Arizona Worried Wildflowers Will Go Up in Smoke

Arizona's spectacular wildflower season has a downside. All of that showy vegetation is now drying out and creating a wildfire hazard.

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Unusually heavy winter rains brought a stellar wildflower season in the desert Southwest. But as the floral show nears an end and the summer heat sets in, locals are bracing for what could be the downside of that wet winter: wildfire. Mitch Teich of Arizona public radio explains why.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

MITCH TEICH reporting:

It's a spectacular morning at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum about an hour east of Phoenix, temperatures in the mid-80s and a sky so blue it's hard to believe there have ever been clouds here, much less storms which brought more than a foot of rain earlier this year. The Sonoran Desert looks lush with yellow blooms of palo verde trees and bright red octatiel plants(ph) everywhere.

Mr. KIM STONE (Horticulturist, Boyce Thompson Arboretum): The plants are--not only more of them, but they're more robust. There's more of each plant. You know, they're just bigger, fatter, happier plants.

TEICH: Kim Stone is a horticulturist here. As he runs his hands through dried-out red brome grass, he says all this life has a downside.

Mr. STONE: You know, it's funny. I'm just--right now I'm breaking the stems, but you can feel the stems, and ironically it almost sounds like fire, crackling of fire.

TEICH: And as daytime temperatures begin to climb into the 90s and beyond, all these plants will begin to fry.

Mr. STONE: Everything is just going to get drier and drier and drier as the season goes on, until the monsoon kicks in in July.

TEICH: Those dried-out plants will stay on the desert floor until either rain washes them away or something else gets them, something else like fire. Land managers fear lightning could touch off a blaze, but so could a discarded cigarette or a hot exhaust pipe. That's why, despite all the rain, state and federal agencies have already imposed fire restrictions in some areas. Vinnie Picard is with the Tonto National Forest, a forest which, in many areas, has more cacti than trees.

Mr. VINNIE PICARD (Tonto National Forest): What complicates the fire season down here in the desert is those fine fields, the grasses and that brush. They burn fast with the strong wind, and they spread faster than people, I think, realize.

TEICH: The part of the Tonto National Forest closest to Phoenix gets around 50,000 visitors a day during the summer, and any one of them could inadvertently start a major wildfire.

Mr. PICARD: In these desert areas, fire isn't a natural part, and so we don't do prescribed fires because fire is not a good part of the system. It kills cactus and, really, isn't something that we want to see. So it is different.

TEICH: So unlike in more typical forests, they can't do thinning or controlled burns. So Arizona's fire prevention efforts this summer will depend on getting the word out to homeowners, who can clear brush from their yards, and to tourists, who come to visit. But Arizonans are hopeful fire doesn't cause major problems this season. And if all goes well, all the seeds from this year's wildflowers could spell an even more colorful spring next year. For NPR News, I'm Mitch Teich.

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