Recent Snowfall Delays Fire Season But Annual Precipitation Still At A ‘Deficit’

Jan 29, 2021

Forest managers in northern Arizona are breathing a small sigh of relief following this week’s snowfall. It comes amid a long-term dry spell that pushed much of the region into the highest category of drought. More than two feet of snow in many areas helped reduce wildfire danger on local forests during a time of year when crews are typically focused on thinning and other forest health initiatives. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with Coconino National Forest Fire Staff Officer James Pettit about how officials are looking ahead to the upcoming fire season.

A firefighter from the Coconino National Forest conducts prescribed pile burns south of Flagstaff on Jan. 22, 2021 for watershed and community protection.
Credit Rogers “True” Brown/Coconino National Forest

Ryan Heinsius: Prior to the recent storms a lot of people were anticipating and early and perhaps more extreme fire season. How has this snow pushed that back?

James Pettit: You know, obviously any precip we get in whatever form we’ll take at this point. But yeah, snowpack is our preferred precipitation, obviously, because that allows it to sit on those fuels out in the forest for a long time. And it really needs some time to sit in there and really soak into what we call our large-diameter fuels. We’ve had overall since June of last year, before this last snowfall, a little over 2 inches, 2.3 inches, and so obviously that’s not good enough. It put us in a deficit. But it does push out our fire season, the start date a little bit. Before this snow came into play here, you’re starting to talk about fire season in March, early April, and so it’ll push that out a bit.

RH: Still, considering that more long-term deficit and considering 2020 was Flagstaff’s driest year on record, what dangers could be ahead for the near-term?

JP: It looks like we’ll continue in this La Nina pattern where it’s above-average temperatures, below average precip, and that could extend out another month or two and then we’ll get into a more neutral pattern. Those neutral patterns are really tough to discern what the future will be there. But any ecosystem is ripe for wildland fire if it gets outside of its normal cycle of precipitation. We’ll just keep looking at the numbers, talking to the climate folks and go from there.

RH: Were fire managers looking ahead before the recent snow and thinking that this could be an unprecedented fire season considering just how dry it’s been for the last several months?

JP: Yeah, absolutely. It’s definitely been on the forefronts of all of our minds here in the fire organizations. We’re constantly trying to stay out ahead of everything, and so when these kinds of trends start happening you start looking at ways to bolster your resources earlier than you normally would. And so, we’ve been looking at all those options and opportunities here over the last couple of months.

RH: Firefighting in general has become a more year-round endeavor in recent years. How has a warmer and drier climate changed operations on the Coconino?

JP: Generally our fire season historically would begin around May 1st and end about mid-July, you know, with the onset of monsoons. And obviously when we get these super-dry years you’re starting to fight fire in March-April, which isn’t normal. But it also spreads out to all these other regions in the United States. We’re sending firefighters out to the South, over in Texas in the early part of the year, and they’re continuing to fight fire in November, December in California so it’s definitely spread us out over the course of a whole year where normally it didn’t do that. So, we’re looking at ways to stagger our resources that we have coverage. We’re all in this together and we have responsibilities to help our neighbors so we’re looking at ways to kind of stagger some of those resources.

RH: There’s obviously still a pandemic going on. How has COVID changed firefighting?

JP: The wildland fire community is no different than everyone else. We’re still using our masks and social distancing, and it’s spread into our incident management teams on how we logistically feed people and house people when we’re out on fires. We learned a lot from last year and we will continue to try to expand on those. We do have some vaccines that we were able to get our folks in and get them vaccinated prior to fire season here so that’s going to be a really big help. But not everyone is going to get vaccinated and so we’ll continue to use those mitigation measures that we put in place in 2020 as we move forward. We just want to make sure we have as safe a work environment as we possibly can for all of our firefighters.