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A fall and winter defined by record or near-record dryness has skyrocketed the measures of fire risk around Flagstaff for much of the past several months, though the season’s first storm Jan. 10 did provide some respite.

The dry conditions already have local forest managers looking at bringing on seasonal firefighting resources up to a month earlier than normal, said Duane Tewa, Coconino National Forest fire staff officer.

The Coconino National Forest hires about 100 seasonal fire staffers, including hotshots, each year. Agency officials are looking at hiring on some of those people in March instead of April, with a hotshot crew one of the resources specifically discussed, Tewa said. Statewide, the Forest Service is looking at bringing on three to four hotshot crews earlier than normal to support regional preparedness, especially for the state’s southern forests where fire season starts earlier, Tewa said.

Generally, the individual forests have to foot the bill for the extra time the firefighting crews will be working, but they can apply for special “severity funding” to offset the cost, he said.

FIRE DANGER

October through the end of December saw the forest fuels dryness and the energy release component — a measure of potential fire intensity — at or near record levels in the Flagstaff area.

The Forest Service has seen 53 human-caused fires since Oct. 1, which Tewa said is a slight uptick from normal. The lightning strikes that preceded the snowstorm earlier this month also caused two fires that each burned more than an acre near Fort Tuthill and Munds Park, he said.

Flagstaff Fire Department saw a much bigger jump in fire starts during the final three months of the year as compared to years past.

For October through December, the department responded to 29 wildfires in and adjacent to the city, according to Paul Summerfelt, wildland fire management officer with the city of Flagstaff.

Those fires were all human-caused, many from illegal campfires, and burned a total of 11.6 acres, Summerfelt wrote in an email.

That’s well above the average of the previous five years: eight wildfires burning less than 3 acres over that three-month period.

The 4.7 inches of snow that fell on Flagstaff last week did push fuels moisture and fire danger levels back toward normal and the moisture forecasted for this weekend should help too, said Wesley Hall, a fire planner with the Coconino National Forest.

Snowpack is important not only for the moisture it provides but also because its weight compacts grasses, and matted grass doesn’t burn as readily as grass that is standing up, Hall said. That’s important for montane grasslands like Kendrick Park, the area north of the San Francisco Peaks and near Mormon Lake, where the grasses are still standing tall, he said.

He also noted that ponderosa trees have recently been dropping their needles at a greater rate than normal, potentially because the trees have started to sense drought conditions. That means there is more easily burnable ground litter going into the wildfire season.

But the real make-or-break for how the summer fire season plays out will be the moisture, wind and temperatures that northern Arizona sees this spring, Hall said.

Even if the region gets below-normal snowfall this winter, there’s still the possibility that a wet spring without a lot of wind will make for a relatively mellow fire season, Hall said. On the other hand, a dry and windy spring can wipe out the gains of a wet winter in relation to wildfire risk, Hall said, pointing to the Schultz Fire as one example.

“Wind is a high factor for us,” he said.

MORE PRESCRIBED FIRE

If the Coconino does hire fire crews earlier than normal this season, the additional manpower could help the forest meet new targets for prescribed burning, which helps reduce fuel load in the forest, Tewa said. Those targets, which come down from the Forest Service’s Washington office and new Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke, are higher this year than in the past, he said.

“If we have conditions we're going to go forth and do as much as we possibly can,” Tewa said. “The drying trend now is going to really push us to strategize on how we’re going to accomplish that.”

If there is no window to do the burning though, the Forest Service won’t do it, he said.

While it has been dry, it’s perfectly safe to do prescribed ignitions under current forest conditions, Hall said. Those controlled broadcast burns could start up in the next two to three weeks if conditions allow, Tewa said.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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