Outlook mixed for upcoming wildfire season
Winter precipitation means less risk for upper elevations, higher danger for lower-lying grasslands
Due to the past wet fall and winter, officials predict a mixed outlook for the upcoming fire season, with reduced risk in the wooded upper elevations and higher-than-average fire danger in lower-lying grassland areas.
“Precipitation loads have been good,” said park Fire and Aviation Chief Dan Oltrogge. “What that means is that the ability for timber to support fire is still there but fire season will be much shorter in duration. But in the lower elevations there is grass that is eventually going to die and cure, and carry fire into lower areas where there’s not usually a lot of fire.”
He said this includes the Inner Canyon, the Canyon’s west end and the area around Lake Mead.
“There will be potential until late May or into June that there will be fire where we’re not used to seeing it,” he said.
Higher moisture levels also mean a smaller window of opportunity for prescribed burning.
“Some years it starts as early as late April, when the snow is gone and the fuels are dry enough to carry fire,” Oltrogge said. “With the latest pulse of moisture, it’s still a couple of weeks out on the South Rim to meet objectives on these projects.”
The early summer burn season will be even briefer on the North Rim where there is still between four and six feet of snow on the ground, he said.
According to South Rim Fire Management Officer Chris Marks, officials hope to undertake a 2,123 acre burn known as the Topeka. This is located on the park’s southern boundary, in an area that is half ponderosa, half pinion-juniper.
“First we’ll get approval and get prepared there as far as staffing and other things, then find the right prescription windows,” Oltrogge said.
The Topeka Fire was scheduled for last spring but postponed to this year following the escape of the Long Jim III burn early last May. A report on the fire, which burned more than 200 acres outside the established boundary, called for no significant changes in the way that park fire managers carry out prescribed burns.
“There is nothing operationally that will change,” said Oltrogge. They will be taking a harder look at planning issues, he said.
“The difference since Long Jim is that we will take a good, hard look at the prescription window,” Oltrogge said. “Everything was lined up correctly (for Long Jim), we just began to run out of time.”
Marks added that they will add remote automated weather stations to provide real time, on-site weather information such as wind speed and direction and humidity levels.
Oltrogge said they will continue with one successful aspect of the Long Jim – the staffing levels.
“It proved to be very effective to contain the escape,” he said. “That’s why we contained it in three hours. We will continue to do that. Sometimes funding sources are tighter...so it’s possible to short yourself on staffing.”
Also planned this spring if time allows are two smaller burns – one near Shoshone Point and another on the South Rim called the Grapevine Burn – for another 300 acres. Those may have
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to be postponed because of the anticipated smaller window of opportunity for effective burning.
“Those burns don’t yet have approved plans. We need to finish the planning process but there’s not as big a window for prescribed burning,” Oltrogge said. “Theoretically, on the South Rim, we’re back in conditions for fire by the second week of May, but as we know, in May, it gets a little windy around here.”
On the North Rim, potential burning projects are four to six weeks away, with three in the pipeline according to Ed Hiatt, North Rim District Fire Management Officer.
“We hope to get to them by late May or early June,” he said.
On both rims, the park will continue its wildland use plan, in which lightning-sparked fires were allowed to burn for resource benefit if they met certain criteria such as being far enough from populated areas and within certain weather and wind parameters.
“When we have a candidate (for a wildland use fire), we go through an analysis process and gather information to see if it is a viable candidate,” Oltrogge said. “Then we recommend approval to the superintendent and he says yes or no. The process is pretty detailed. We look at predicted and current weather and available firefighters and engines and consult with Kaibab National Forest officials.”
Last fiscal year, which ended Oct. 30, Oltrogge said 5,000 acres were treated – about average.
Marks said that the summer fire crew – about 25 people – have finished training and began work this week, bringing the park’s firefighting contingent to about 50.
Though the southwest has seen a fair amount of moisture over the winter, that hasn’t been the case in the northwest and northern Rockies. Oltrogge said he and others on the local crew are prepared for the possibility that they may be called to assist with fires there.
“There is the potential that there will be large fires in that part of the country and we may be asked to support that,” he said.
Sidebar defensible space:
Fire officials are asking Grand Canyon Village residents to clear grasses, branches and other yard wastes that may make their homes vulnerable to the spread of fire.
“We’re asking people to develop defensible space,” said park fire information officer Donna Nemeth. “This means maintaining the area around their homes by removing fuel from around their homes and mitigating the risk of wildland fire.”
She adds that creating a clear space around buildings also gives firefighters a safe and unobstructed area in which to work in case of fire.
Residents are asked to create a defensible perimeter of at least 15 feet around the home, free of pine needles, grass, pine cones, twigs, weeds and other potential fuels. Firewood, lumber and other large concentrations of fuels should be located at least 30 feet from any structure and at least 15 feet from propane tanks. Collected materials may be bagged and placed in dumpsters.
Wood chips left behind from APS’ tree trimming project don’t present the same fire danger as needles, twigs, dried grass and duff if they are used for landscaping.
“The chips themselves don’t post much fire danger,” said South Rim Fire Management Officer Chris Marks. “The air can’t move through them very well, as opposed to pine needles and grass. That’s what moves the fire.”
“It’s a simple as maintaining your backyard – your front yard too,” said Nemeth.
A park-wide mechanical treatment project to prune or remove trees and create space around homes is about 40 percent done with work scheduled to resume early this month, concentrated in the South Rim’s historic district. Last fall, the crews cleared vegetation in Trailer Village and Pinion Park.
“They’re thinning defensible space up to 30 feet around homes and structures,” Nemeth said.
Learn more about creating defensible space at http://cals.arizona.edu/firewise/ or by checking out the instructional videos available at the South Rim fire office. For more information, call 638-7939.
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