Experts Predict Devastating Ariz. Wildfire Season

February 3, 2006

Dry conditions this year and heavy moisture last year could combine to make Arizona’s imminent wildfire season the most devastating yet, experts told Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano at a roundtable discussion.

While Arizona wildfires have either struck in the high or low country in past years, wildland fire experts expect them to occur in both climates this year.

“It could be the worst of last year with the worst of previous years combined,” said state forester Kirk Rowdabaugh. “We’ve never had a situation where it’s bad in the low elevations and bad in the high elevations … We’ve got the worst of both worlds.”

Very little moisture in the state this year has dried out vegetation in the north, leaving millions of acres of pine trees already weak from a decade of drought and bark beetle infestation tinder dry.

Such was the situation in the summer of 2002. That year, the Rodeo-Chediski fire in eastern Arizona destroyed hundreds of homes and scorched 469,000 acres, making it the single most destructive wildfire in state history.

Last year, the conditions reversed. Heavy rainfall drenched the state, causing an unusual amount of vegetation in desert areas that eventually dried out.

That vegetation fueled the 248,310-acre Cave Creek complex fire last summer and left enough fuel for another large desert fire this year, according to Rowdabaugh.

“If it didn’t burn last year, it’s likely to burn this year,” he said.

Arizonans also can expect the wildfire season to begin in March — two months earlier than normal, Rowdabaugh said.

He also predicted above-normal temperatures and little moisture until July, usually the start of the monsoon season.

Napolitano said officials have to be prepared for the worst.

“Communicating and planning are key,” she said. “Public awareness is key. We are facing a situation that historically, even experts in fire haven’t seen. We have to be at the top of our game, and I think we will be.”

In January, Napolitano wrote letters to two federal officials asking them to ensure that wildland firefighting and prevention resources remain in place and are not reduced.

She said the federal government planned to move $500 million from fire suppression into the general fund for other purposes “to make the deficit look lower.”

Napolitano received a response to the letters Saturday from the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture assuring her that current resources “are sufficient to maintain the level of effectiveness on initial attack achieved in recent years.”

While this season may prove to be the most active of Arizona’s history, the state is better equipped to fight fires, said Lou Trammel, deputy director of the Arizona Division of Emergency Management.

He said better communication equipment and increased firefighter training will help the state combat wildfires this year.

But Rowdabaugh said he’s worried the wildfire seasons in Texas and Oklahoma, which typically are over by now, could take resources that would otherwise be dedicated to fighting an early fire season in Arizona.

An early fire season also could mean earlier closures in national forests, said Tom Klabunde, deputy forest supervisor of the Tonto National Forest.

“We are worse off than we were in the last worse situation we saw,” he said. “Closures are a tool we sometimes employ to prevent fires. That’s when conditions get so severe, we’re concerned about initial attack and the risk to public safety and private property.”

And considering 60 percent of the state’s wildfires are caused by humans, taking visitors out of state lands could reduce the risk of fires, Rowdabaugh said.

“Our worst fires have been started by people,” he said. “People are really the only part of this situation we have a hope of controlling.”

Napolitano urged Arizona residents to be careful, saying: “Every Arizonan has a responsibility here.”

Officials also told state residents to help protect themselves by clearing dead and dry brush from around their homes, even if they live in the city.

“If there are weeds in your alley and you’ve got a wooden fence … you could be subject to a wildfire, right in the middle of town,” Rowdabaugh said.

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