Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series about fire season.
Heading into another potentially volatile wildfire season, it looks as though Northern Gila County is drying into a perfect tinderbox.
The current drought conditions that have plagued Arizona and much of the Southwest for the last decade are expected to continue and wildland firefighters and Forest Service members are ready at a moment's notice, from now until the monsoon rains fall in a few months.
According to the Southwest Coordination Center's Web site, the potential for significant wildland fire activity for the 2007 Southwest area is above normal across much of Arizona and the Four Corners area.
The lack of winter precipitation brought about continued drought conditions, which means an elevated fire potential and more fuel in the form of dried-out trees and shrubbery. The drought conditions are expected to persist or intensify until at least June.
Gary Roberts, district fire prevention officer for the Forest Service, said the dry conditions in the Southwest make the forests in the Rim Country especially susceptible to fires.
"Drought conditions further intensify the possibility of a wildfire start," Roberts said. "These conditions allow easier ignition, cause fuels to burn more rapidly and increase the intensity of a wildfire.
"People should exercise caution with the use of equipment or any open fire on public or private lands."
Superintendent James Osborne of the Payson Hotshots said crews have been training to prepare for the possibility of a major fire this season.
"The long-term drought is playing a major role," he said. "The fields are dry."
Osborne said that until the monsoon season hits, usually around July, that the fire danger will be immense.
The most dangerous period for wildfires generally begins in mid-May, he said.
The Payson Hotshots prepared themselves for fire season by completing a two-week training period in which they brushed up on techniques for "extreme fire behavior," Osborne said. The crew was already available for local wildfires but since completing its recent training, is also available on a national level to combat wildfires.
Fuel for the fire
Roberts, who has worked in forests in six Western states, said the current state of forest health contributes to the elevated wildfire dangers each year.
"Too many trees vying for too few resources hasten the decline of healthy forest ecosystems," he said. "Overly dense forests can fuel catastrophic wildfires."
He added that the overpopulated forests, in part, have been a result of the suppression of wildfires by the U.S. Forest Service, established in 1905. The fire suppression by the Forest Service, although necessary, interrupted the natural cycle of wildfire in North American ecosystems. Combined with livestock grazing that removed the grasses necessary that fuel low-intensity fires and burn heavy pine cone crops, American forests have become overcrowded and unhealthy, he said.
Based on estimates by the Forest Service, the Government Accounting Office and forestry scientists, 73 million acres of national forests are on the verge of ecological collapse, Roberts said.
"Forests in the Southwest 150 years ago were up to several hundred times less dense than they are today," he said. "The overly dense forests are far more likely to burn with high intensity and be more difficult to suppress."
Prevent getting burnt
Besides overly dense forest conditions, people moving into high-risk fire environments also increases the probability of large-scale wildfires.
"Narrow roads, poor access to property, lack of firewise landscaping, inadequate water sources, poorly planned subdivisions and untreated wood shake and shingle roofs are all prime examples for increasing the risk of wildfire in wildland/urban interface zones," Roberts said.
Human carelessness also contributes to fire danger.
"I'd encourage people to clean up their yards and be careful with fires," Osborne said. "They need to make sure the fire is out when they leave. Don't be complacent."
Roberts said that some rules to follow while using fire outdoors include: Stacking firewood upwind and away from the fire; keeping a bucket of water and a shovel nearby; adding one piece of wood to a campfire at a time; and clearing a five-foot area around a campfire.