Barely a month into 2006, the potential for wildfires in Arizona was off the charts. The state was locked in a recordbreaking dry spell, a symptom of a drought 11 years old with no end in sight. Parched timber covered the high country. In the deserts, tall grasses were now fields of waving tinder.
And recent history offered no encouragement — 2005 set a state record for wildland lost to fire.
So when state and federal forestry officials learned on Feb. 6 of a fire erupting near Payson, they looked to a graph that describes the burning potential, measured against past norms, of the available wood and brush.
They knew the situation was dire, but they couldn’t tell exactly how bad; the chart’s data only went back to the beginning of March.
“The truth is, nobody was ready for the February Fire,” Arizona state forester Kirk Rowdabaugh admitted.
Combined with the Saddle Fire near Gila Bend, it wasn’t even Valentine’s Day and already 5,400 acres had gone up in smoke. And surely worse news would come as the weather heated up.
But that bad news never came. Thanks to planning, preparation and luck in the form of impeccably timed wet weather through the monsoon, Arizona was spared the predicted conflagrations.
Through late last month, less than 147,000 acres have been lost to wildfire — 23 percent less than average and not even a fifth of 2005's total. This, in a year when fire activity across the nation has been far above normal.
Still, experts say 2006 should not be considered a harbinger of calm years to come. Changes in the climate, Arizona’s population growth and the presence of non-native plants increase the risk of longer, more dangerous fire seasons.
How much more dangerous? A million acres lost? The destruction of a populous forest community?
As Rowdabaugh said: “It’s not that far off.”
FORMULA FOR DISASTER
With evening thunderstorms soaking the Valley almost nightly as of late, it’s easy to forget that only months ago, weather experts were mulling once -in-alifetime drought scenarios. In Phoenix, rain fell in October and then, the sky went dry.
As the rainless stretch of days reached triple digits, meteorologists seriously considered the run might extend until the monsoon’s arrival.
The effect of the bone-dry winter varied according to elevation.
In the deserts, the wet winter of 2005 had brought forth abundant wildflowers and grass.
A year later, those plants were still there, albeit dried out. Had rain fallen, it would’ve knocked over the flora and begun to break it down in the natural cycle of decay.
On the mountains, the tall trees continued to dry out, as they had been since the drought’s arrival in the mid-90s, and the grass beneath the trees stood upright.
The February fire broke out in an area that should’ve been under a foot of snowpack, noted Doc Smith, associate director of Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute.
It would take a miracle to keep Arizona from burning up. On March 11, the miracle arrived.
“That snowstorm is what saved us,” said Jeff Borucki, forest fire management officer with the U.S. Forest Service.
The weather system was remarkable for three reasons: It was cold (snow fell as far south as the Superstitions), wet (Phoenix’s official rainfall total was 1.44 inches; the monthly average is 1.07) and late in the season. Trees received moisture, grass was either buried under snow or pushed over by rain.
On a forestry officials’ graph, the fire threat dropped from a near-record level to below average. Over the next two months, only six fires exceeding 100 acres broke out.
May 18, with three fires starting that day, brought an end to the respite and marked the beginning to the heart of fire season. Forestry officials were ready, having prepared all winter for this moment.
First, there had been successful lobbying efforts for more money, which meant more resources. Firefighting crews were brought on early, and two new bases for singleengine air tankers were brought online in Payson and Williams. In addition, Gov. Janet Napolitano approved using three more inmate crews, bringing the total to 15.
Also, there had been months of educating the public about the potential danger.
In 2005, almost 70 percent of the Arizona’s wildfires were caused by humans, and the average is 57 percent. This year, it was 47 percent.
Again, the weather helped out. There was unseasonable rain in the first weeks of May and June; the first event bought forestry officials even more time, the second helped them contain fires already burning.
The end to the most dangerous part of the fire season came not with a flash and a bang, but a drizzle.
Arizona’s monsoon started about a week early, said Chuck Maxwell, a fire weather forecaster with the Southwest Coordination Center.
Even more important, it started raining almost immediately, rather than with the period called the “dry monsoon,” which brings the firestarters of lightning and wind.
“We expected the season would be fast and furious, but we’d be out by the Fourth of July,” Maxwell said. “It wasn’t fast or furious, but we were out by the Fourth of July.”
Despite the lucky breaks and well-executed planning, there were anxious moments.
The closest Arizona approached disaster was June 14, when the Woody fire ignited just west of Flagstaff. Had the wind not died down, had aerial fire tankers been committed elsewhere, had those trees not been deliberately thinned as a preventive measure — then the outcome could’ve been far different.
It’s this avoided nightmare that officials envision when looking ahead.
Many factors are combining to worsen the possibility and intensity of fires, and there’s little to stop the trend.
As Arizona’s population booms, more people are eschewing the cities for the relative quiet of the countryside.
This “wildland-urban interface,” as it’s called by fire experts, is growing, which means there’s more area to cover, more property to protect and more people to cause problems.
Also, Smith worries about rural subdivisions where isolation is prioritized over easy access — where an evacuation can be snarled too easily.
Humans aside, there’s the matter of non-native plant life adding to the threat. For example, cottonwoods in river bottoms are being pushed out by salt cedars — trees which “burn like a bunch of black, rubber tires,” Rowdabaugh said. Other problem species are buffel and red brome grasses.
Finally, there is earth’s changing climate. Arizona is in its second decade of drought.
There’s no telling how much longer it will last, but a quick end is not in the forecast. Add in the possibility of global warming, and the reality is February fires for years on end.
“The long-term outlook,” Rowdabaugh said, “is quite sobering.”