Our View: Delayed shutdown effect may be seen in fire season

January 30, 2019

There are serious consequences from the federal shutdown. Many are already felt. Others will be felt later, including some in Arizona.

Even with a temporary reopening, the backlog of work at closed agencies is and will affect people and businesses around the country for months.

Of particular concern for this region is preparing for wildfire season, a season that never really stops but at least slows down in winter. The weather provides a window that’s open now but will close before long.

In the past week, fires have burned around Payson and around Prescott. Fortunately, since federal firefighters are on furlough, state and local firefighters did the work.

This relatively slow season for fires is the time when fire officials need to do a lot of work in forests to help mitigate fire damage during the height of the season.

Now is the time of year when forests are thinned and controlled burns are set. These are important to forest health and in preventing the types of fires that can devastate hundreds of thousands of acres. They need doing while there’s some moisture around.

Needless to say, this isn’t happening in federal forests yet this year.

What does it portend? Based on 2018 fire statistics recently released for Arizona, we suspect it means more early fire restrictions and more closures of public lands.

Arizona was poised for a horrific season last year. Officials kicked in fire restrictions early. Then they did something for the first time in a decade: They closed big sections of forests that are traditional havens of recreation for Arizonans seeking cool summer retreats.

The good news is that the season didn’t turn out so bad. There were fewer wildfires and fires burned a lot fewer acres.

The Forestry and Fire Management Department credits the restrictions and closures but there was some good luck involved, too. Lightning doesn’t respect those man-made rules and usually starts a lot of the summer fires.

The state escaped the worst of it, aided by a strong early monsoon season.

A spotty El Nino is bringing more moisture to the state this year than last. This appears helpful, but it can be a two-edged sword if rain and snow ends early because it can set up a burst of vegetation growth that quickly turns tinder dry.

The effects of the shutdown have been minimal thus far in western Arizona compared to many parts of the country.

Even a quick end to it, though, will mean work on federal lands to hold off wildfires will be way behind schedule. That delayed effect won’t be seen until summer when desert dwellers wonder why the forests are again closed.

— Today’s News-Herald

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