After a record-breaking dry winter, Forest Service fire managers are bracing for what has the potential to be the worst fire season in Arizona history.
"We don't want people to be panicked about it but I think there are enough elements in place that should be cause for concern," said Kaibab National Forest Fire Information Officer Jackie Denk. "We could have an intense season in 2006."
She compared this year's conditions to those seen in the bad fire years of 1996, 2000 and 2002 when restrictions kicked in early and the forest was eventually closed to the public until the fire danger eased.
"Historically this is the kind of weather that we saw in 1996, and in 2000 and in 2002," she said. "These were all very bad fire years, particularly 1996."
Fire season generally begins in early spring but this year it's already arrived with a 3,600-acre, human-caused fire 12 miles north of Payson in the Tonto National Forest. Conditions now are similar to those normally seen in April and May.
"We think of March as the start of the fire season, but we had our first major wildfire in February," Denk said.
In the southwest the most parched region of the country between Jan. 1-Feb. 17 of this year, 390,190 acres have burned, mostly in Oklahoma and Texas, according to the National Fire Information Center. The second highest rate of activity in the same time frame was in 2000, when 178,234 acres had burned by mid-February.
The five year average is 20,953 acres,
This year's dry, warmer-than-average winter is only part of the equation. The wet winter of 2004-05 also played a role, feeding abundant vegetation that's now cured and dry. Last summer, the upper elevations experienced less activity than the lower-lying grasslands, but this year the risk will be high for both.
"Last year the higher elevations really didn't dry out as much," said Denk. "There was no problem with control."
The weather trend is expected to persist, caused by an La Niña event which formed in the Pacific last fall. The La Niña, which occurs every three-five years, creates a cooling trend in the ocean, affecting tropical weather patterns and in turn, global patterns.
The result for the southern U.S. is warmer and drier weather than the norm and higher than average moisture in the northern U.S. According to the National Climate Prediction Center, La Niña is expected to stay around until late spring or early summer and will produce even warmer, drier conditions as it weakens. The monsoon season is expected to arrive on time and with plenty of rain.
Already La Niña is responsible for two Arizona weather records Flagstaff reported the latest date of the first measurable snowfall on Jan. 15 with .08 inch, breaking the old record set on Jan. 7, 1930 when .1 inch fell. And Phoenix has gone well beyond the record of consecutive days without rainfall, beating the old record of 101 days, set in 2000.
As they prepare for these conditions, forest managers are looking to severity funding.
"Severity funding is available for regions facing what looks like a bad season," Denk said.
That money could be used to bring the region's eight fire lookouts on duty sooner in the season, hire extra firefighters and conduct fire prevention and awareness training.
They also have access to resources at the county, state, regional and national level, including aerial support, extra firefighters and heavy equipment.
"Resources are available on an as-you-need-it basis," Denk said. "In a year like this you want to get a lot of resources on the way very quickly. You want to attack it while it's small."
While the lack of snow cover has put plans to burn 1,000 acres of piles and slash on hold, fire managers were able to treat an extra 2,500 acres with wildland use and prescribed fire, working well into December. Usually the optimum burn window closes in October.
Things will be different going into the spring. Instead of starting prescribed burns in April or May, fire managers don't expect to get to projects until after the monsoon, Denk said.
"In the middle of this fire season, we're not going to look at allowing things to burn like that," she said.
While conditions are bad, Denk said it doesn't necessarily mean the season has to live up to its threat. In 2004, fire managers were making dire predictions but the southwest got through the season with 35,733 acres burned the second-lowest total in the past five years.
"A lot depends on how many fire starts we have, and that's the one area where we can have an impact," she said. "Lightning strikes will happen. Human fires don't have to. This has the potential to be the worst fire season in history in Arizona and people can make the difference."
Human-caused fires are less of a problem on the Kaibab than on some forests closer to urban areas like the Coconino, Prescott and Tonto forests where abandoned campfires are nearly a daily occurrence. Last year, on the Kaibab, less than a third of an acre burned as a result of human-caused fire. That's down from nearly 1,300 acres that burned in 2001 due to human activity.
"The Kaibab Forest gets less use than those in urban centers. They're people who live in this area and are aware of the current situation," said Denk. "They are exercising quite a bit of caution."
She urged residents to extend that cautiousness to their property.
"We are encouraging people to be firewise," she said. "Small things can make a big difference. Fire spreads by throwing out sparks that can find a foothold. Just mowing down grasses around your house is important."
She said people should also clean their gutters and underneath decks, and move woodpiles and other concentrations of fuels at least 30 feet from structures and 15 feet from propane tanks. They should also create a defensible perimeter of at least 15 feet around the home, free of pine needles, grass, pine cones, twigs, weeds and other potential fuels.
Denk said that residents should call 911 to report fires, regardless of the jurisdiction.
They should also have a clear address and visible house number.
Campers should ask themselves if they really need a fire, especially in the summer. If they do have one, they should have the materials and tools like water and a shovel to put them out.
"Campfires are the major culprit in human caused fires on the forest," she said. "If even a spark remains, especially when it's so dry, a wind can come up. That's why we're careful burning piles. Even a week later there can still be life underneath."
With current conditions, however, campers may not have the choice of a fire, as there is an excellent chance that restrictions will go in force early.
Under level one restrictions, all open flame is prohibited in undeveloped areas though campers can use pressurized liquid or gas fueled stoves. Smoking is only allowed in vehicles and buildings and welding is prohibited. Explosives are always prohibited on federal land.
Because of the severe conditions, visitors should check ahead for forest conditions and possible restrictions. For a list of restrictions on public lands throughout Arizona and New Mexico, visit gacc.nifc.gov/swcc/information/firerestrictions/restrictions_closures.htm.