By Jim Owen
While the summer "monsoon" season is likely more than a month away, this week's thunderstorms gave Grant County residents a reason to hope that the weather pattern is beginning to change.
It is "not that unusual" for some rain to fall in the area in mid-June, according to John Fausett, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in El Paso.
"Sometimes, when the monsoons are struggling to get going, some (precipitation) can come in on the westerly winds," he explained. "The monsoon is already happening in Mexico, (as) the interior of the country heats up and draws moisture from both oceans. It hasn't spread to the north, yet, but it's trying. We just need a (weather) pattern, like an upper high, to circulate that moisture into Arizona and New Mexico."
On Tuesday, the heaviest showers were in the Burro Mountains, southwest of Silver City, where about four-tenths of an inch of rain fell. The town received about three-tenths of an inch, while .29 of an inch was recorded in the White Signal area. Weather spotters reported .12 of an inch or more in several other locations north and west of Silver City, as well as in the Bayard area. Lesser amounts fell elsewhere in the county.
Gila National Forest officials reported only traces of rain at ranger-district offices. There was significant "dry lightning," with between 1,700 and 2,000 strikes on the forest. The lightning sparked at least 14 fires, mostly limited to single trees. Firefighting crews, who responded to every smoke report, were able to stop nearly all the fires at less than a quarter of an acre. In some cases, rain doused the flames.
The largest of the blazes, the Star Fire, burned about five acres of the forest six miles south of Wall Lake. Smokejumpers, air tankers, a helicopter and a hotshot crew were dispatched to the incident.
Firefighters from the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest are assisting local crews in suppressing fire starts. Gila personnel plan to return the favor later in the summer by traveling to those regions.
There have been no confirmed blazes outside the forest in recent days, according to Grant County Fire Chief Randy Villa. He said the Tyrone Volunteer Fire Department spent two hours Wednesday night investigating a report of smoke near the Burro Mountains, but did not find a fire.
"It could have been a lightning strike that was put out by rain," Villa said. Firefighters continued scouting the area this morning.
June is the middle of the Gila region's wildfire season. There is "above-normal significant fire potential" through mid-July, according to the Southwest Coordination Center.
The danger could continue longer than that, depending upon when the monsoons arrive. In an average year, the daily rains begin about July 8 in most of Grant County, and a week later in the southern part of the county.
Forest officials have temporarily banned campfires outside designated recreation sites, and the Grant County Commission recently imposed restrictions on open burning. Residents and visitors are urged to exercise extreme caution when engaged in any activity involving fire or sparks. Even hot parts on a vehicle driven across grassy areas can cause flames to ignite and quickly spread. The county has also placed restrictions on fireworks throughout the county, until further notice.
"We encourage all forest visitors to continue fire-safe practices, adhering to current fire restrictions (which limit campfires to developed campgrounds with agency-provided metal rings) and fully extinguishing their fires," Gabe Holguin, the forest's fire-staff officer, said in a news release. "We need to keep the number of human-ignited fires to a minimum."
The release pointed out that, in addition to the other restrictions, fireworks of any kind are never permitted on federal lands.
Last year's rainy season produced a healthy crop of grasses that have matured and dried. In the past eight months, the Gila River basin has received just 42 percent of the historical average amount of rain and snow (based on recordings taken at Lookout Mountain, the Frisco Divide and the Silver Creek Divide).
Forty-one percent of normal precipitation has been recorded in the San Francisco River basin since Oct. 1 (based on measurements at two sites), while 39 percent of the average amount has fallen in the Mimbres River basin (according to gauges at McKnight Cabin and atop Signal Peak).
A shortage of snow during the winter was the main culprit. Snowpack in the mountains was near record lows, which led to little or no streamflow runoff this spring. Conditions only got worse in May, which is typically the driest time of the year in Grant County. This month's storms have provided only temporary relief, as winds and the summer sun cause the moisture to evaporate within hours.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Drought Monitor, most of Grant County is in "severe" drought (the third-worst of five categories). The southern portion of the county is experiencing "extreme" drought (second in severity only to the "exceptional" drought classification).