Fire in the Fields

Due to the continued drought, this year's wildfire season could be a dangerous one.

Fire season is officially here, thanks to the wildfire south of Sierra Vista that charred about 1,000 acres near the border on April 13.

And that fire is just the start of what could be a bad fire season in this part of the country.

"At this time last year, we'd already burned well over 8,000 acres in southeastern Arizona," says Gail Aschenbrenner of the Coronado National Forest Service. She and fellow crewmembers of the Coronado firefighting force arrive at work daily with their fingers crossed--fearing each day could bring a threatening blaze.

The realistic scenario doesn't call for an "if" versus "when" equation. It's a sure bet, rather than a long shot, that wildfires will occupy headlines for weeks, if not months, to come.

"Conditions are awful," bemoans Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University professor acknowledged as one of the world's premier fire historians. "While Arizona wildfires this year are not totally, 100 percent, inevitable, it's a pretty safe bet we're in for a tough season. In fact, if conditions don't improve, I think you can expect forests to be closed at some point to prevent an outbreak of late April-May-June fire starts."

The first major blaze last year was the Oversite fire, a 2,200 acre burner southeast of Tucson in the Huachuca Mountains that took hold in tinder-dry conditions on March 1, quickly followed by a 38,000 acre grassland scorcher near Fort Huachuca.

While wildfire experts began to respond to other springtime blazes throughout the state, they were all called back here in late May when the Bullock fire broke out on Mount Lemmon and tore through more than 30,000 acres during a three-week period. Not long after those flames were suppressed, a 16,000-acre wildland fire threatened structures on both sides of the border at Nogales.

All of which amounted to a prelude to the combined Rodeo-Chediski fires in the White Mountains that destroyed more than 400 homes and burned close to a half-million acres on its way to becoming the largest fire in Arizona's recorded history.

"We had a lot of fires last year, dozens and dozens that ranged in size from small abandoned campfires to tens of thousands of acres from the Arizona-New Mexico border into and beyond the Tucson Basin," Aschenbrenner says. "From March 1 on, we were fighting fires, big ones, one right after the other, until we got the start of monsoon rains beginning in July."

But that was last year, when even the monsoon season proved to be a bust. Officials of the National Climatic Data Center recently released their "State of the Climate" report showing 2002 ended up as the second-warmest year on record. The report cited a continuation of a trend of warmer years and uncovered the fact that 2002 drought patterns in the Southwest matched many of the Dust Bowl records from the 1930s.

Now we are in year six of our lingering drought, and although a period of late winter and spring storms brought some snowfall and precipitation, it will end up being nowhere near enough. Tucson's rainfall in the first quarter of this year more than doubled that of 2002, but at 1.61 inches, it was still a third less than normal. And we need above-normal wetness, by quite a bit, and for several years in order to come close to where conditions start to normalize.

If fact, those rains earlier last year amounted to the proverbial good news-bad news situation.

"Our February precipitation did help to make it a more normal start of the fire season, delayed from what we saw in 2002," the forest spokeswoman says, "but it's a mixed blessing. Although we're starting later due to the dampness, the rains brought a lush growth of grasses and new brush, meaning that when the 2003 season gets underway for real, we expect fires to start at lower elevations and burn uphill."

State Land Department Fire Management research indicates the greening of the desert will offer ample fire fuel as summertime temperatures dry the grasses and forests are still dry enough to suffer crown fires. Dead and downed trees, felled in part by drought conditions, are expected to dry to critical levels by May with the probability of large fires increasing sharply above normal in the May to June period.

Describing himself as "a friendly fire critic," Pyne says there are four options when it comes to wildland fires: leave everything up to nature, suppress the burn through firefighting, burn the downed, dead or dying materials in a controlled process, or change the combustibility of the landscape/terrain.

"None of the alternatives will work if you do them separately," he says. "We fret when wildfires rage across our landscapes, but fall back on the same two faulty reactions--a grim choice between total fire suppression and dangerous preventative burning. Wildfires aren't bad, good or even wild, and we need to figure out an appropriate mix of prevention and response on a site-by-site basis. The time has come to give Smokey Bear a sibling--one who carries a drip torch and isn't afraid to use it when appropriate."

Pyne challenges decision-makers to "face up to fire" rather than leave it to what he alliteratively refers to as "lightning's lottery." And that's a game of chance that looms on the immediate horizon.

"Usually, about half our fires in southeastern Arizona are lightning-caused," says Aschenbrenner.

Of the 30,000 acres charred by flames on Mount Lemmon last year, only 6,000 or so burned with severity high enough to completely consume both canopy and ground fuels.

"Until last year, we hadn't had a big forest fire in the Bullock area for 70 to 80 years," Aschenbrenner says.

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