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Historically dry monsoon season extends fire season in Flagstaff

Historically dry monsoon season extends fire season in Flagstaff

Rain, But Not Enough

A few scattered raindrops paint a windshield as the Museum Fire burns in the background on July 22.

This year's monsoon season has been Flagstaff's driest to date, based off National Weather Service rain gauge data at the Flagstaff Airport.

The rain gauge at the airport has measured only 1.06 inches since June 15. The second driest season on record was in 1995 when 1.10 inches of rain fell in the same two-month span.

Throughout the rest of Flagstaff, city rain gauges show different numbers — 0.87 inches near South Lake Mary Road, but 4.49 inches in the Inner Basin. While it's as clear as Flagstaff's blue skies that the region has been seeing hotter temperatures, the weather service meteorologists are saying it is prolonging the fire season.

This new record adds another top mark for 2019 after the city saw massive, record snowfall in winter and now record drying over the summer.

Megan Taylor, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said forecasts don't show the dry weather letting up any time soon.

"This year, we really didn’t even see our first measurable rainfall until late July. We just had a little bit in mid-July. Really, it's been very dismal," Taylor said.

Taylor said the difference with this year's monsoon is whenever moisture from the south near Mexico normally moves into our region, a competing weather system from the west pushes it away.

"This year has been very tenuous," Taylor said. "When we do see a bit of moisture, it doesn't stick around."

The temperatures have caused parts of the region, including the lower parts of Yavapai County and the Grand Canyon, to see their temperature gauges hit the 110-degree mark while waiting for relief from the heat. Not counting the nearly-quenched Museum Fire, the region currently has four wildfires burning near Williams, the Grand Canyon and Sedona.

And yet, fire risk in the forest is down. Coconino National Forest has dropped its fire danger levels two pegs from very high after the Museum Fire to moderate. Additionally, there have been no fire restrictions implemented in the forest this year, only forest closures surrounding the Museum Fire. The last time there were no fire restrictions was in 2015 and 2009.

George Jozens, spokesperson for the forest, explained their level of fire risk is based on many things like available staff, weather conditions and the dryness of potential fire fuels.

"The forest fuels are not dry," Jozens said. "They still have a lot of moisture in heavy fuels."

Taylor explained this year's sparse rainfall has likely helped retain that fuel moisture into the fire season, which usually ends in late June or early July. But she also pointed to the wet winter and late snow in spring, which also helped retain moisture for the dry summer.

Flagstaff's largest recorded snowstorm in February, the resident-dubbed "Snowpocalypse," is certainly helping the fire fuels retain moisture -- it dropped a record 35.9 inches of snow in 24 hours, and 40.8 inches throughout the two-day storm.

Taylor said for this water year, which is marked by the monsoon season's end and when fall begins, Flagstaff has amassed 22.11 inches of precipitation, meaning the total water amassed from rain and melted snow. The norm through this period is 17.86 inches, leaving the city still 4 inches above the average for the water year.

However, Taylor said their forecasts don't expect any monsoon thunderheads to make the trip to Flagstaff any time soon. All weather service data forecasts for the next two weeks suggests more dry, hot temperatures.

She said all of this is shaping up to make this year very irregular.

"It has been kind of a tricky, very different year this year," Taylor said.

Scott Buffon can be reached at, on Twitter @scottbuffon or by phone at (928) 556-2250.


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