Wildfire forecast looks better, but not much

Recent plentiful rains have pushed part of Yavapai County up from "extreme" to "severe" drought, but other parts of the county still remain in the extreme level.

The El Niño weather phenomenon caused by changes in Pacific Ocean temperatures helped produce the February and March precipitation, but it's not enough to put a halt to the regional drought that has continued since 1995, said meteorologist George Howard with the National Weather Service in Flagstaff.

The shortfall in moisture since 1995 adds up to two full years of normal precipitation, Howard said. It would take three to six inches of precipitation in three months to end Yavapai County's drought, according to the National Weather Service and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The chance of that happening is zero to 6 percent, NOAA charts indicate.

Most of Arizona has a 5-percent increase in chances for above-average precipitation in April through June, compared to any other year, NOAA charts indicate. The El Niño influence should last through April, Howard said.

At the same time, temperatures should be a little bit above normal for April through June, so that could cause more water evaporation, Howard noted.

The National Weather Service's Flagstaff office already has started issuing daily wildfire forecasts for Northern Arizona, and will begin issuing them twice a day starting in April. The office's Web site address is located at www.wrh.noaa.gov/Flagstaff. It also has links to long-term NOAA forecasts.

"We still need to plan for the worst, but it's not as grim as it was," saidd Robert Morales, the Prescott National Forest's fire management officer.

He said it will be a "normal fire season with a potential for large fire growth," because of all the dead trees.

Drought and an unprecedented bark beetle epidemic have killed off a half-million ponderosa pine trees on the Prescott National Forest, totaling an estimated 30 percent to 50 percent of the trees over 75,000 acres.

The bark beetle mortality will start increasing soon, as the beetles are starting to fly and multiply more with the spring weather, Morales noted.

Despite the recent moisture, "They're saying there's so many bugs out there, (trees) may not have the strength to pitch them out," Morales said.

Dead needles haven't yet fallen off the pine trees as Forest Service officials hoped they would over the winter, and that will add to the chances for extreme wildfire behavior, Morales said.

Prescott National Forest officials soon will beef up their firefighting forces with seasonal employees and equipment.

Those forces will include at least one helicopter, ground firefighters, an extra fire prevention officer and people to staff lookout towers.

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