Southwest will have to wait for fire-stifling rain

By BOB CHRISTIE | June 22, 2011 | 3:29 AM EDT

The Monument fire continues to burn Tuesday, June 21, 2011 in Sierra Vista, Ariz. The fire that began on June 12 has burned 27,190 acres and 58 homes. It's 40 percent contained. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, David Kadlubowski) MARICOPA COUNTY OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES

PHOENIX (AP) — Crews have made significant progress attacking three major wildfires in Arizona, but fire danger across the Southwest will remain for weeks to come until seasonal rains arrive.

Storms that normally stop the fire threat in the Southwest aren't expected to come until mid-July at the soonest. Officials say that means the large blazes churning across Arizona's forestlands won't be the last.

The state has seen one of its most dangerous fire seasons in years, forestry officials said, with more than 1,500 fires burning 1,300 square miles so far. That total far exceeds 2010, when just 132 square miles burned across the state.

"We're not even into our really hot days," said Cam Hunter, Arizona's deputy state forester, noting that virtually all fires in the state have been human caused. "We're really dependent on people being as conscientious as they've ever been when they're doing anything that can cause a spark or has a flame and is an ignition source."

While rain and snow farther north has led to huge snowpack in the Sierra Nevada range and the Rockies, much of the South and Southwest has received less winter precipitation than normal.

A wildfire outlook issued by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, calls for above-normal fire potential in the Southwest through September, but normal or milder-than-normal fire conditions across the rest of the West.

Millions of acres across Arizona and New Mexico have been scorched in recent weeks. Firefighters also are battling tinder boxes in Texas, where officials said 22 fires currently burning have scorched 210 square miles and consumed at least three dozen homes.

And in Florida, hot and dry weather has sparked more than 3,600 blazes burning nearly 300 square miles acres. The outbreak has shown that even a small conflagration can be deadly. Two forest rangers were killed Monday while using bulldozers to plow around a 12-acre blaze near the Florida-Georgia state line.

Rains are expected to reduce the fire danger in Florida this week, but the Southwest's seasonal relief won't come until later, and it's expected to begin with a threat. The beginning of the annual monsoon season will probably spark more fires because of lightning, Hunter said.

But "once the monsoon kicks in, it's all over for both New Mexico and Arizona," said Rich Naden, a fire weather meteorologist at the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque, N.M., which coordinates fire resources for the region. "What we're figured out over the last decade is that we don't necessarily need record, earthshattering rain to end the likelihood of large fire incidents. It's just a matter of humidity."

The largest of the fires burning in the Southwest is in eastern Arizona, where a fire that broke out May 29 has consumed 825 square miles of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins. Although it's the biggest wildfire in state history, no lives have been lost.

A fire outside Sierra Vista in southern Arizona has destroyed at least 58 homes, and a blaze in the far southeastern part of the state has charred more than 330 square miles since it started May 8. That fire, dubbed Horseshoe Two, has destroyed 23 structures but was 95 percent contained.

In New Mexico, officials said conditions are abnormally dry. Much of the state is now in the grips of either severe to extreme drought. Grasslands began burning in late February and the threat has now moved into the state's higher elevation forests, where recent blazes have led to evacuations.

"That is what's making them get big real fast, just the dryness of the heavier, larger fuels and the abundance of grass. That's what the challenge is this year that's different than many other years," said New Mexico State Forester Tony Delfin.

In Texas, where the ground in heavily forested areas usually remains moist, drought has helped wildfires scorch about 4,800 square miles — more than any year in the state's history, according to the Texas Forest Service.

Blazes in that state this fire season are being blamed for four deaths — three firefighters battling separate blazes and a child killed in a car accident on a smoky interstate.


Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jacques Billeaud in Sierra Vista, Ariz.; Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M.; Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Fla.; Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Navasota, Texas; and Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth, Texas.