Northern Arizona Fire Managers Cautiously Optimistic Following Wet Winter

May 9, 2019

This time last year, officials across the state were on high alert for fire danger following one of the driest winters on record in the Southwest. Now, fire managers in northern Arizona are cautiously optimistic after months of precipitation and a healthy high-elevation snowpack. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with Coconino National Forest Deputy Fire Staff Officer James Pettit about what officials are anticipating as the region enters what’s typically the driest and warmest months.

A Coconino National Forest fire crew preparing for a prescribed burn in 2016.
Credit USFS

Ryan Heinsius: A year ago, things looked downright scary for fire potential in the area. How do you compare what we were seeing last year to what we’re seeing as far as the fire outlook goes now?

James Pettit: Yeah, for us one of the things we keep talking about it, what a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, obviously we were already in some sort of forest restrictions at this point and moving into stage two and closures eventually. Last year, 100% of the state was in drought conditions. This year, we’ve got about 17% of the state in some sort of a drought condition—not around here obviously with the robust winter we had. That snowpack does a lot for us. Right now, we’re sitting really well, our fire danger rating is low.  At this time last year it was high.

RH: It’s easy to assume all that this moisture equals no potential of an extreme fire season, but that’s not necessarily true, right?

JP: Correct. In this business wind is the greatest equalizer. If you get periods of windy days stacked on top of each other for days and weeks on end it’s going to dry everything out regardless of how much rain you had previously. And so, there’s always that potential. You get a fire in the wrong place on the wrong day, you’re still going to have a pretty severe fire. The Schultz Fire in 2010, we had a fairly robust winter that year and everything was pretty green. But it’s a prime example, of if you get a fire in some rough topography on a windy day, it going to get outside the bounds of us being able to control that. So there’s always a fire season. It’s inevitable living in a fire-adapted ecosystem.

RH: Is there a worry that with all the moisture we’ve gotten over the winter and even early spring that folks could become complacent out in the forest and maybe not be as fire conscious as they were last year with all the talk of an extreme fire season?

JP: Absolutely. Last year when we were going through stage one, stage two restrictions and closures, we were getting really good compliance from the public on fires out in the forest. It was really good for us because we do have an issue here on this forest with abandoned campfires. We don’t anticipate having to go into, say, stage two or closures. We’ll have to evaluate as we move along—like I said, wind is the greatest equalizer here. It’s always a constant struggle for us. We’ve got a really good prevention program here on the forest and those folks do a really good job of patrolling and trying to provide information to the public. Really it’s just an education-type thing, and so we’ll continue to do that throughout the summer.

RH: So in general, the fire outlook for this year is looking OK, is looking pretty good. Nothing super dire on the horizon.

JP: No, it’s a really good feeling to have as a fire manager. It’s one of those years where I’m not as worried about the threat of fire, but I’m looking at it more optimistically that we can use fire across the landscape this summer. So for us, that’s something we really like to take advantage of. Like I said, there’s never not a fire season. There will be a fire season. We’ll have fires we’ll have to go out and suppress and some of them we’ll chase on a windy day, but we feel like the precipitation we’re getting and have received over the winter is going to give us a good chance to catch those.