Cool, moist weather slows wildfire season in West
July 11, 2009
PHOENIX – Wildfires are usually raging by now in Arizona, but something odd happened this year.
As June drew to a close – typically the busiest part of Arizona’s wildfire season – the temperature fell and moisture was above normal, surprising fire managers who had expected an active season.
“The first part of summer we’ve really dodged a bullet in terms of our weather,” said Rick Ochoa, a fire weather meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “We’ve had rainfall and the cooler temperatures really kept a lid on things.”
Similar weather has also led to fewer fires than normal across much of the West, he said. But the season is still early and parts of the West will heat up significantly at the end of this month, Ochoa said.
An above-normal fire potential is expected in portions of California and Washington later this month because they’ve missed out on spring rainfall and had quick snow melt-off. There’s also above-normal fire potential this month in parts of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
States that likely will see below-normal Julys are parts of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah.
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Arizona and New Mexico’s fire seasons typically begin earlier than other parts of the West, wane when summer monsoon rains roll in and sometimes pick up again in the fall if rainfall is scant.
The rest of the Western fire season follows a more typical pattern, with peak fire season hitting in midsummer and early fall.
Arizona’s season has been below normal so far. The state had 990 significant wildfires that burned about 117 square miles so far this year. That’s compared to a five-year average of 1,800 wildfires that destroyed 357 square miles, according to the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque, N.M.
New Mexico also has seen less activity than normal, with 730 wildfires consuming about 481 square miles. That’s compared to that state’s five-year average of 880 fires that burned about 585 square miles, according to the coordination center.
From the beginning of the year through mid-May, southeastern Arizona, southern and eastern New Mexico and west Texas were experiencing fairly active seasons before moisture hit the area, said Chuck Maxwell, predictive services meteorologist for the center, which oversees those three states.
“What we really didn’t expect was for things to shut down in the second half of May and not come back again,” Maxwell said. “It’s a year without any widespread, long-term, big fires.”
He said less fire can be good and bad.
“We want to have regular fires of some intensity to burn out the stuff that’s there; we just don’t want to have catastrophic fires,” he said, adding that low-intensity burns renew the ecosystem and restore forests to their natural states.
Forest managers in the West are taking advantage of the break.
In northern Arizona’s Kaibab National Forest, for example, fire managers are letting a small lightning-caused fire continue to burn because it’s doing more good for the land than harm, forest spokeswoman Jackie Banks said.
The lower temperatures and moisture this June also allowed Kaibab managers to start a prescribed fire that burned three square miles.
“It’s been a good thing in so many ways because we’ve been able to reduce the risk of higher intensity fires instead of running around trying to put everything out,” she said. “It helps improve forest health, improve wildlife habitat, reduce some of those accumulations of fuels on the forest floor.”
Not everyone is benefiting from a slower wildfire season.
Seasonal firefighters and government contractors are getting no work or less work than they’re used to.
Beryl Shears, owner of Phoenix-based Western Pilot Service, said his 13 airplanes contracted by the government have flown 20 to 30 percent of the amount they flew in 2007 and about 40 percent of what they flew last year.
“It’s awfully hard to stay prepared when our pilots don’t fly as much, to be ready to fly in 15 minutes after sitting around day after day,” he said. But regardless of what type of season it is, Shears said, the government still pays his company to have the airplanes and pilots at the ready.
“Yes, we do make more money in big years,” he said, “but really when you think about it, it’s the best of both worlds for all of us. We make a livable income for pilots, employees and mechanics, and yet there’s no wildfire, so nothing burns.
“The cost to government agencies is less, and we’ll be here next year if its a more severe wildfire season.”