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Southwestern Forest Managers Prepare for an Early Fire Season

Verde Valley All Hazards Training Association/USFS Coconino National Forest.

The Southwest is experiencing one of the driest winters on record with only two significant storms to hit northern Arizona. It’s almost as if last year’s fire season never ended, and that’s got fire managers planning ahead. Jeff Walther is the Flagstaff Dispatch Manger for the Coconino National Forest. He spoke with KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius about wildfire potential. 

Ryan Heinsius: After such a dry fall and winter so far, what are conditions in the forest right now?

Jeff Walther: Obviously we’re in a very dry pattern and that’s put us into a little bit of a curveball because normally we have a slower time during the winter where everybody can regroup, training, get ready for the next season. This year we’re kind of still in fire season to some extent. Even with moisture, as soon as the conditions dry out again because of the preceding no precip that has occurred, or hasn’t occurred, that our fuels are very dry and receptive to fire.

RH: How are fire managers preparing, contending with the prospect of what could be a really dangerous fire season this year?

JW: Obviously we’re hopeful that we get more moisture. We could get a two, three-foot snow in April and that would be great. But with the conditions as they are now and looking into the future, collaborating with the National Weather Service, it’s unknown, but we have to plan for the worst-case scenario, which would be having an early onset of fire season or a continuation in this case and not getting that moisture. And so, if that were to happen, we would address it by bringing our resources on earlier within the Southwestern area.

RH: And by resources you mean …

JW: Hot shot crews, engines, prevention units. If conditions line up and we get to that point where that trigger is and we say, OK look, weather forecasts aren’t looking good, here’s where we’re at, we’d be looking at early March, which typically we’d be looking at early to mid-April. So, a whole month, month-and-a-half earlier, which is big. Forecasting is hard to do, but we have a pretty good idea that we’re at least headed in a direction of, we better get prepared.

RH: I your discussions with other fire managers, state, and then the other national forests in the region, are they preparing in similar ways?

JW: Everybody. Yeah, we’re all in the same boat, unfortunately, as is Southern California, maybe even parts of Nevada, Utah, southern Colorado. Just haven’t seen that significant snowpack, which is what we really depend on, to get us into a normal fire-season start. So, everybody’s really anticipating that we might have to just get after it early this year, so we are having those conversations.

RH: If personnel have to be brought on in March, how would that affect the Coconino National Forest’s budget? Who pays for this?

JW: There are times when Congress gets involved and does an extension for 1039 seasonal employees because of the conditions that are going on. If we bring people on early, it will affect those seasonal workforce people, because budget-wise we can only budget so much for them anyways. What it does affect is the capacity down the road when the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies and Northern Cal have another large fire season, which they very well could, and we don’t have those resources to help support them, which is a big piece of it. They send us folks, we send them folks when we’re in our true fire season because they’re opposite or different times. So, it’s going to have a domino effect on the whole country I feel.

RH: What would have a happen between now and, say, March for this fire season, this upcoming fire season, not to be as dangerous as some people are anticipating?

JW: We would need a very significant change in the weather patterns to bring all those impulses of moisture farther south and focus more on the Southwestern, Southern California area. Time will tell. I’ve seen quite a few good snowstorms in April and even late March, you know, Easter Weekend seems to be notorious for a big dumping of snow. I’m always anticipating for the worst, but am hopeful for the best. 

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom as executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.
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