Southeastern Arizona forests are facing an above-normal threat of wildfires in the coming months - unless we see lots more of the rainy weather we've had recently, officials warn.
Reasons for the fire risk:
• Drought conditions persist.
• Grass that grew during last year's monsoon has died and dried into highly flammable fuel.
• Recent frigid weather might have left frozen and dead leaves that could dry out quickly and burn easily.
"We're looking at above-average fire activity" this year, said Heidi Schewel, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. "We expect to see increased fire potential both in the higher elevation with heavy fuels (such as trees) and also in the fine fuels (grasses and brush) at lower elevations."
Forest Service officials will begin a "fire hire" effort next week to hire seasonal firefighters in preparation for likely blazes, Schewel said.
She emphasized that the fire-season predictions are "subject to change based on what the weather does in the next couple of months. If we have lots of moisture in the coming months, things could change."
dead GRASS A FACTOR
Last summer's monsoon left many forest lands in Southeastern Arizona with dense growths of grass - and much of that grass has now dried and "cured" into combustible fuel, Schewel said.
"That dead-grass component can be a concern," she said. "In previous years, we've seen that when fires start in cured grasses, they can spread very quickly."
Some of those grasses were dampened by recent rains, "but the effects of the moisture and cooler temperatures will dissipate quickly once we start warming up again," Schewel said.
Meanwhile, freezing weather in mid-January may have added fuel to the fire potential.
"We're looking into what effects, if any, the recent freezing weather had on vegetation," Schewel said. "In 2011, freezing temperatures caused oak trees to freeze, and the dried oak leaves added another source of fuels for fires that year. ... Also, grass and other vegetation that's frozen can then be more available as dry, cured fuel."
EARLY FIRES POSSIBLE
Forest fires once were seen as occurring mainly in late spring and summer, but that's changed.
"In the Coronado National Forest, we now say we have a year-round fire season because we have seen fires every month of the year," Schewel said.
In 2011, for example, fires started in the forest on Feb. 11, Feb. 25 and March 6 - followed by the huge Horseshoe 2 and Monument fires later that year.
Fires also started in February and April of last year, Schewel said.
The likelihood of grass and brush fires in the Tucson area might actually increase if the area receives lots of rain, said Dugger Hughes, wildland/special operations battalion chief with the Northwest Fire District.
"As for the desert areas around and in Tucson, right now it does not look like this is going to be a year with heavy grass growth," Hughes said. "Unless the weather changes, and we start getting significant rain for the next couple months, the desert conditions should not be too extreme. If we continue to get significant moisture, we could experience some pretty volatile conditions" owing to dense growth of grasses.
Even without increased moisture, the area probably will have "some fires in areas with carry-over grass from last summer's monsoon, and in the drainages that crisscross the area," Hughes said.
Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz