TUSAYAN — Over the past few years, Mother Nature has been whipping up a recipe for disaster in northern Arizona.
Start off with consecutive dry winters, add strong winds and dry lightning, and throw in unpredictable tourists with cigarettes and transients with campfires. Combined, those ingredients could add up to a catastrophic wildland fire.
National Park Service acting fire-use manager Craig Letz chats with local resident Jennifer Johnson during Thursday’s fire safety open house.
Officials with Grand Canyon National Park, Kaibab National Forest and the Tusayan Fire Department gathered at the Best Western Grand Canyon Squire Inn Thursday for an open house on this summer’s hot topic. And although only a few people showed any interest in the event at Tusayan and two days earlier in Page, this could be one of the most dangerous fire seasons ever.
"Everyone has concern that we’ll have a major fire," said Jackie Denk, who serves as fire information officer for Kaibab National Forest and has been working vigorously with the media to get the word out about fire safety.
Robbie Evans, Tusayan Fire Department chief, said these are the worst conditions he’s ever seen.
"Everybody is scared to death," Evans said. "I’ve been here 12 years and I’ve never seen the rain tank that low. Game and Fish has been hauling water for two months."
Thirty minutes into the open house, there was quiet applause from the 10 or so officials in attendance when a cloud burst created a short rainstorm. But people were soon shaking their heads as the rain stopped after only a few minutes.
Donna Nemeth, GCNP fire information officer, said the park had not yet implemented fire restrictions. As of Thursday, the park had "high" fire danger with the possibility that it could go into "very high" or "extreme" within the next several days.
Nemeth said two extra engines were brought in to reinforce the fire troops on the North Rim, making a trip from Yuma. On this side of the Canyon, extra firefighters have joined the staff, some coming from Rocky Mountain National Park in western Colorado.
There were two fire starts in Flagstaff last week and another small fire in the Parks area. Detecting fires in good time could be an extra important factor this summer.
Dan Oltrogge, GCNP’s fire and aviation branch chief, said air-tour companies flying around the area can be a good source for detecting fires.
"The air-tour companies are pretty good about letting us know," said Oltrogge, who added that fire towers are rarely used these days. "Sometimes, we’ll follow up to confirm."
In cases of bad lightning, Oltrogge said flights are often flown toward Lake Mead to search the area for possible fire starts. A lightning detection system helps the effort.
The park’s fire and aviation staff includes nearly 60 people. They have one park helicopter and one fixed-wing aircraft.
The Forest Service had a helicopter join its firefighting fleet about a month ahead of schedule this year. Denk said the copter went into service on April 21.
Tusayan Fire Department firefighters have been going through various exercises to prepare for the summer season. Evans said they’ve been meeting with the federal agencies along with the Wildland Fire Advisory Council. They recently participated in a wildland fire refresher class.
For now, the agencies are playing the waiting game, hoping Mother Nature’s recipe for fire is a dud.