Fire Danger This Year At All-Time High

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When it comes to the Tonto National Forest and the rest of Arizona facing the worst fire-danger season in the 100 years such things have been monitored, Ken Palmrose, a fire prevention officer for the U.S. Forest Service, doesn't mince words.

Asked how nervous that statistic makes him on a scale of one to 10, Palmrose quickly answers, "10.1."

"I'm looking at our fuel moistures and those types of things, and they are much lower than when the Dude Fire occurred," he said, referring to the 1990 fire. "And not only are conditions worse, they are worse a lot earlier in the season. That's the alarming thing."

The situation isn't the result of one dry winter, Palmrose said it's the accumulative result of many.

"When you take a look at what's gone on the last eight years in the upper parts of Arizona and the northern parts of the Tonto, you'll see that in six of those years we've had deficits of moisture during the wintertime," Palmrose said.

It's accumulative, and that's the problem. That has not allowed the live fuels to absorb the moisture that should normally be absorbed.

"So we're obviously very concerned. But on the other hand, realistically, it could turn around and rain this weekend, like they are starting to say," he said. "So who knows? But we're all going to be very nervous this season."

During the 2001 fire season, about 89,000 fires burned 3.57 million acres across the United States. And the summer before was even worse: 123,000 fires burned 8.4 million acres of forest and cost $1.3 billion to fight.

This year, the government has set aside $2.3 million in "severity dollars" to battle the season's wildfires and of that, Palmrose said, northern Arizona's forests last month received $1,100,000, and the Tonto got $300,000.

"What that's allowed us to do is to bring on engines and crews since the first of this month, way earlier than normal," he said.

Precautions are being taken on a local scale as well, Bob Ortland, fire management officer for the Payson Ranger District, said.

"We're concerned enough that we're preparing in every way we can," he said. "We've been working with the state and the Payson Fire Department. They're going to help us with severity patrols and even staging some water tenders from some of the local fire departments so they can respond more easily to any wildland fires. We're also bringing in extra Forest Service engines. We have Navajo scouts staying at Camp Geronimo right now. We're going to have a helicopter at Payson airport every day. So we're beefing up as much as we can. We don't want to leave much to chance."

To that end, Arizona currently has $65,000 in grant money earmarked so that state fire officials can reimburse residents who get rid of dry brush, dead trees or other dangerously dry vegetation near their homes.

For more information, call Kirk Rowdabaugh, deputy state forester, at (602) 255-4059.

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