By Ann Widmann
With the absence of winter snow, Forest Service officials are already gearing up for this year’s fire season.
“Indications right now are that we will have a longer fire season than last year,” Bruce Greco, fire staff officer for Kaibab and Coconino National Forests, said in an interview last week. “But, this is March. We still have potential for moisture and will take it anyway we can get it — snow or rainfall.
“If we get a significant amount of moisture or smaller amounts over longer duration, it will significantly delay the fire season’s start.”
Greco said long-term predictions from the National Weather Service suggest March and April will be more windy than usual. He said sustained wind accelerates the loss of moisture in both down and live fuels and will be a critical factor in the onset of fire season.
“We also have some long-term predictions indicating monsoons may come sooner than usual,” he said. “But usually we have a lot of lightning or dry lightning on the front end of the season, which is very problematical for us.”
Greco said the Forest Service will be prepared to respond to whatever wildfire situation that develops.
“We have contingency plans in place,” Greco said. “We’re bringing on some firefighters earlier, which will give us more engine and firefighter capabilities.
“When fire season starts, we’ll have our resources in place.”
These plans include having local crews, hot shot crews and helicopters on duty two weeks earlier than usual.
“Now we’re looking at the end of April unless conditions worsen sooner,” he said.
He said there are three 20-person hotshot crews in the Flagstaff area.
“Because of their more defined and intensive training, their skill level is often higher, and hotshot crews respond nationwide while many local firefighters will stay here, especially during fire season,” Greco said. “Nationally, we’ve developed 14 new hotshot crews, which will give us about 80 nationwide this year.”
He pointed out a number of firefighters are seasonal employees.
“Many of our firefighters are students who are still in school,” Greco said.
“Because of an early fire season, we’ll be using our own personnel who are trained and ready to fill in until students are available.”
Greco said many of the professional foresters started out as firefighters and have maintained their skills throughout their careers and are savailable to help out when needed.
“When there’s a wildfire, the whole Forest Service community comes together for that,” said Jackie Denk, Kaibab National Forest fire information officer.
Greco said with additional funding resources, the Forest Service has been able to hire additional firefighters.
Greco pointed out six of the past seven years have been very dry, following very wet years during the’80s and ’90s.
“In 1998, we had a moist year, which makes us wonder is the drought an anomaly or a more typical climate,” he said. “If that’s the case, we can expect additional dry years.”
Once forests become densely populated, Greco said, fires move up into the crowns of trees and are far more difficult to control.
“We’re moving forward as efficiently and effectively as possible with prescribed burns to reduce hazardous fuels that significantly contribute to wildfires,” he said. “We want to be a good neighbor in managing smoke dispersal.”
This entails coordinating with other agencies such as the National Park Service and the State Land Department as well as the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
Denk said prior to a prescribed burn, she contacts media, businesses and individuals via phone, fax, e-mail or mail.
“During fires season, the things we watch are climatic conditions, such as relative humidity, wind, both its direction and speed, and temperature, which affect how a fire burns when started,” Greco said. “We also monitor dryness of fuels, not only those on the ground — pine needles and large woody material — but also the live fuel moisture in trees and plants.”
He said the Forest Service has a wonderful relationship with volunteer fire departments and other agencies.
“We get to know each other through the Wildland Fire Advisory Council and learn to rely on each other,” Denk said.