We hate to sound like alarmists, but the reports of all those houses burned in wildfires in Colorado and New Mexico earlier this month remind us just how suddenly a fire can blow up -- and how important it is to be prepared to evacuate on a few minutes' notice.
This weekend's forecast, unfortunately, is setting Flagstaff up for similar conditions. Fire danger on both the Coconino and Kaibab national forests is at "extreme," the highest possible rating, and the near-record heat in today's forecast will only dry out the forests further.
The early heat wave is setting up a southerly monsoon air flow by this weekend -- nearly 10 days ahead of schedule. Thunderstorms will start rising over the Peaks Saturday, and by Sunday afternoon the chance of precipitation is listed as 40 percent.
The first days of the monsoon, though, are usually the most dangerous. Hot, dry air in the lower atmosphere hasn't been cooled and moistened yet by the full monsoon flow, so rain is likely to evaporate before it hits the ground. Lightning from the same thunderstorms, however, still touches down, often igniting the dry forest.
When the monsoon shows up around the Fourth of July, it is usually in earnest, and it winds up soaking the ground within several days.
But an early, weaker monsoon takes longer to develop. If it arrives before the woods have dried out, the dry lightning isn't much of a problem. But this year's prolonged dry spell -- nearly two full months without rain -- has lowered fuel moisture in the forest earlier than usual, hence the extreme fire danger.
In other words, pay closer attention than usual this weekend to those gathering thunderheads, and monitor media reports of wildfires that might be touched off by dry lightning. Know where family members are and have a rendezvous plan in case some roads back to the family house are blocked by emergency vehicles. Have a "go bag" in your car in case you have to evacuate quickly.
Granted, evacuations are rare, and usually they are taken only as a precaution and to allow firefighters easier access to the forest at the edge of a neighborhood. The sheriff's office is the agency required by state law to conduct evacuations, and they have used that power sparingly in recent years.
But as we report on our website's special fire season page (http://azdailysun.com/fireseason), there are things that residents can do in advance to make an evacuation less stressful:
-- Parking the car facing the street with the doors unlocked is a good way of saving important minutes. The windows should be rolled up to keep smoke outside. Run your air conditioner with the air intake closed and a clean filter.
-- Shut off gas/propane lines if possible to prevent explosions.
-- Leave electricity on. Turn on interior and exterior lights if you leave.
-- Leave a note on your door listing where you have gone and how you can be contacted.
-- If you are advised to leave through television, radio or personally by officials, do so immediately.
As we said at the beginning, we don't intend to a cause a panic. But before the weather gets more hectic this weekend, we urge Flagstaff-area residents to take a few minutes to assess just how prepared you are for a wildfire emergency and what more you need to do to get ready. Few of us ever think a wildfire will threaten our neighborhood. Now's the time to ask the question: "What if it did?"