TUSAYAN — Kaibab National Forest officials are bracing themselves for a potentially dangerous fire season this summer after another dry winter in northern Arizona.
A prescribed burning program on the Tusayan district was suspended early last week because of unfavorable conditions, Forest Service fire information officer Jackie Denk said Thursday. Evaluations are being done daily to see if further burning would be appropriate.
"It has been dry; the fuels on the forest floor, the pine needles, are drying out," Denk said. "We’re looking at possibly having an earlier fire season than usual."
Fire officials look at various factors to determine the danger level. For example, forecasts from the National Weather Service play a key role in trying to figure out what could happen.
"Forecasts from the National Weather Service are saying that strong, sustained winds are expected in the coming months," Denk said. "Weather can always change, but we’re looking at those predictions and understanding that wind not only dries out fuels on the forest floor, but can carry a fire start."
Forest Service fire personnel have battled a few minor blazes already this spring on the Kaibab and Coconino, although none have been in the Tusayan area.
Denk said there could be problems later this summer based on another NWS prediction. The monsoon season just might begin earlier than usual.
"The long-term predictions are saying ... that the monsoons could come sooner, which could be a blessing and a curse," she said. "Dry lightning often precedes the monsoons. With that, there’s the potential for lightning strikes that could lead to fire starts."
Extreme fire conditions could be implemented earlier than usual as well. But Denk said Kaibab National Forest will be ready.
"We have contingency plans in place and will be implementing those, which means we’ll be looking for severity funding, bringing forces on earlier in the season," Denk said. "That includes hot-shot crews and bringing in a helicopter earlier. For instance, it’s usually mid-May for a helicopter but now, it will be late April for that if we continue (with the dry weather)."
The Grand Canyon-Tusayan area did receive modest snowfall last week for the first measurable precipitation all month. But with March usually being the area’s wettest month, that fast-moving storm did little for the overall picture. And the forecast doesn’t look much better.
"It’s not looking good for what we need, which is sustained, measurable precipitation," Denk said. "Conditions can always change with weather. We’re not wanting the public to be overly concerned, but we could be going into a severe fire season."
Denk said her office has received a number of questions involving possible forest closures because of the fire danger.
"First, it is still a little too early to consider closures," Denk said. "Before that would be considered an option, the forest would go into fire restrictions and assess their effectiveness. Forest closures have been and continue to be a last resort."
Various triggers could lead to a forest closure. Factors include a shortage of firefighting resources, unfavorable weather trends, the number of daily fire occurrences, predicted visitor numbers and other social and local considerations.
"We don’t like to restrict the public’s access to their national forests and only do it as a last resort to ensure the safety of the public and our neighboring communities," Denk said.
Denk urges residents to take a look at their property to do what they can to help make it a defensible space.