By Associated Press Writer
updated 7/6/2006 3:41:14 PM ET 2006-07-06T19:41:14

With forests dried to a crisp this year from record drought, Arizonans watched with relief as a thick carpet of storm clouds continued to roll into the state Wednesday, bringing rain and humidity.

Monsoon season has officially arrived, and with it the likelihood that rains will cut the extreme wildfire danger that has haunted fire officials for months.

The annual wet season should make it harder for wildfires to eat up large chunks of forest, said Tony Haffer, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Phoenix.

That's a sharp contrast from late spring, when experts warned that the state faced months of extreme fire danger. Phoenix went 143 consecutive days without rain, and the rest of the state was just as dry.

"Certainly, it could have been a lot worse," Haffer said. "There's a potential now for some heavy rains."

For the next three months, barring some unexpected departure from the norm, desert heat will suck damp air into the state from the Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California. The increased humidity will decrease the fire risk. And instead of zapping the ground only with dry lightning, summer thunderstorms should now bring rain.

The fire danger that has gripped the state is now moving north, which still faces fire season _ but in many cases following a healthy winter dump of snow. And for Arizona forest officials who feared the worst in March, the July rains are a blessing.

"I think fire season's definitely on its last legs," said Vinnie Picard, a spokesman for the Tonto National Forest, about 40 miles north of Phoenix. As he spoke, Picard said, rain was putting out the 2,000-acre Hackberry Fire.

Across the state, there were signs the wildfire season was winding down.

Federal agencies and local officials have started pulling out Hotshot crews, helicopters and air-tankers, sending them to other parts of the country where they're needed more, said Jim Payne, the U.S. Forest Service spokesman in Arizona.

"Right now, we really don't need them," Payne said. "But remember, there's a lot of firefighters still stationed here."

In Flagstaff, Fire Chief Mike Iacona said his department has stopped sending extra firefighters into the woods surrounding the city to check for fires.

"We're very pleased with the amount of moisture we're getting, the lower temperatures," Iacona said.

The picture is far different from the grim one that faced firefighters early this year.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport didn't record a drop of rain from Oct. 19 to March 10. The lack of water combined with the state's oven-like air to turn wooded areas into a tinderbox.

Picard said the Tonto National Forest called up its Hotshot fire crews in April, a month earlier than normal, anticipating a torrid fire season.

During the past two years, forest officials fought some of the worst fires on record. The Willow Fire charred 120,000 acres in 2004. The Cave Creek Complex Fire burned 248,000 acres last year and the Edge Fire scorched another 74,000 acres.

"Every summer seemed like this huge death march for us," Picard said.

There were still a few large fires this year, including the 59,000-acre Warm Fire in the Kaibab National Forest. A fire near Flagstaff forced 1,000 people to flee their homes, and another blaze threatened a scenic canyon outside Sedona later in the month.

But the number and size of fires was much lower than feared. And with the summer rains, Payne said he expects previously closed portions of the forest to reopen. Some campfire restrictions also should be lifted.

After massive wildfires in previous years, Picard said the state's firefighting establishment has done a better job of working together and educating the public about the danger of forest fires. With the oncoming monsoons, it seems the worst is over.

"We've kind of had a reprieve," Picard said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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