Rains may set stage for busy fire season

Rains may set stage for busy fire season

15 February 2009

published by www.azcentral.com

USA — The recent storms that soaked the Arizona deserts and dumped snow in the high country are helping to fuel the growth of plants that can become fodder for summer wildfires.

More rain in the deserts means more shrubs, flowers and grass that can catch fire when they dry in the summer heat. That creates the potential for more wildfires on the desert flatlands and hillsides.

“If storms continue to come every week, every couple of weeks, we could have what we call a ‘desert year,’ ” said Clay Templin, Tonto National Forest fire staff officer. “The flowers come up, they dry out, and we wind up being pretty busy down here.”

In the state’s high country, snowfall delivers moisture for “ladder fuels,” vegetation that can send fire from the ground into bushes and trees. But more snow means that stressed trees get more moisture and can better withstand fire and attacks from insects.

“We’re getting a lot of moisture, and moisture in the high country is really good,” said Cam Hunter, acting state forester at the Arizona State Forestry Division.

It may seem like the state has been getting a lot of rain and snow, but the totals in three key cities are behind historic averages. The National Weather Service in Phoenix says that year-to-date precipitation totals were running behind averages through the first week of February in Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff. In Phoenix and Flagstaff, this year’s totals for that period also lagged last year’s, although Tucson was well ahead of the 2008 number.

Hunter said fire season typically starts in April. Fire forecasters haven’t released their full-season predictions. The Southwest Coordination Center, an interagency group that coordinates firefighting agencies in the region, is expected to have a detailed summary for fire season potential in the Southwest by the end of the month.

The group’s national organization’s short-term forecast for the Southwest: March through May will see a higher-than-normal hazard for significant fires expand across southern and central New Mexico into southern Arizona. That risk remains normal across most of northern Arizona and west-central New Mexico.

The weather will have to warm before the area sees a spike in fire potential. Valerie Meyers of the National Weather Service said that if weather stays unusually cool, as it did in May, the fire season will run shorter.

But she said the weather is forecast to get warmer and drier by April and May. That means the fire potential will rise as the bumper crop of desert plants dries up.

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