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Tough wildfire season likely after dry winter

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Tough wildfire season likely after dry winter

Forests facing grim outlook

  • More than 500,000 acres burned in the Wallow Fire last June.
    Brandon Quester/Cronkite News ServiceMore than 500,000 acres burned in the Wallow Fire last June.

PHOENIX — In the dry highlands of Arizona where Jeff Andrews manages wildfires, it's shaping up to be another white-knuckle summer.

"Things are looking pretty bleak," said Andrews, deputy fire staff officer for Prescott National Forest. "We had a good amount of rainfall in November and December, but January and February have been dry. It's going to have a pretty significant impact on the fire season."

It's a similarly grim outlook for Don Muise, Andrews' counterpart in the Coconino National Forest.

"I've been burned before by trying to make predictions," Muise said. "But things aren't lining up to be much better than last year."

Predicting a fire season isn't easy, but one of the biggest indicators is winter rain and snow, Muise said.

Snowpack covering the San Francisco Peaks in Coconino National Forest is at about 60 percent of what it normally is, while rainfall levels in the Verde Valley are about 50 percent of normal.

April, May and June are predicted to be the worst for forest fires, the officers said. The fire season typically begins in March – when most of the fires are human-caused – and ends with the monsoon season in August.

The summer of 2011 saw fires consume nearly 900,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in Arizona. The Wallow Fire alone burned through more than 538,000 acres over six weeks in eastern Arizona, making it the largest in state history.

"There's always going to be a fire season in Arizona," Andrews said. "What we don't know is how long or how severe it's going to be."

After precipitation, wind patterns can help predict the strength of the fire season.

Wally Covington, executive director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, said there's a likelihood of very windy, dry conditions through July.

"If ignition occurs on a high-wind day, you'll get a fire that keeps going until it runs out of fuel," Covington said.

The Wallow Fire began on such a blustery day, Covington noted.

"Those big fires have become the norm," he said.

Covington said the Payson-to-Winslow corridor, the Sedona-to-Flagstaff corridor and the Prescott-to-Grand Canyon forests are especially vulnerable to fires this year.

"It's a race right now. The agencies are trying to work together to try to prevent these fires and protect towns and protect critical watersheds," Covington said. "It's a race I'm not sure we're going to win."

If conditions get drier through March, the forests may be forced to close part of their land off to the public, Covington said.

There are successful treatment methods, such as trimming or applying prescribed burning to forests, but it can takes years for treatment plans to be developed and approved and years to treat enough land to make a difference.

"You can't prevent today's fires by thinning trees today," he said. "You prevent next year's fires by thinning trees today."

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