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Forest Service: fire season severity depends on El Niño

A prescribed fire burns northeast of Parks on the Williams Ranger District in January. So far, the Forest Service has completed prescribed burns on about 6,000 acres of land this fiscal year to reduce fuel loads and prevent wildfires. Photo/USFS

A prescribed fire burns northeast of Parks on the Williams Ranger District in January. So far, the Forest Service has completed prescribed burns on about 6,000 acres of land this fiscal year to reduce fuel loads and prevent wildfires. Photo/USFS

WILLIAMS, Ariz. - Although northern Arizona experienced an abnormally dry winter this year, the severity of the 2014 fire season will largely hinge on the weather conditions that El Niño brings this summer.

Kaibab National Forest officials briefed the Williams City Council about this year's fire season outlook at the April 10 meeting.

El Niño conditions occur when the Pacific Ocean warms along the west coast of South America, which causes changes in weather patterns.

Kaibab National Forest Fire Information Officer Holly Krake said if El Niño brings intermittent moisture to the region, the fire season will start on time or could even be delayed and less severe. If El Niño fails to deliver that moisture, fire season could start earlier than normal and potentially be more severe.

"So El Niño is still making up its mind," Krake said.

This winter, the high elevation areas in northern Arizona received one quarter of the normal amount of snowpack. In addition, the region has been in a persistent drought, which causes increased dryness in trees and other forest fuels.

"It hasn't gotten better, but it hasn't necessarily gotten worse for this area," Krake said of the drought.

However, the heavy 2013 monsoon season means that the forests also have more fuels this year.

"So what that means is we have a lot of grasses and other really fine particulate matter out there that's ready and available to burn," Krake said.

With the southwestern third of the United States having a higher probability of experiencing warmer than normal conditions, officials predict an above average fire season in June and July.

When officials elevated the Williams and Tusayan ranger districts to the "high fire danger" rating March 25, it was about a month ahead of schedule. Officials take into account the fuels, topography, weather and resources when determining fire danger ratings.

"It certainly is not a decision that we undertake lightly moving between fire dangers because it does have an impact on our forest visitors and economics as well," Krake said.

In addition, campfire and smoking restrictions went into effect April 18 on the Williams and Tusayan ranger districts of the Kaibab, as well as on parts of the Coconino, Prescott and Tonto national forests. The restrictions limit fires, campfires, charcoal, coal and wood stoves to developed campgrounds only and limit smoking to within enclosed vehicles or buildings or in developed campgrounds. The restrictions will be in effect until the forests receive significant precipitation.

If the fire danger in the area worsens, officials can implement additional fire restrictions, close specific portions of the forest like Bill Williams Mountain, or close the entire forest.

High temperatures and high winds influence the restrictions and closures, said Fire Management Officer James Pettit.

"We can't get much drier than we are already," he said.

The last time the Forest Service closed the Kaibab National Forest entirely was in 2002, when the area received even less moisture than it did this year.

In the coming weeks Pettit said the El Niño conditions will fork one way or another.

"You can talk about 2002-that would be one outlier where we went into full forest closures," he said. "And then the other outlier would be like 2009 when we started getting all of those storms in May and June, which kind of just shuts that whole season down even though we were really dry during the winter."

As fire season approaches, Krake encouraged the public to take steps to protect their homes from wildfires. Those steps can include pruning low-hanging tree branches and raking up pine needles or other woody debris.

"While we can do a lot of things as a land management agency and as fire fighters, we really ask the public to take ownership in this as well, particularly living in Williams and a fire adapted ecosystem," she said.

More information about fire restrictions is available at www.firerestrictions.us/az.

Prescribed fire and 4FRI

Forest officials also updated the council about prescribed fire on the Kaibab National Forest. In the fall, the Forest Service outlined its plans to treat 13,156 acres on the Williams Ranger District during fiscal year 2014 to reduce fuel loads.

Krake described this amount as a best-case scenario for "if we had perfect weather, as much personnel as we needed, no complications, unlimited funding, so on and so forth."

Of that amount, the Forest Service has treated 6,126 acres so far. However, since the government's fiscal year ends Sept. 30, the Forest Service will continue to treat some of those areas until then.

Lastly, new District Manager Danelle Harrison discussed the status of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), a restoration project that spans 2.4 million acres within the Kaibab, Coconino, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests.

In September, the Forest Service awarded the first three 4FRI task orders on the Kaibab: Dogtown for 1,716 acres, KA for 1,047 acres, and Pomeroy for 1,646 acres.

On March 12, Good Earth Power announced that it planned to develop a site in Williams that will accept logs and fiber from the 4FRI project. The company has not yet announced the site for the facility or specifically how it will use the Williams location.

Harrison said she expected a notice to proceed with thinning for the Dogtown task order toward the end of this month.

At that point, the contractor must show an intent to proceed on the project within 10 days. That could include moving equipment to the area near the Dogtown reservoir or starting pre-haul roadwork. After the notice to proceed is issued, forest officials will meet with the contractors and operator to discuss their plans. The parties involved will negotiate the timeline for the work, which could potentially take between two and three years depending on ground conditions.

"We do recognize that Dogtown is a very popular place for folks in this community and folks who come visit the Kaibab National Forest from across the state and across the country," Harrison said. "So we are going to place limitations on work hours around the developed campgrounds and restrictions on log chip hauling during busy times around the major holidays."

More information about 4FRI is available at www.4fri.org.

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