At the beginning of the year, forecasters predicted a wetter-than-normal winter and spring, leaving first responders concerned about the potential for major flooding in the Verde Valley.
The projected El Niño — which was expected to bring higher-than-normal amounts of warm rain and thus early melting of snow in higher regions — never happened. Instead, it’s been one of the drier winters in many years, resulting in their concern shifting from flooding to wildfires.
At the April 20 Sedona Fired District Governing Board meeting, Battalion Chief Jayson Coil gave an update on what can be expected this wildland season. The bottom line, it’s not looking good.
“The Sedona Fire District and much of Arizona face a potentially significant fire season in 2016,” Coil said, noting that 90 percent of all wildfires are manmade. “Fuel loads are heavy and homeowners need to look around their homes to create defensible space. The Sedona Fire District is prepared to fight wildfires and work to minimize its impact to the community and has coordinated with our neighboring agencies, Arizona Division of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service to ensure a coordinated response.”
Dryness and drought have quickly begun to ramp up across the Southwest. Arizona has experienced a large increase in the coverage of dryness and moderate drought. February and March warmth prematurely melted high-elevation snow pack in many basins, he said. And, recent warm, windy conditions have led to numerous wildfires.
Coil compared the first three months of last year to the first three this year. During that span last year there were 147 fires reported in the state, burning fewer than 500 acres. Compare that to this year in which 234 fires had been reported, scorching 16,864 acres — all of which were human caused. For the entire 2015 fire season, 158,000 acres burned across the state.
Coil said factors affecting the potential for fire include:
- Drought expected to worsen across Arizona through the 2016 fire season.
- Overabundance of fine fuels across every ecosystem.
- Seasonal temperature and precipitation.
- Snowpack currently below 25 percent across most of Arizona.
- No clear signals on a change to the normal onset of monsoons.
SFD crews have been training and preparing for what may be a busy fire season. They recently conducted two training exercises with its dispatch agency — the Cottonwood Regional Communication Center — to ensure they are familiar with the wildland response plans and their role in their implementation. In addition, SFD personnel participated in a multi-agency drill with other wildland agencies in and around Flagstaff.
They plan to participate with Verde Valley agencies in a wildland drill on Friday, May 13, and all SFD operations personnel have completed their annual wild refresher training and equipment has been inspected in preparation for the season. In addition, its annual Firewise cleanup will be held Friday through Sunday, May 20 through 22, in the lot above Station 4 on Forest Road.
“In talking with people, they have a strong understanding of what’s required of them and what they can do in regard to the risk of fire than they may have had in a pre-Slide Fire environment,” Coil said. “It worked that way after the Brins Fire but then people gravitated back to less cautious behavior.”