Expect forest restrictions with drought

Area fire personnel are preparing for an extreme fire season in northern Arizona.

“It’s just pretty darn dry,” said Craig Christman, fire prevention officer for the Williams Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest. “We’re about six weeks ahead of where we should be.”

Christman spoke to the Williams Rotary Club about the upcoming fire season. He said because of the dry weather, KNF is predicting restrictions for the forest.

“The talk is, right now, to have fire restrictions — no campfires and no smoking — in about three weeks,” Christman said. “That’s turkey hunting season.”

This does not mean the forest will close, but will mean people using the forest will have to adhere to certain precautions. Notices of the possible restrictions are being sent to all the turkey hunters from last year.

“We’re trying to stay on top of this,” Christman said.

The reason for the possible restrictions is because precipitation numbers are low and the ground is already very dry, said Mike Staudenmaier, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service, based in Bellemont.

“We’ve only had 4.08 inches of precipitation,” he said. “Our normal precip is 15 inches.

“Since the first of January, we’ve only had about 10 percent of our normal precipitation.”

The average rain/snow fall for Williams is 19 inches. This year’s dry season is part of a continuing trend in weather for the Southwest, Staudenmaier said.

“When you add in the drought for the last seven years, it’s really a severe situation,” he said.

Staudenmaier spoke at the pre-fire season media workshop, held by the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests, on Wednesday. The workshop was attended by a number of local news agency representatives, area law enforcement personnel and members of the Forest Service.

“With the lack of moisture we’re looking at a pretty dry fire season,” said Doug Ottosen, fire management officer for the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests. “We have a lot of dead stand grass that’s being cured. If we get a fire out in those fuels, that can cause us some problems.”

To combat the problem, fire crews are being trained early.

“One of the things we’ve been doing is we’re trying to be proactive,” said Ottosen. “We already started to bring folks on so that we can get them trained.”

Hiring the firefighters is not cheap and would not be possible without the assistance of the National Fire Plan, initiated in 2001 after the severe fire season of 2000.

“What that has primarily let us do was provide us a lot more funding to bring our services, like hot shot crews, firefighters, engines, dozers, etc., up,” said Ottosen. “The big thing is the funding to treat the fuels and increase our numbers.

“It has also provided a lot of money for community assistance.”

People need to be careful when dealing with the dry conditions.

“We lost 33 acres in Doney Park because of wood stove ashes,” said Lt. Paul Simpson of the Summit Fire Department.

The fire occurred two weeks ago and is one of 400 fires expected to be started by people in the Flagstaff area this fire season.

“Other areas adjacent to us are already looking at closures,” said Ottosen. “Typically, the way this works is when we start going into restrictions we start with smoking and campfires.

“Next is fuel cutters (power saws). Then, if conditions get real bad, we look at area closures and then forest closures.”

Closing the forests entirely hurts the economy, Christman said.

“The big bad boy is a total forest closure,” he said. “That affects everybody and everything. It really affects the tourist season.”

There are a number of conditions the Forest Service considers before restricting an area.

“We look at increased temperatures, more than 70 degrees by 10 a.m. everyday, a drop in humidity, less than 30 percent, fine fuel moistures, fuel conditions and increased use in forests,” said Christman.

Tracking what other forests in the Southwest, and what the National Park Service, is doing is also important. Christman said just because the forests are restricted doesn’t mean people shouldn’t travel to northern Arizona.

“The campgrounds probably wont close because it impacts the local businesses,” he said. “We’re not trying to keep people out, but we may restrict the fires.

“There was in article in the paper that said it hasn’t been this dry since ’96 — 1896.”

Since 1995, the area has only seen one year with above average rain/snowfall.

“The National Weather Service is saying we’re in a 15-20 year drought,” said Corey Wong, deputy forest supervisor for the KNF. “What we’re going through may become the norm. We need to keep that in mind.”

Christman said closures are designed to reduce the likelihood of wildfires. The typical order of restrictions are as follows:

Smoking and campfire restrictions: When these restrictions are implemented, smoking is allowed only in developed campgrounds and picnic areas or within enclosed vehicles. Campfires and charcoal fires are permitted only in developed campgrounds and picnic areas. The use of gas or propane stoves is still permitted throughout the forest.

Powersaw restrictions: Sometimes referred to as “Hootowl Restrictions,” these restrictions require that saws not be used from 9 a.m.-8 p.m.

Red Flag Alert: A Red Flag Alert is issued when severe fire weather, such as low humidity accompanied by strong winds and numerous dry lightning storms, is predicted by the National Weather Service. During these periods, which are usually only one to three days in duration, various fire prevention measures may be implemented.

Closures: This level of alert means that no public entry is permitted within a certain area of the forest unless authorized by special permit.

Area closures: Specific areas of the forest are closed when the risk of a wildfire starting and causing extensive damage in that area are extreme.

“We close the Bill Williams (Mountain) watershed almost every year,” Christman said.

Forest closures: When severe fire conditions exist and numerous large fires throughout the southwest stretch fire fighting resources to the limit, the entire national forest may be closed. This happens rarely, but when it does exceptions for entry are made only on a case by case basis.

The most recent forests closures were in 2000 and 1996.

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