Flagstaff has experienced an anomaly of a dry winter this year. Because of the lack of precipitation — despite recent weather patterns — the Coconino National Forest is at risk for a much earlier wildfire season than normal.
Even with the snow Flagstaff has received, it is not enough to keep the forest moisture high enough to prevent wildfires for as long as it has in the past.
“Precipitation of any kind really helps delay the fire season on the Coconino National Forest, so we welcome winter snow, spring showers and summer monsoon,” said Brady Smith, the public affairs officer at the Coconino National Forest.
Smith also said that though the rain is good, snow is better because the moisture lasts longer because the snow takes time to melt.
The Flagstaff Fire Department (FFD) and Coconino County are prepared and have been preparing for years like this. The dry winter has also prompted Gov. Doug Ducey to request for more state funds for wildfire prevention from the state legislature.
With the a dry winter, FFD takes safety to be their first priority to prepare for.
“In wildfire, we have multiple agents that come and work together from the city, from the outlying district, from forest district [and] from state department of forestry. So we have a lot of different resources that kind of band together,” said FFD Interim Deputy Chief Mark Wilson. “We’ve been preparing for this fire season for years.”
FFD also recognizes this year is abnormally dry compared to past years. Though it was seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the dry winter is considered to be at a much lower level than those years.
The fire department also routinely shares information with their partners, the outlying district, the forest district, and the state department of forestry, on fire-danger conditions and what resources are available locally. The information shared includes how many fires are going on within the region, what the fire growth model is like, how many there are and what the crews are seeing. This lets fire districts in the area have an idea of the fire status.
The overall mission of the FDD wildfire prevention and management in Flagstaff, even when there is normal levels of winter precipitation, is to create and maintain a healthy forest and prevent wildfires.
Keeping Coconino County’s forests safe, along with the communities surrounded by the forest, is top priority, which is why these precautions are taken.
When it comes to preventing a wildfire, a cycle of routinely planning, organizing, training, equipping, exercising and evaluating the forest is completed. Other precautions such as selective thinning, the removal of dead trees and mitigating invasive species, are also taken.
Another preventive measure is broadcast burning, in which a controlled fire is applied to a large area of the forest, with set boundaries, to reduce the fuel on the forest floor that could create a wildfire.
According to the Coconino County website, Fort Tuthill County Park worked on a thinning project in 2017 to increase forest health, but to also improve public safety and reduce the risk of wildfire. The project finished in the fall 2017, and as of Feb. 1, the area was seeded with native grasses, wildflowers and forbs. Woody debris was placed to help hold moisture among the seeds that were spread, which was timed with a snowstorm.
Along with these precautions and projects, Ducey has asked the legislature to boost funds for fire prevention because of the dry winter. Funds would go not just to Coconino County and Flagstaff, but to all regions with increased fire danger.
Ducey originally asked for $1 million to go to wildfire prevention, but is now asking for $2 million because of the lack of precipitation across Arizona. The $2 million would go to more thinning projects and other hazardous vegetation removal. As of Feb. 14, wildfire danger is high, not only in Coconino National Forest, but in many other areas of the state, including the Prescott National Forest.