Ariz.’s Profusion of Desert Plants to Dry Out, Stoke Fire Danger

Tucson Citizen

Ariz.’s profusion of desert plants to dry out, stoke fire danger
The Associated Press
Published: 04.03.2008

An abnormally wet winter has spawned a rare profusion of grass and brush around the state — setting up much of Arizona’s desert lands for an active wildfire season, according to fire management officials.

That same wet weather has been a blessing for the state’s higher-elevation forests, which have been dried out by years of drought and left with millions of dead trees because of a beetle infestation.

For the forests, above-normal snowfalls mean trees and undergrowth will have high moisture content, and the fire danger is expected to be relatively low.

But by May, searing temperatures and arid conditions are expected to dry out the often hip-high grasses now blanketing desert areas.

“It’s almost like Ireland it’s so green out there right now,” state Forester Kirk Rowdabaugh said recently, referring to one area just north of Phoenix. “But we know that’s going to turn brown here in a few weeks, and certainly by early May it’ll be cured out enough to start to carry fire.”

The conditions are reminiscent of those in 2005, when a blaze named the Cave Creek Complex became the second-largest wildfire in state history. It scorched nearly 250,000 acres of desert and destroyed 11 homes in a small community northeast of Phoenix.
“It looks like the greater Phoenix metro area and for many miles around that has grass growing at this point is going to see some kind of substantial fire season,” said Chuck Maxwell, a fire meteorologist at the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque. “It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of how severe it is.”

Rowdabaugh said desert fires and forest fires bring different challenges to firefighters.

“Desert fires typically burn much faster and get much bigger in a short period of time than heavy timber fires,” Rowdabaugh said. “They also tend to be easier to extinguish and have a shorter duration than timber fires.”

Nationally, 516,243 acres of land had been charred by wildfire this year as of March 28, less than 5 percent above the 10-year average, said Tom Wordell, a wildland fire analyst with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Many of those fires have been in the South — which is in a long-term drought — Texas, Oklahoma, eastern New Mexico and in southern Colorado. Dozens of homes have been destroyed.

Wordell said wildfire danger will begin expanding this month into southern Arizona and eastern Colorado, and that North and South Carolina and north Georgia likely will see increased fire potential from May through July.

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