one season seems to have trumped another: monsoon over wildfire.

New Mexico's monsoon has been relatively wet and Arizona's rather dry, but in both states fortuitously timed rains have helped stifle the wildfire season.

Both states have experienced major fires, topped by Arizona's Willow fire, which charred 119,500 acres, and southern New Mexico's Peppin fire, which blackened 64,488 acres and burned a dozen cabins. Lightning sparked both.

But the worst of a comparatively mild fire season is essentially over, barring significant drying and a hot fall once the monsoon officially ends next month _ which wildfire officials and weathermen acknowledge could happen.

``I do not think we're entirely out of it. But with that said, I wouldn't expect to see any large catastrophic fires,'' said Chuck Maxwell, predictive services group leader for the Southwest Coordination Center, a federal fire management agency based in Albuquerque, N.M.

Instead, Maxwell said he anticipates seeing continued numerous smaller fires, particularly in Arizona, that fire agencies will jump on quickly. And he noted that the fire danger is still considerably above normal because of drought in both states.

There were 35 large fires in the two states between Feb. 4 and Aug. 14, all but six in Arizona. By contrast, there were 64 in the same span last year _ 40 in Arizona and 24 in New Mexico.

``If you're looking strictly at the numbers, it was kind of an average to below-average year in both states,'' said Jay Ellington, the center's intelligence coordinator.

The monsoon started later than usual in New Mexico, and after a brief period of showers it dried out.

Then, heavier rains in late July and this month, especially in mountainous areas, slowed the fire spread, said Keith Hayes, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Albuquerque. ``That helped a lot of our forest areas,'' he said.

The western third of New Mexico probably has benefited less than some other areas, particularly central sections of the state that have seen the heaviest rains, and a hit-or-miss pattern is likely to continue, Hayes said.

In terms of rainfall, Arizona's monsoon has been spotty at best, said Erik Pytlak, a weather service meteorologist in Tucson.

Fortunately, most of the rain was in Payson in north-central Arizona and it arrived at a critical time for crews battling the Willow fire, which burned near the town of 14,000.

``It definitely did slow fire activity down and helped our mop-up efforts,'' Payson Fire Capt. Rob Beery said.

Monsoon rains also finally quelled the 29,400-acre Nuttall complex fire on southern Arizona's Mount Graham. The fire, the state's second-largest this season, threatened a multimillion-dollar observatory and about 100 summer homes and cabins in July before the rains knocked it down.

``I don't call it luck, I call it a God thing,'' said Judy Rhoads, whose cabin on the mountain was unharmed. ``The fire was going so furiously, when the humidity started, it went to a sizzle, and I was really amazed at that.''

In Capitan, N.M., Lillith Stone said the monsoon arrived too late to have much impact on the Peppin fire. ``It had basically burned itself out'' by that time, she said.

She said her ranch in the Lincoln National Forest emerged unscathed because of 10 years spent building a firebreak behind its two houses, barn and bunkhouse.

``We felt like we were quite safe,'' Stone said.

Rhoads said she recognizes that her area remains vulnerable.

``There is a lot around us,'' she said, ``and it would just take a cigarette or a lightning strike or someone's carelessness and we would be in the same boat again.''