drought monitor feb.jpg

It’s official: Buckle up.

Despite the recent snow, the US Weather Service says Arizona’s says we all face a mostly normal February, a hot, dry spring and an early, scary fire season.

The widespread snow dramatically reduce the moisture of the fuels in the forest. Before the storm, we were flirting with an all-time record “energy release component (ERC)” when it comes to the moisture content of plants and downed wood on the forest floor. Now as the snowfall melts away, fuels are much wetter than normal for this time of the year.

But that’s about it for the good news.

The forecast gives about equal odds February will be either drier and hotter than normal or cooler and wetter than normal. Translation — bet on normal rain and cold for the next three weeks.

After that, things go south.

The odds are we’ll have “warmer and drier average conditions” February through April.

And that leads to another sweating-bullets fire season, with higher than normal temperatures and probably normal rainfall. Unfortunately, in May and June normal amounts to zilch. Even in a normal year, both Show Low and Payson get a total of about an inch of rain for those two months combined.

That adds up to odds of a “significant wildland fire outlook” and a continuation of the current exceptional drought over much of the state.

The above-normal risk of wildfire will start in the lower elevations in April and move up into the White Mountains in May and June.

At that point, we’ll have to hope the monsoon shows up early and wet, as opposed to last year’s “nonsoon.” Unfortunately, a lot of the climate models based on the steady rise in average global temperatures suggest the monsoon will likely grow ever more fickle in Arizona. That means we’ll have an increase in years with hardly any monsoon as well as years with unusually violent storms. Worst of all will be relatively dry years that nonetheless bring a lot of dry lightning storms – which set fires without dampening the fuels.

What we really need is a whole month of big storms heading into spring — enough to at least temporarily banish drought all across the state. That’s what we got last year.

This year — don’t hold your breath.

Despite the recent storm, almost all of Navajo County and the southern half of Apache County remain in “exceptional” drought. Northern Apache County on the high plains of the Navajo Reservation are now in merely “extreme” drought.

The entire state’s in drought right now, compared to just 30% at the same time last year, when we were just transitioning from a wet winter to a bone-dry spring and summer.

We’re currently in record territory, as measured by how much of the state remains in drought at the this point in the winter. Conditions right now dwarf the worst fire seasons on record, including the years that spawned the Wallow, the Schultz, the Yarnell and the Rodeo Chediski. The closest comparisons would be the Tinder Fire in 2018 and the Bush Fire last year. Last year coming off a much wetter winter, Arizona essentially tied the all-time record for acres burned – nearly one million.

So don’t put off weeding, clearing brush from around the house, keeping roofs and gutters cleared of leaves and pine needles and packing up that emergency evacuation box.

Fortunately, we’ve got a little time yet before the scary months – with more or less normal rain and temperatures in February.

In Show Low, February normally averages 1.08 inch of rain and 4 inches of snow. February temperatures average 58 degrees on the high side and 31 on the low side.

As of late last week, the some of the streams flowing out of the White Mountain and off the Rim were bolstered by the melting snow while other remains below normal. Salt River at Roosevelt was running at just 46% of normal and the Verde River at 86% of normal. However, Tonto Creek was running at 146% of normal, according to the Salt River Project’s daily water report.

Fortunately, Roosevelt Lake remained 82% full, with the downstream reservoirs on the Salt River more than 90%.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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