Officials say wildfires in Southwest will blaze until rainy season

Tuesday, June 21, 2011 | 11:04 p.m. CDT; updated 2:13 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 24, 2011
Large flames are visible past the intersection of Campobello Avenue and Ramsey Road after the Monument Fire jumped Highway 92 once again in Sierra Vista, Ariz., on Sunday.

PHOENIX — The wildfires sizzling through dried-out forests and grasslands across the Southwest are a bad omen in a fire season that is expected to continue for weeks until nature provides relief with seasonal rains.

Fire officials are working to contain existing blazes even as they brace for new threats, setting up a dangerous and frustrating summer. However, authorities don't expect to be stressed beyond their limits.


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While much of the South and Southwest has received less winter precipitation than normal, the rain and snow farther north has led to huge snowpack in the Sierra Nevada range in California and in the Rockies.

The wildfire outlook issued by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, called for above-normal fire potential in the Southwest through September, but normal or milder-than-normal fire conditions across the rest of the West.

Millions of acres across Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas have been scorched in recent weeks.

Firefighters are also battling tinder boxes in east Texas and north Florida. Officials blame fires in those states for at least six deaths this year, including those of two forest rangers killed Monday near the Florida-Georgia state line.

Rains are expected to reduce the fire danger in Florida this week, but seasonal storms that normally stop the threat in the Southwest aren't expected to come until mid-July at the earliest. Officials said that means the three large fires now churning across Arizona's forest lands will not be the last.

Forestry officials said the state has seen one of its most dangerous fire seasons in years, with more than 1,500 fires burning 1,300 square miles so far. That total far exceeds that of 2010, when 132 square miles burned across the state.

As thousands of firefighters are battling that blaze and the two others in Arizona, hundreds more firefighters have been stationed around the state for quick response to prevent any new threats from growing out of control.

Virtually all the fires in Arizona this year have been caused by humans, said Cam Hunter, Arizona's deputy state forester.

"We're not even into our really hot days," Hunter said Tuesday. "We're really dependent on people being as conscientious as they've ever been when they're doing anything that can cause a spark or has a flame and is an ignition source."

Even the storm relief is expected to begin with a threat. The beginning of the annual monsoon season will probably spark more fires because of lightning, Hunter said.

However, "once the monsoon kicks in, it's all over for both New Mexico and Arizona," said Rich Naden, a fire weather meteorologist at the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque, N.M., which coordinates fire resources for the region.

"What (we've) figured out over the last decade is that we don't necessarily need record, earth-shattering rain to end the likelihood of large fire incidents. It's just a matter of humidity."

Once those humidity levels rise above 20 percent in the daytime, fire probability drops greatly.

The largest of the fires burning in the Southwest this week is in eastern Arizona, where a fire that broke out May 29 has consumed 825 square miles of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins. Although the fire is the biggest in state history, no lives have been lost.

A fire outside Sierra Vista in southern Arizona has destroyed at least 58 homes since it began June 12. That blaze has torched 42 square miles and is about 40 percent contained.

A blaze in the far southeastern part of the state was 95 percent contained after charring more than 330 square miles since it started May 8. That fire, dubbed Horseshoe Two, has destroyed 23 structures, and crews expected to fully contain it by Wednesday night.

Officials said all three blazes are the result of human activity, but it is not known who was responsible.

New Mexico officials said conditions there are abnormally dry. Much of the state is now facing severe to extreme drought. Grasslands began burning in late February, and the threat has now moved into the state's higher elevation forests, where recent blazes have led to evacuations.

"That is what's making them get big real fast, just the dryness of the heavier, larger fuels and the abundance of grass," said New Mexico State Forester Tony Delfin. "That's what the challenge is this year that's different than many other years."

He said the fires that have raced across New Mexico's prairies and through its rugged forests have been more intense than in other years.

"We're just going to deal with the fires as they come up and make sure our firefighters get some rest," Delfin said. "... It's been a long season, but we are geared up and prepared to deal with it as long as we need to. ... We are hoping we get a nice monsoon season in New Mexico."

In Florida, hot and dry weather has sparked more than 3,600 blazes burning over 190,000 acres. The outbreak has shown that even a small conflagration can be deadly. The two forest rangers killed Monday were using bulldozers to plow around a 12-acre blaze in the northern part of the state.

They became trapped when the smoldering fire flared up. It's the first time a forestry employee or firefighter has died fighting a wildfire in Florida since 2000.

Texas is also in the grip of a drought, and wildfires have scorched about 4,800 square miles — more than any year in the state's history, according to the Texas Forest Service.

One blaze forced thousands northwest of Houston to evacuate Monday. Officials said that across Texas, 20 others fires are burning, and have scorched 120 square miles and consumed at least 35 homes.

Blazes in Texas this fire season are being blamed in four deaths — three firefighters battling separate blazes and a child killed in a car accident on a smoky interstate.

A recent wildfire outbreak in east and southeast Texas was fueled in part by low humidity and high winds that have since subsided, but the tinder-dry conditions are the main fire danger, said Victor Murphy, the climate service program manager for the National Weather Service's southern region based in Fort Worth, Texas.

"The Houston area has a 15-inch rainfall deficit since February," Murphy said. "We just need rainfall."

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