Dry conditions could make for tough fire season in northern Arizona

Northern Arizona has received about half of the moisture it typically gets between January and April

WILLIAMS, Ariz. - Because of the dry winter, U.S. Forest Service Fire Staff Officer Arthur Gonzales is predicting "we're on an accelerated pace to probably set some new highs" for a key fire season indicator this year.

The Forest Service uses an indicator called ERC, or energy release component, to help make decisions in fire management. ERC relates to the potential of heat released from a fire. Temperature, moisture and humidity all play into ERC.

Speaking at the May 16 Williams Rotary meeting, Gonzales predicted that based on the dry conditions this year, the ERC will reach elevated levels because of an accelerated drying of fuels.

Although Gonzales called the ERC a good tool, he said predicting the severity of the fire season is still difficult.

"We can say here's where we're at now, here's where we think we're going to be," he said. "I could draw that out and I guarantee I'll be wrong."

Gonzales said monitoring the ERC helps the Forest Service make decisions during fire season, including the amount of staffing, when to implement restrictions and the type of fire management strategies to use.

Depending on whether humans or natural causes started the fire and how close monsoon season is, Forest Service staff may opt for suppression, or putting out the fire, or resource benefit.

"That's where we're allowing the fire to kind of contribute back to the environment," Gonzales said. "It's burning up all the old stuff, it's getting rid of that forest layer, it's thinning out the trees."

Gonzales said the forest service must weigh the risks with each fire management strategy, including public safety, property loss, public health and watershed protection.

"Probably the easiest thing to do would be to just run and go and put the fires out," he said. "But if we go and put them out every single time and we're not managing the forest, then those risks just continue to elevate."

Forest Service officials put campfire and smoking restrictions in place May 22.

Robert Bohlin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Bellemont, confirmed the dry conditions. He said the region has received about half of the moisture it typically gets between January and April, Bohlin said.

"So that allows the fuels to dry out sooner," he said.

According to Bohlin, fuels, weather and topography all affect fire behavior. On the weather side, wind, humidity levels and warmer temperatures play into the severity of the fire season.

Bohlin called the light rain at the start of the month "a short-term game changer" in terms of the fire season, since it added moisture to the fuels. He expected things to dry out again within a week or so.

Bohlin said the peak months for fire season are May and June. That's because the monsoon typically starts around July 4. Once the monsoon season starts, the fire season is basically over, he said.

"The fuels get wet, and then just like if a match is wet, it's kind of hard to light it," he said.

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