With a dry winter and higher than average temperatures into the summer, officials are bracing for an active season that could start as early as this month.
"I really don't see anything that the National Weather Service is saying, or from the Climate Prediction Center that says it won't start early," said Holly Kleindienst, assistant fuels program manager for the Kaibab National Forest's south zone. "It will be as severe. We're going to see the same kinds of fires that we did last year."
George Howard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said that his office expects the six-year drought to intensify over the next several months, following a dry winter with precipitation at a little less than half of the 15-inch average since the start of the water year in October. Temperatures are expected to run above normal throughout the summer, but nothing points to the heavy monsoon rains of last summer.
"We don't have any significant signal that tells us we're going to be heading for a dry monsoon season, a moist monsoon season, an early or late one," he said. "There is no relief in sight when it comes to the drought conditions we're currently experiencing."
Though the 150,000 acres that burned in the state in 2006 was 25 percent below national average, a few fires, like the 4,327-acre Brin Fire in Oak Creek Canyon and the 40,000-acre Warm Fire that prompted an evacuation from the North Rim, were high-profile ones. Nationwide, the season was exceptionally active with 9.6 million acres burned.
Kleindienst said that along with a fire season that could start as early as mid-April instead of traditional mid-May or early June, officials see a difference in this year's fire season in that the danger is spread over the entire state. Last summer's monsoon produced a rich crop of grass in lowlands, providing abundant, easy-to-start fuel while the dry winter lowered moisture in large diameter fuels like fallen trees to dangerous levels under 15 percent.
"A lot of years you'll see, above the rim is going to be normal, below the rim is going to be below normal or above normal. Well this year, the whole state is going to be in about the same state. It's going to be an above-normal fire season across all elevations and across all different fuel types," she said. "I've been here 11 years and I've never seen that."
Some good news, she said, is that because of heavy snows in Colorado and northern New Mexico, that part of the southwest anticipates a less volatile season and can shift some resources here.
"There should be more firefighters, there should be more resources and they shouldn't have to travel so far. They won't have to hold so many of their folks there, they'll be able to let their engines come," Kleindienst said.
While current conditions are still good enough for spring prescribed burns planned by the Park Service and Forest Service, Kleindienst said the window of opportunity will be smaller. Dry conditions are also likely to affect wildland use fire naturally ignited fires that are allowed to burn to meet resource objectives.
"We may get to the point in June where we don't let any fires go in the fine fuel types that are really, really dry," she said. "But in those pinion juniper types that need a little more heat, still allowing some of them to burn."
"It's kind of like Goldilocks a fire's got to be just right," said Karen Malis-Clark, deputy public affairs officer for the Coconino National Forest. "It's got to be naturally ignited, it has to be burning in an area where it's appropriate to continue to burn in that area. It's got to be under typical conditions, weather forecast, fuel moisture, things like that. Has that area been treated or close to an area that's been trimmed?"
Kleindienst said that firefighters contain between 98-99 percent of wildfires in initial attacks and warns to prepare for the 1 or 2 percent that get away.
"After all that doom and gloom, this is the message make your home defensible," she said. "People need to prepare for that 1 percent we don't catch on the first shift."