Wildfires still pose risk for Arizona in slow year

Fire burning near Florence, AZ

By Jim Walsh
The Republic | azcentral.com
Mon Sep 16, 2013 5:32 AM

A strong monsoon doused Arizona’s deadliest wildfire season, shortening its duration and reducing the risk of fire in previously dry forests and deserts.

Despite the high human cost when 19 firefighters perished June 30 in the Yarnell Hill Fire, the 98,618 acres burned in Arizona through Aug. 22 is among the lowest in more than a decade, according to the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwest Coordination Center.

Fire officials cautioned against drawing conclusions based on one relatively slow year for wildfires, with drought conditions expected to last 10 to 15 years.

They noted that the five largest fires on record in Arizona all charred the state’s landscape within the past decade.

Those “mega fires” include the Wallow Fire, which burned more than 538,000 acres in eastern Arizona in 2011, and the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which burned about 469,000 acres in 2002.

Wally Covington, regents professor of forest ecology at Northern Arizona University and director of the Ecological Restoration Institute, said 25 percent of Arizona’s pine forests have burned since 2000, an area the size of Connecticut.

“The fuels are still accumulating, and the meteorological forecast is grim,” he said.

An estimated 3 million to 31/2 million acres are in danger of burning as drought conditions continue and need treatment, Covington said.

“We’re still in a 10- to 15-year-long drought pattern. We have been fortunate in the past few months to get a good monsoon,” said Rich Naden, a fire meteorologist for the Forest Service in Albuquerque.

Wind patterns and currents indicate that the drought that started in 1998 or 1999 could last until 2025 or 2030, with long-term weather patterns often lasting longer, he said.

Arizona was in a cooler, wetter pattern from 1977 until 1998, Naden said.

“We have probably a decade of the long-term weather pattern being dry,” Naden said. “We are going to be drier than normal and we have a continued potential toward these catastrophic fires.”

Although the monsoon stopped the fire season in July, Arizona and New Mexico need a wet winter with heavy snows to reverse the long-term fire risk, a prospect that does not appear likely short term, he said.

Winter snowmelt is beneficial because more moisture seeps into the soil, while monsoon rain tends to run off.

He said the monsoon was the main reason for the shorter fire season. In contrast, 216,235 acres burned in 2012 and 1,006,577 acres burned in 2011, with the Wallow Fire accounting for more than half of that.

The epicenter for this fire season was the Prescott area, with the human-caused Doce Fire burning more than 6,700 acres in the Granite Mountain area and the lightning-caused Yarnell Hill Fire burning about 8,400 acres.

Pete Gordon, fire staff officer for the Prescott National Forest, said he is certain that drought conditions caused by little winter snow and rainfall contributed heavily to Prescott’s heartbreaking summer.

He said the fire season started slowly, with few fires breaking out in May, but all that changed with the Doce Fire in June, when windy, dry conditions created the greatest risk for large fires.

The 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed June 30 after an abrupt change in wind direction caused by a monsoon thunderstorm. The incident remains under investigation.

Although most campers cooperate, it is commonplace to find camp fires that have not been properly extinguished at camp grounds, said Cathie Schmidlin, Forest Service spokeswoman for Arizona.

“We don’t want people to lose sight and get complacent,” she said.

Paul Summerfelt, Wildland Fire Management division officer for the Flagstaff Fire Department, said that although Flagstaff received record rainfall levels in July, residents of mountain communities should not have a short memory.

“Fire seasons are becoming more severe. The key message for property owners and communities is to be ready,” he said.

He said individual homeowners need to clear fuels away from their homes, and such efforts need to be made communitywide.

It is unrealistic for homeowners to think that there are enough firefighters and fire trucks to protect every property from wildfires, Summerfelt said, with taxpayers unwilling to pay a huge bill.

“Fire is a natural part of our ecosystem,’’ he said. “We need to be able to live with it because it’s here. Hope is not a strategy.”