Everything is early this spring, including fire danger

2014-04-19T00:00:00Z Everything is early this spring, including fire dangerBy Tom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The Friday afternoon bulletin from the Brown Fire in the Huachuca Mountains simply urged residents to be aware of the extra traffic generated by personnel and equipment leaving the area.

The fire, which gave the city of Sierra Vista and the nearby Army base at Fort Huachuca a scare last week, was smoldering under cloudy skies and mist, and surrounded by a ring of retardant drops and lines cleared of vegetation by fire crews.

Fire danger in Arizona and the Southwest remains high, however, and will only deepen in the hot, dry months ahead.

Four forests in Northern Arizona, along with Yavapai and Coconino counties, Flagstaff and Prescott, imposed the first stage of fire restrictions beginning Friday. The Arizona Forester also announced statewide restrictions on fires on state land.

The collective decision by the Tonto, Coconino, Kaibab and Prescott national forests to impose restrictions about a month earlier than usual was made in the interest of “public safety and firefighter safety,” said Heather Noel, of Coconino National Forest.

It was also a response to climate conditions and an early outbreak of fires, Noel said.

The Secret Fire, southwest of Flagstaff, started in late March. “It caused this ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ reaction,” Noel said.

That was followed by two fires much closer to Flagstaff on Coconino Forest land. Forest officials decided to staff the fire lookout on Mount Elden, just northeast of Flagstaff, a month early. The lookout spotted another fire on the first day of operation last weekend.

April fires are not unheard of, said fire ecologist Don Falk of the University of Arizona, though ones that burn timber at 8,000 feet, as the Brown Fire in the Huachucas did, are “probably a 1 percent event,” Falk said.

This season, after more than a decade of drought and a dry winter, fire researchers and managers, won’t be surprised by anything, Falk said.

“We had red-flag warnings in March, which is unbelievable, but frankly nobody raised an eyebrow in the fire community. We’re pretty much in a 12-month fire season,” Falk said.

Fire historian Tom Swetnam, of the UA Laboratory for Tree-Ring Research, said early fire activity is not without precedent, and long-term records actually record a small peak in April. “What it reflects is what you get after a dry winter during a long-term drought,” Swetnam said.

Falk noted that similar conditions existed last year, and Southern Arizona recorded a tame fire season.

Meteorological conditions on the fire play a big role, he said.

Michelle Fidler, a fire information officer for the Type 1 interagency team that fought the Brown Fire, said weather and topography helped keep it in check. Firefighters had to cope with high winds, including one red-flag day during the blaze, but the fire burned in a bowl beneath Ramsey Peak, shielded from wind that didn’t blow toward civilization.

“We lucked out. The winds didn’t align with topography,” Fidler said. “It didn’t come over the ridge and into Ramsey Canyon.”

In Ramsey Canyon, where The Nature Conservancy manages a 280-acre preserve famous for a diversity of plants and critters that attracts birders from across the globe, preserve manager Brooke Gebow was “as ready as we could be.”

Gebow has spent a decade working on a Firescape plan for the Huachuca Mountains. The Nature Conservancy has thinned vegetation in its riparian paradise to open the tree canopy and protect it from a calamitous fire. When the Monument Fire approached the canyon in 2011, fire crews did further thinning.

This time, the canyon was under a pre-evacuation order, but the fire never moved toward it. “They threw a lot at it, and it stayed where they wanted it to,” Gebow said.

“We’re certainly trying to be ready (for fire),” Gebow said, “but you never know till you test it.”

Ramsey Canyon is “April dry,” said Gebow, meaning there is still water in Ramsey Creek and the trees are “deceptively green” with new leaves.

Her gauge of forest health is the deer population, which is “just looking desperately for food. It’s very dry, not as dry as June, but from here on out, it’s going to require care on everyone’s part.”

The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, which had conducted a pre-evacuation notification in the canyon last week, suspended it Friday.

The Brown Fire, which began Sunday, had been held to 240 acres in the upper elevations of Scheelite Canyon below Ramsey Peak by a team of more than 400. Three air tankers and three helicopters worked the fire on various days.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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