Fire departments throughout the Northwest, just as their brethren have been doing at every level of government, have been gearing up since March to deal with what is anticipated to be one of the worst fire seasons ever in Arizona.

The scariest part is that while firefighters have already battled more than 800 fires in Arizona since the beginning of the year, the worst may be yet to come later this summer when the lightning season kicks in, said Northwest Fire District Chief Jeff Piechura, one of Southern Arizona's leading wildland firefighting experts.

From flatland grasses to mountain forests, the situation is likely to grow far more precarious as the number of 100 degree days builds before those lightning strikes occur, drying out grasses and other vegetation that some have described as already more prone to erupt than the kindling you'd buy in a Wal-Mart store.

High priced developments such as Dove Mountain in the Northwest Fire District and Rancho Vistoso in the Golder Ranch Fire District are obvious areas of concern in terms of lives and property, but keeping grass fires at bay around the homes is important too, Piechura said, since those fires can have a substantial impact on land values.

Piechura, whose District covers 140 square miles with 130 firefighters, recalled a blaze near a Scottsdale area development in the 1980s where little property damage occurred, but because of the fire damage to surrounding terrain, property values dropped from $150,000 an acre to half that. Only in the last five years have land values in that area returned to earlier levels, he said.

While fires started by man outnumber those ignited by lightning strikes by nearly five to one, the lightning strike fires are a great concern to Piechura and other fire chiefs both because of the number of strikes that occur and their propensity to spread so much faster.

The arrival of Arizona's fire season two months earlier than usual is forcing Northwest Fire and other districts to provide assistance to other agencies in as many as a dozen fires, including the Ryan Fire 16 miles east of Patagonia, which consumed more than 38,000 acres and cost $1.8 million to suppress by the time it was contained late last week. The state Land Department is expected to be reimbursed by federal agencies for about 75 percent of its $600,000 share of the costs.

The reimbursement would be in addition to the $2 million already allocated by Gov. Jane Dee Hull as part of the state Land Department's regular emergency funding for additional resources and another $1 million in emergency money to position firefighting support resources in advance, said Ron Melcher, state fire coordinator with the Arizona Land Department.

The extended fire season may also pose another problem fire departments have seldom had to contend with to such a degree, and that's the matter of scheduling firefighters so they don't wind up working 80 to 100 hour weeks fighting numerous fires outside their areas and then find themselves having to do so within their jurisdictions later in the season when the fires they'll be exposed to will be burning hotter and hotter.

The severity of the fire problem is based on a National Fire Rating System that includes what is known as an energy release component. This component measures the heat intensity of a fire. As grass fires spread to bushes and trees, flaming intensifies and with the deadly blend of low humidity, low dew point and the high winds that are likely to occur, the dangers increase.

Melcher, of the Arizona Land Department, said the heat intensity rating has never been as high as it is now.

Arrangements have been completed by just about every fire department in the Northwest area to avoid the grueling scheduling problems involving planes, helicopters and hand crews.

In some cases, grants have been provided, as in the case of the Golder Ranch Fire District which received a $14,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service recently to develop Direct Action Plans for the Catalina area that will include updating maps and water sources.

The Greater Catalina area presents one of the district's greatest risk areas because of the isolated homes and narrow roads, unlike other areas designated as master planned communities, said Capt. John Sullivan of the Golder District.

The department, which has 59 firefighters covering 64 square miles, extending out to 72 miles to cover the Florence and Oracle highways, also was planning last week to initiate a Structural Protection Plan that calls for the placement of red tags on homes at risk of fire because of heavy fuel loads or other problems and green tags on homes that have checked out for low fire risk.

Rural/Metro Fire Department, with its 147 firefighters covering 230 square miles, has a similar program.

In addition to being as prepared as well as you can, a great deal of a firefighter's success depends simply on luck, said Sullivan, and that involves not having to deal with low humidity and being able to get there before the winds build up.

High winds present one of the most worrisome aspects, Sullivan said. "You've got to get to the fire quickly and deal with it aggressively."

One of the major uses of the $1 million in state emergency funding recently allocated will be to reinforce various fire department prevention patrols with two to three additional firemen working part-time to check on potentially dangerous areas of fuel buildup and to meet with homeowner associations and other groups to discuss ways to prevent fires.

Areas where such patrols have been established thus far include Oracle and Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains District of Coronado National Forest.

The money also is used to help pay for any aviation support fire departments might need, including helicopters, small planes to spread fire retardant and other aircraft used as airborne control towers and to deliver smoke jumpers to major conflagrations.

Areas currently being served by such aircraft include the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest near Holbrook and the town of Prescott.

The Arizona Land Department is the ultimate arbiter of how and where help for embattled fire departments will be deployed on state and private lands, said Melcher. Mutual aid agreements between departments kick in automatically when extra help is needed. On a state level, Arizona spends about $2 million a year battling fires on state and private lands, but is reimbursed by the federal government for a portion of that money, while Coronado National Forest, with its $6.5 million budget for firefighting, will be receiving additional financing from other federal sources for major fires.

As of May 1 of this year, there were 336 fires on state and private lands in Arizona, nearly twice the 10-year average and four times as many as during the same period last year when there were only 89 fires statewide by the same date, Melcher said.

In terms of acreage, fires have consumed more than 20,000 acres of state and private lands statewide through May 5, compared with just 139 acres through May 1 of last year and a 10-year average of 1,418 acres a year.

Just two years ago federal agencies spent an estimated $1.3 billion on fire suppression. The budget for this fiscal year ending Sept. 30 is $2.3 billion.

Two years ago, also, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, noted, more than 40,000 acres had burned in the Southwest by March and burning conditions were running four to six weeks ahead of schedule, presenting a potential for one of the worst national fire seasons ever.

Many of those fires, however, occurred in high timber country during a very dry spring, Melcher said. Then unusual June rains arrived to keep the lid on.

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