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Statewide wildfire season forecast dire

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Fire danger spring 2016

The Arizona Forestry Division is making predictions for fire danger for the upcoming season. The darker the area, the higher the danger.

PHOENIX -- Arizona could face the most dangerous fire season in years, according to Gov. Doug Ducey and the state's chief forester.

And it's already starting.

"Last year we burned less than 500 acres'' by this time last year, said Jeff Whitney. "So far this year we've burned over 21,000 acres.''

And it's not looking promising.

"Arizona faces a potentially significant wildfire season,'' the governor said after he had been briefed by Whitney and his staff.

It starts with the fact that there have not been major fires in the last two years.

Add to that above-average rainfall, which has resulted in excellent growth of vegetation that is now drying out.

Then there's the high number of tourists in the state in the middle of the fire season "also equals more opportunity for wildland fire,'' Ducey said.

"We sort of look for patterns,'' Whitney explained in how he makes the annual predictions. And he conceded that conditions now are very similar to 2002 and 2011.

That is a particularly significant conclusion.

In 2002 the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire burned about 468,000 acres. And the 2011 Wallow Fire consumed more than 538,000 acres.

"We remember those years and the fires we were on in those years,'' Whitney said. Then, turning to his map of predictions for this year, he added, "I'm concerned about that.''

Whitney acknowledged that one perennial issue is when to fight fires and when to simply try to contain them.

He said the debate goes back to the beginning of the 20th century over whether to simply let fires "operate as a natural agent in the ecosystem.''

Whitney said the decision pretty much got made when there were large fires at the same time in Washington, Montana and Idaho.

"The policy then became the 10 a.m. policy where every wildfire was supposed to be suppressed no later than 10 a.m. the following day,'' he explained. "We got so successful at that we created a fuels problem.''

He said the goal now is to find a balance and find times "to allow fire to operate more naturally to do some of the work that we need to have it do for us.''

But Whitney said that has to be governed when it's "ecologically appropriate.'' More significant, there has to be an assessment of risk.

"We've got some phenomenally predictive tools these days,'' he said.

"If we look at a fire and say, you know what, it's going to get hotter and drier and the wind's going to blow up here in about three days, and it's kind of locked in the gun sights of Pine-Strawberry or Payson or Flagstaff or the Williams watershed, we gotta go get it,'' Whitney said.

"Last year we burned less than 500 acres by this time last year. So far this year we've burned over 21,000 acres.''

--Jeff Whitney, Arizona chief forester

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