Wildfire forecast: Danger could be worse than 2003

Last year’s summer wildfire season scorched nearly 200,000 acres in Arizona, incinerating the mountain hamlet of Summerhaven and turning 232 homes across the state to ash.

This summer could be worse, wildfire experts say.

Though recent rains may have postponed the fire season by a week or two, it will take significantly more precipitation between now and May to change the catastrophic conditions in Arizona’s forests, said Bruce Greco, Coconino National Forest fire staff officer.

"Our indicators are telling us that this fire season is very well aligned with the 2002 fire season," Greco said. "We’re seeing tremendous drought effects on our vegetation."

Greco said the western edge of the forest between Flagstaff and Williams along with north of the Mogollon Rim near Pine pose the greatest threats this year.

Fire officials from across the state say that February’s showers could end up making the fire conditions worse if the next few months bring a drying period.

"It’s kind of a double-edged sword. You are hoping for all the moisture you can get but at the same time you are growing a grass crop to fuel the fire," said Tony Sciacca, fire management officer for the Prescott National Forest.

The cumulative effect of six years of drought and a bark beetle infestation that have turned thick pine stands into volatile fuel make the forest between Prescott and Crown King prime for catastrophic fires again this year, Sciacca said.

"We’re still in rough shape. There’s no way around it," Sciacca said. "A month of wind blowing and dry heat and we are right back in extreme fire danger."

While recent rainstorms brought above-average rainfall to Central and Southern Arizona, the northern part of the state has missed out on the heavy snow packs of past years that provide moisture to the trees, said Borman McGann, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest fire information officer.

"It’s worse than 2002," McGann said. "If we don’t get some moisture up here by April it’s going to get real bad."

Not all parts of the state saw the above-average rainfall in February; the rain gauge at the Apache-Sitgreaves ranger station logged less than a quarter of an inch.

McGann said the Apache side of the forest looks to be in the most danger this summer.

"Sitgreaves has pretty much all been burnt and unfortunately it’s also been the side that has gotten most of the moisture," McGann said.

It is too soon to say if the moisture the forests desperately need in the next few months will come through, said Chuck Maxwell, meteorologist for the National Forest Service Southwest Area.

"It’s one of the most unpredictable times of the year, and any little change can affect [the spring forecast] drastically," Maxwell said.

A late dry spell headed into the fire season would be the worst-case scenario with dry timber and tall grasses providing ample fuel. It would also increase the chances for desert brush fires, he said.

"Almost anything can happen from this point on," Maxwell said. "I am going to hold my cards until late March; by then we’ll have a much better idea of what’s going on."

More rain would also help trees build up resistance to the bark beetle, a tiny insect that can kill a tree in a month leaving it to dry out along with the needles clinging to its branches.

"The less stress the trees are under the harder it is for a bark beetle to attack," said Tom DeGomez, University of Arizona Extension forest health specialist.

The bark beetle has hit Piñon pine stands on the Navajo and Hopi reservations and north of Flagstaff especially hard, DeGomez said.

"There’s plenty of fuel out there, that’s for sure," DeGomez said.

But the year has also brought some positive changes.

Below-normal temperatures in Northern Arizona may have had damaging effects on the bark beetle population, and many of the estimated 2 million trees killed by the beetles in 2002 have since dropped their needles reducing their combustibility, DeGomez said.

"The story today is a lot more encouraging than it was yesterday… but we’re still real shy on moisture," said Ron Melcher, State Land Department fire coordinator.

Melcher said that without rain the state’s forests will be in worse shape than in the past two years because of the accumulative effects of the drought that have increased dry brush and trees.

"A week ago everyone was saying it could be another 2002 fire season and it still could," Melcher said. "But getting some water in the ground has given us a little breather."

Even if the weather brings reprieve Melcher said the state is taking the necessary steps to ensure they are ready for another long summer fire season.

"It’s probably still going to be an above-average fire season in Arizona and we’re going to prepare for the worst," Melcher said.

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