As Arizona officials set the earliest fire restrictions in history for the state's national forests, the severe drought plaguing the central and southwest U.S. is expected to continue through the spring.
An early February wildfire that charred 4,000 acres in 10 days prompted the fire restrictions. According to one news release, "(Arizona) officials have been concerned for months that drought conditions, lack of rain and snow and an abundance of dry fuels could result in the worst fire season in memory."
The whole region has been in a state of drought for some seven to eight years, said Chuck Maxwell of the Southwest Coordination Center (SCC). The SCC is one of 11 geographic area coordination centers set up to help local firefighting agencies predict, monitor and fight wildfires.
Maxwell, who works in the SCC's predictive services group, noted that this early fire season was also caused by the one weather pattern many wouldn't think would cause a problem: rainfall. "The copious rainfall last season was then followed by a drought for six months," he explained. "That rainfall brought up brush and grass, but now it's dry."
The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook, released by the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center in mid-February, predicts persisting dry conditions across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma through May of this year. Wildfires have plagued the states since the fall - with hundreds of homes being burnt in Oklahoma alone since November.
For states like Arizona, setting early fire restrictions will help prevent wildfires because of another major cause of the blazes: people.
"The problem is with people who want to live in these places," explained Maxwell. "This early in the season almost all of the wildfires are caused by humans. So that is preventable. Years like this when (wildfires) start early - that's the big thing. There is a major human component to this. A lot of the more destructive fires in the five to 10 years have been started by humans."
And so states like Arizona are putting forth very public efforts to prepare for the harsh seasons - beyond adjusting the national park fire restrictions. Ariz. Gov. Jane Napolitano is urging citizens to protect their homes from wildfires by creating a "defensible space around their property."
"Although it is impossible to prevent all wildfires, there are steps we can take on the federal, state, local and individual levels to reduce the severity and size of wildfires and to reduce associated costs and losses," said Napolitano.
The fire restrictions set in place for the state's national forests include some road closures and bans on campfires, charcoal fires and smoking. The Tonto National Forest now restricts chainsaw use, welding, operating machinery without spark arresters and the discharge of firearms by anyone but licensed hunters. Further restrictions are likely once spring arrives, with forecasters like Maxwell noting that this year's wildfires may move beyond remaining just in the high country or the low country.
"We emphasize that people are in a fire regime out here - even if you're in Phoenix or the foothills there," he said. "People need to be aware that this whole area is a place where fires occur. It's just like knowing that hurricanes are a risk if you live on the Gulft Coast. The problem with wildfires never gets solved - it's part of the ecosystem here."
In the immediate future, there is some rainfall on the horizon that could bring a little help to states like Arizona. Maxwell said that the La Nina weather pattern that's been contributing to the dry conditions across the southwest is showing some signs of shifting back to an El Nino pattern. "We're also seeing some storm patterns moving through now that will bring us some moisture - which will be of some benefit," Maxwell said, adding - "Yet that's just our seasonal outlook, nothing has really changed in the big picture."
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