Wildfire experts are bracing for a fire season this year that could begin at least a month early, but should end as usual in mid-July if there is a normal monsoon.
The outlook is “not great,” said Gov. Janet Napolitano during a Thursday meeting of emergency officials from all levels of government.
The Sonoran Desert should escape relatively unscathed, with
the higher elevations bearing the brunt of the fires, authorities said.
Factors in this forecast include the drought that has gripped Arizona for 12 years; a prediction of hot, dry weather; and a population boom sending sprawl into former wilderness.
But the potential for a bad fire season does not bring a prediction for one, experts noted.
2006 could have been one of the worst wildfire years in state history, as Arizona suffered through a record-breaking dry spell over the winter. The first major blaze erupted in February, months ahead of usual.
What saved Arizona was well-timed precipitation, including a shocking snowstorm in early March, unseasonable rain in May and June, and a wet monsoon. The 152,000 acres that burned last year were the fewest since 2001.
“To be technical about it, we probably lucked out,” Napolitano said. “2007 is going to be a different year, and we need people to prepare for that.”
For those preparations, Napolitano spoke of the improvements made in the aftermath of 2002’s Rodeo-Chedeski “megafire,” which, at 467,000 acres, was the largest in state history.
That “wake-up call,” Napolitano said, brought forth better communication between agencies, more firefighting personnel and equipment, and a mindset toward preemptive action to lessen the damage fires can create rather than solely reacting to outbreaks.
However, more than half of Arizona’s wildfires are caused by humans, State Forester Kirk Rowdabaugh said. That’s why he and Napolitano both said it was important to involve the public now, before it’s too late.
“We must prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Napolitano said. “Somewhere in between is probably what’s going to happen.”
During Rowdabaugh’s presentation of the fire season forecast, he emphasized the vagaries of the 2007 outlook.
Not all fuels for fire are created equal, and not all parts of Arizona received the same amount of precipitation this winter, he said.
“It’s a more complicated picture than perhaps it has been in the past, when we were able to say ‘all of Arizona’ or ‘everything above a certain point’ or ‘everything below,’ ” Rowdabaugh said. “It’s just not that simple this year.”
The desert area does not have enough fuel to support large fires, “but there’s a vast part of the state that we expect to have the potential for a very bad fire season,” Rowdabaugh said.
Protect yourself from a wildfire
For tips on preparing for wildfires before they start and during a blaze, visit http://az211.gov.
In advance of wildfire season, the American Red Cross suggests every family make a communication plan and prepare a disaster kit. A kit should include:
1. Water. at least 1 gallon per person per day.
2. Food. Pack nonperishable, high-protein items, including energy bars, ready-to-eat soups, peanut butter, etc. Select foods that require no refrigeration or water-intensive preparation or cooking.
3. Flashlight and extra batteries.
4. First aid kit and reference guide.
5. Medications, prescription and nonprescription items. Store them together, so they’re easy to find in case of a sudden evacuation.
6. Battery-operated radio and extra batteries.
7. Tools. Assemble a kit that includes a wrench to turn off gas if necessary, a manual can opener, screwdriver, hammer, pliers, knife, duct tape, plastic sheeting, and garbage bags and ties.
8. Clothing. Provide a change of clothes for everyone, including sturdy shoes and gloves.
9. Personal items. Remember eyeglasses or contact lenses and solution; copies of important papers including identification cards, insurance policies, birth certificates, passports, etc.; and comfort items such as toys and books.
10. Sanitary supplies. You’ll want toilet paper, feminine products, personal hygiene items, bleach, etc.
11. Money. Have cash. (ATMs and credit cards won’t work if power is out.)
12. Contact information. Carry a current list of family member phone numbers and e-mail addresses, including someone out of the area who may be easier to reach if local phone lines are out of service or overloaded.
13. Pet supplies. Include food, water, leash, litter box or plastic bags, tags, any medications and vaccination information.
14. Map. Consider marking an evacuation route from your local area.
Include any necessary items for infants, seniors and people with disabilities in your kit. Store these disaster supplies in a sturdy but easy-to-carry container, such as a large covered trash container, overnight backpack or duffel bag.
Keep a smaller version of the kit in your vehicle; if you become stranded or are not able to return home, having some items with you will help you be more comfortable until help arrives.