Dry winter brings wildfire fears in S. Arizona

2014-02-10T00:00:00Z 2014-02-21T11:17:45Z Dry winter brings wildfire fears in S. ArizonaBy Doug Kreutz Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The warm, dry winter — with a lack of normal rain and snowfall — has primed Southeastern Arizona for potentially widespread wildfires this year, say national forest and parks officials.

“Forest fuels are dry,” said Heidi Schewel, a spokeswoman for the Coronado National Forest. “We are already experiencing more aggressive fire behavior than we would expect at this time of year. And as spring and summer progress, and conditions become hotter and drier, fuels will become progressively more flammable.”

That “aggressive fire behavior,” Schewel said, is a reference to the fact that two fires have broken out on Coronado Forest lands this year — even though it’s still mid-winter. The fires were small, totaling 3.5 acres, but they suggest bigger blazes to come without lots of moisture in the coming weeks, she said.

“Any precipitation we see in the way of storms this week will buy us little, if any, time,” Schewel said. The effects of an ongoing drought remain, and significant precipitation will be needed to reverse those effects.”

SAGUARO PARK PERIL

Michelle Fidler, fire information officer for the National Park Service, said mostly rainless weather in the past two months has left many parts of Saguaro National Park near Tucson as bone dry and imperiled as forest lands.

“This is not our typical fire season, but wildfires can happen any time of the year,” Fidler said. “Conditions have been so dry that fine fuels such as dried grass pose a fire danger. . . . So it’s critical to be especially careful with anything that can start a fire.”

She said fire officials are most concerned with human-caused fires at this time of year — months before the “typical fire season right before the monsoon, when we get dry lightning and see the majority of fires.”

DANGER HIGH AND LOW

What is now flammable vegetation at high and low elevations around Tucson was nurtured by rainfall last year.

“We received widespread rainfall across the forest during the summer rainy season,” Schewel said. “At the lower elevations, the amount of rainfall was adequate for grasses to germinate — so grasses, native and non-native, are plentiful. Winter precipitation has been insufficient to keep the grass green, so it has cured out and is flammable.”

Meanwhile, higher elevations have received only scant snowfall — so little, in fact, that Mount Lemmon Ski Valley in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson hasn’t been able to open this season.

“Last weekend, I flew over the Rincon Mountains (east of Tucson) and Mount Graham (near Safford), and no snow was visible at a time of year we would like to see snowpack,” Schewel said. “So conditions are also dry at the higher elevations.”

FIRE PREVENTION

Schewel and Fidler said it’s critical to keep fire prevention in mind — even in the midst of winter.

“People need to be careful with fire at any time during the year. The winter months should not promote a false sense of security,” Schewel said. “We encourage forest visitors to use caution and common sense…, and to recreate responsibly to prevent forest fires.”

Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at dkreutz@azstarnet.com or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz

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

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