Prescott, USA — Even though recent winter rain and snowstorms have helped to increase the moisture in the forestland around Prescott, fire officials say the danger of fires still exists this spring and summer.
“We are still in a mild to moderate drought,” Curtis Heaton of the U.S. Forest Service told the Prescott City Council this week during a presentation on the upcoming fire season.
Noting that the snow that fell this past weekend “may have been our last storm (of the season),” Heaton said the area’s precipitation so far in 2008 has been “100 percent of normal.”
Heaton and Prescott Emergency Services Director Darrell Willis acknowledged that the snow that is still visible in the high country around Prescott has helped to allay some concerns.
On the other hand, they added, the extra moisture would have another impact that would add to the fire danger: “A significant grass crop is expected,” Heaton said, which would produce more potential fuel for fires.
Added Heaton: “My best guess is this will be an average to above-average fire season.”
For years, local agencies have banded together through the Prescott Wildland Urban Interface Commission to combat the unique conditions that place Prescott on a list of U.S. communities most vulnerable to forest fires.
And Willis maintained that the cooperation among the various fire-fighting entities has helped to keep the community relatively safe in recent years.
The presentation included a list of fires that were “close calls” during the past half-century. Among them: 2002’s Indian Fire, which destroyed five homes and burned 1,365 acres in the Ponderosa Park area.
Others on the list included 1978’s Castle Fire, which burned 28,000 acres southeast of Walker and 1972’s Battle Fire, which destroyed 26,500 acres in the Goodwin area.
Since 1990, the Wildland Urban Interface Commission has worked to remove barriers that once might have interfered with a regional response to forest fires, Willis said.
The transition was not always smooth, he said. When the commission formed 18 years ago, Willis noted, “We didn’t trust each other.” But after nearly two decades of working together, he said the commission has become a model for other parts of the country.
The cooperation has extended to the preventative prescribed burns that the Forest Service conducts in the Prescott National Forest each autumn. Despite an annual flood of complaints from the public about the smoke, Heaton said the City of Prescott has supported the practice.
“The bottom line when it comes to the smoke is we can have it on our terms or on the fire’s terms,” Heaton said of the prescribed burns.
Councilwoman Lora Lopas, who said she was among the Prescott residents who had to evacuate her home during the Indian Fire, expressed support for the Forest Service’s preventative measures.
“I have asthma, and I don’t mind the smoke in the fall, because I know it’s saving our lives and our structures,” Lopas said.