Engineer fire

View of the June 2011 Engineer fire from Flagstaff Meadows in Bellemont. The 2012 fire season is off to an early start, with a Red Flag Warning issued below 6,500 feet today.

The first Red Flag fire danger warning of the season is set for much of northern Arizona starting today at noon.

The warning extends north of the Mogollon Rim to the Utah border at elevations below 6,500 feet, which technically excludes Flagstaff, although it will still be very windy and with low humidity.

Red Flag Warnings are issued for high fire danger days caused by a combination of high winds, low humidity and dry forest fuels like shrubs and trees, as measured by the U.S. Forest Service fuel moisture.

"It's going to be windy and very dry," said National Weather Service Meteorologist Darren McCollum. "Once the calendar indicates it's spring, that's the time when we see the windy conditions."

Today's forecast calls for sustained winds of 25 to 35 mph, with gusts up to 45 mph.

Meteorologists say their main concern is for the pinyon-juniper woodland areas that have already started to dry out. The risk of fire isn't as great in the higher-elevation ponderosa forests, where potential fuels are still wet from the heavy snowfall in March.

McCollum said Red Flag days in the Flagstaff region become more frequent as spring advances with persistent winds but little rainfall. Monday could see some of the highest temperatures yet this spring, with the next chance of precipitation coming Wednesday.

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Red Flag Warning days this early in the year aren't uncommon, according to McCollum, with the first one last year in the Flagstaff region issued on April 29.

In recent years, northern Arizona has seen large fires in April and May.

The X fire, which started at the Ten X Campground near Tusayan on April 27, 2008, burned 2,000 acres and cost taxpayers $500,000 before it was put out.

The 89 Mesa fire north of Doney Park burned 500 acres on May 5, 2010, after state Game and Fish employees attempted to weld on a dry, windy day.

McCollum said Flagstaff sees high winds in spring is because the lower elevation deserts are heated through the day, causing winds to push north up the cooler Mogollon Rim. The winds are typically most intense in the afternoons and often disappear by nightfall.

This spring wind pattern is common worldwide. But spring is also much wetter in most locales, whereas the three driest months in Flagstaff are April, May and June.

Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or ebetz@azdailysun.com.

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