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Wildfire Season 2012: Woes out West

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Last year's summer wildfire season for many forests in the Western United States—including many acres of Native American land—was historic, and in some cases, unprecedented in modern times. And if the past is a predictor of the future, the 2012 level of concern is understandable, as in Arizona alone last year, 2,000 wildland fires torched well over a million acres.

Unfortunately, but realistically, Fire Season 2012 is expected to again record above-average activity levels for another long, hot summer—and "summer" doesn't officially get here until June 20.

The plumes of smoke and crackling of burning timber have already started with the biggest season for lightning-caused blazes still more than a month away. InciWeb, the Incident Information System that keeps track of flames being fought in the Southwest, reports an early start to this year’s destruction with the first wildfire called in early, even before the end of February. And since that first lightning-caused fire, InciWeb has reported an average of one new blaze per day.

While numbers change on a daily basis, at the time this story was written, according to the Southwest Coordination Center, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was reporting nearly 300 fires that have already burned close to 8,000 acres in Arizona, New Mexico, and a part of Texas so far this year.

Wildfires have no respect for boundary lines—they’ll burn anything in their path whether the trees are rooted on private property, owned by state or federal governments, or on sovereign Tribal lands. Already this year, one Indian country blaze, the Bull Flat Fire in the White Mountains north of Cibecue, Arizona, raced through nearly 2,200 acres of grass, brush, and already dead and down components left behind from the devastating 10-year-old Rodeo-Chediski Fire.

Tribes thoughout the Southwest are bracing for the advent of the monsoon rainy season that produces hundreds of lightning strikes per day … at least some of which are powerful enough to act as an incendiary for yet a new blaze.

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The Southwest Coordination Center handles interagency fire response in New Mexico, Arizona, and a portion of Texas and is courageous enough to offer an informed opinion about this yearis wildfire outlook. Taking into consideration overall above-normal temperatures and drier conditions than normal, SCC is predicting a more positive change from the weather patterns that brought so much destruction in 2011.

“Monsoon season predictions have low reliability,” writes Chuck Maxwell, head of predictive services, but the outlook for the summer season in Arizona and New Mexico calls for “Above normal fire potential in and near mountain areas near and west of the continental divide.”

Of the two spokespersons who can comment further on current wildfire status in Arizona and New Mexico, one (Fire PIO Cathie Schmidlin) is currently on the scene of the more than 150,000-acre Whitewater–Baldy blaze on the Gila National Forest in Southwest New Mexico. Her counterpart, U.S. Forest Service Media Officer Mark Chavez, was reached in Albuquerque. The outlook for more problems in the immediate weeks, he says, remains dicey.

“Fire restrictions, like those on the Apache Indian Reservation, have been in effect for a couple of weeks now," Chavez told ICTMN, "because the dual state outlook is for above-normal fire potential for June and July. Snowpacks have dropped off, the forests are dry, some fine fuels have sprung up, windy conditions are a problem, and we’ve already had several fires started by lightning strikes with the monsoon season still a month or so away. We’ve done as much preparation as we can do—crews are trained and ready and both equipment and people are pre-positioned for quick response at the first alarm.”

Of course, one spark from a careless human or one errant bolt of lightning from summer storms and all optimistic predictions go out the window—especially if they are accompanied by gusty Red Flag wind conditions (like a recent situation in Sierra Vista, Arizona—heavily burned in last year's fires—when wind gusts measured at 65 miles an hour roared over a mountain top and quickly fanned the flames of a residential fire…quantifying the damage in the process).

As Chavez notes: “We’ve prepared. Now we wait and hope for the best.”