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Fire vets: Years-long drought contributing to fire danger

PHOENIX — Arizona is heading into the teeth of the 2013 wildfire season after several days of heat, single digit humidity and wind.

Jim Paxon with Arizona Game and Fish has been on some of the largest wildfires in American history, including the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire that burned almost a half-million acres and hundreds of homes in eastern Arizona. Paxon didn’t mince words, saying we are going to have a lot of wildfires this year. It is bone-dry and all is takes is a spark.

“If we have ignitions on the windy days, fires are going to get large and threaten communities. That’s what we want to avoid,” he said.

In other words, there is nothing they can do about lightning starts but Paxon said people are going to have to be very careful with fire.

Paxon said some places are now seeing tinderbox conditions and it’s only going to get worse.

“We are at 45 percent of rainfall on a 50-year average,” he said. “I’m very concerned about the desert areas where you get up into the chaparral and pinion juniper. Areas like Payson, Grand Canyon region and Globe, among others.”

Paxon doesn’t expect a repeat of 2011, when more than one million acres burned in Arizona’s worst wildfire season on record.

Bill Van Bruggen, regional fire director of the Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico, said they will be staging crews at a moment’s notice to areas that are ready to go up.

“We are going to preposition crews and aircraft to areas based on severity,” he said. “For example, ahead of a weather event we see. This was used very successfully on the 2011 Wallow Fire when we brought in thousands of firefighters within 24 hours. It could be an active fire season. This long-term drought is really affecting the potential for large fires and we could see large fires that we’ve seen in the past few years.”

Van Bruggen said a DC-10 that was former commercial airliner and is now a firefighting air tanker should be staged at Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport by the end of May.