The Wild, Wild West will be getting even wilder this summer as firefighters brace for what promises to be a long, hot and nasty wildfire season—one that has already gotten under way in the Southwest.
The 2014 season started about a month earlier than normal, and fire restrictions on state land are already in place, imposed “in response to climate conditions and in the interest of both public and firefighter safety,” said one national forest spokesperson.
The Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque, the interagency coordinator for state and federal dispatch centers throughout the Southwest area, and its officials are bracing for a tough season.
“We expect a dynamic and more complex alignment of factors than we’ve seen in recent years,” said Chuck Maxwell, the Southwest Coordination Center’s Predictive Services Spokesperson, to Indian Country Today Media Network. “From early May through early July, we’ll be looking at several factors that cause concern: volatility caused by long-term conditions that have left 90 percent of the region in a drought; an abysmal snowpack; above-normal fine fuel loading; hot, dry temperatures that produce red-flag wind warnings, and an El Niño monsoon season with lots of lightning and weak interspersed moisture. It’ll be a feast-or-famine storm track that will produce above normal fire possibilities in the mountains of New Mexico and all of Southeast Arizona.”
The National Drought Mitigation Center concurs, noting in a statement, “Drought conditions in the southern portions of the West will remain through the end of May with way-below-normal precipitation common in Arizona and New Mexico. Some areas in the southern portions of those states have received less than two percent of normal moisture.”
Given that this is the part of the country that Native Americans from many tribes call home, and senses are on heightened alert. They should be, as the Coronado National Forest surrounding the area covers nearly 1.8 million acres of everything from desert scrub at 3,000 feet to dense pine and oak at nearly 11,000 feet—with lots of burnable material at every elevation.
Over the past decade, the number of annual wildfires in Arizona has ranged from 1,500 to 4,000, and in the worst-case scenario in 2011, slightly more than one million acres was turned to toast in a burn.
“The height of fire season occurs by late spring/early summer,” the national forests web page says. “Increasing temperatures and negligible precipitation create dry conditions and prior to the onset of the rainy season, weak storm cells bring lighting, but little rain, and the lightning-caused fires often become large.”
Forest officials say an average of 150 fires occur each year, with nearly three out of four caused by lightning. The deadliest wildfire in Arizona history took place in late June of last year, when 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Prescott. A State Forestry Division spokesman told reporters at the time that “fuels were dry, relative humidity low, and the wind shifted unexpectedly because of monsoon storm action.”
That same unpredictability is expected throughout the region this summer, with 26 potential hotspots already identified, according to the Interagency Incident Information System, or InciWeb. By Easter Sunday, Arizona had already experienced six sizable wildfires in three national forests, with close to 5,000 acres burned. Another four blazes were reported in two national forests in New Mexico, and nearby California had already logged in with seven working wildfires.
“It’s early in the season to be as busy as we already are, so we expect this year could be a bad one,” said Chuck Holt, Manager of the Tucson Interagency Dispatch Center.