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Wildfire experts prepare for active burn season as drought continues

(Kelly Presnell /Arizona Daily Star via AP)

PHOENIX – Almost unprecedented drought conditions could bring the threat of fire to all four corners of Arizona, wildfire experts said.

Nearly 85% of the state is in extreme or exceptional drought while the rest of the state is in severe or moderate drought. Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management says once the heat comes, the central and southern regions may see an early start to wildfire activity in April.

“The wild card is the upper elevations, the timber areas have very little snowpack. That’s going to come in to play as well. So we’re going to have a widespread fire season,” State Forestry spokesman John Truett said Monday.

By June, the potential for widespread fire activity exists if precipitation remains minimal through early summer.

Truett says the agency has already seen several fires of 500 acres or more this year. Last year, almost 1,000,000 acres burned across the state.

A majority of the fires burned in the desert. Truett is concerned about the deserts again.

The cooling of the Pacific Ocean known as La Nina that typically brings drier conditions to the Southwest has been at work for months and is expected to linger for the next few months.

However, early indicators point toward a timely arrival of a normal monsoon season. University of Arizona climate scientist Mike Crimmins says these current drought conditions are unique.

“It comes after last summer’s dry monsoon and relatively dry fall and winter,” he said recently.

“This isn’t the driest winter that the state has ever seen but it hasn’t been a blockbuster. Arizona is moving into its dry season, so we’re running out of time to make up the deficits. We probably won’t see any improvement with the drought until the monsoon.”

Arizona’s State University climatologist Nancy Selover said the upcoming warmer conditions will likely mean a worsening of the drought.

“The grasses will start growing after the moisture that we have had. Once the grass dries out it will be susceptible to wildfires,” Selover said late last week.

“And a lot of the larger vegetation, shrubbery and trees are still dry from last year. We really don’t have a good signal on what to expect from the monsoon.”

The forestry department recommended when people are working outdoors to pay attention to the weather.

Never burn on windy days or use equipment that can throw sparks. If using a campfire, be sure it is out and cool to the touch before leaving the area. Drown, stir, and repeat.

Secure tow chains, ensure vehicles and tires are in good working condition before getting on the road, and avoid pulling a vehicle over into tall vegetation.

Residents need to be proactive and create defensible space around their properties. Remove any dead or dying vegetation, keep lawns watered and mowed, remove flammable materials from around the exterior of the structure and remove leaves from rooftops and gutters.

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