Southwest Drought Could Lead to Nasty Fire Season

The southwest is suffering through its driest winter in decades. Arizona's mountain passes, normally covered in several feet of snow, have no snow at all this season. Wildlife is suffering, and this year's fire season could turn out to be one of the worst on record.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. It's been four and a half months since any measurable rain fell at the airport in Phoenix. Santa Fe is having the driest winter since 1890. There have already been fires in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports on the record-breaking Southwest drought.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

During March, usually, snow would make this trail in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson too slippery to walk on. The pine and fur forest it cuts through would be covered in white. Not this year.

University of Arizona climatologist Gregg Garfin and I step off the trail. Last winter was unusually wet, so plants grew well. Now they've dried out. We're walking through brown brush that comes up to our armpits.

Mr. GREGG GARFIN (University of Arizona): It's very dried out, it's brittle, it's not green. And basically, as you can tell, you just have to put a match to this and things would take off pretty quickly.

ROBBINS: Even now, this early in the year?

Mr. GARFIN: Yeah, yeah.

ROBBINS: Arizona's governor has already declared a state of emergency to free up firefighting resources, and a number of national forests have campfire restrictions in place.

Tom Pagano, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has been monitoring 34 mountain sites across the Southwest.

Mr. TOM PAGANO (Natural Resources Conservation Service): And what's unusual this year is that they have no snow at all. There's a lot of sites that are snow free for the first time in, you know, for as long as we've been collecting measurements for 50 or more years.

ROBBINS: And fire is only one problem. Snow melt replenishes the region's water supplies. The lack of it means trouble for rural communities, communities like Summerhaven at the top of the Catalina Mountains. Carol Mack, who runs the general store, says she won't be surprised if the municipal water supply runs out this summer.

Ms. CAROL MACK: I'm already planning on purchasing a water, 2,000-gallon water tank to have a secondary source of water plumbed into my home and business.

ROBBINS: Tom Pagano says at least cities should not be affected too much because they rely on large underground aquifers and reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Mr. PAGANO: It's like a bank account and, you know, the bank is full of water that's left over from last year and that should carry on through this year, no matter how bad it is.

ROBBINS: But cities are having other problems. No rain means stagnant air. The Phoenix area has violated air quality standards on 29 days since October. The area had only 15 violations in the previous five years. Phoenix residents might have to get used to it. Last year's wet winter may just have been a break.

Climatologist Gregg Garfin says we're in a prolonged weather pattern called La Nina, created by cooler ocean temperatures.

Mr. GARFIN: There is evidence that Pacific Ocean circulation changed in around 1999 to a kind of behavior that would favor long-term drought in the Southwest and, by and large, wetter conditions in the Northwest part of the country. And looking through past droughts, once we've been in five, six, seven years of it, chances are we're in there for 15, 20 or more years.

ROBBINS: In the short term, general store owner Carol Mack is hoping for a white Easter.

Ms. MACK: My hopes are that I still have the rest of March, and hopefully most of April to still get some precipitation, because it's been not unheard of to get moisture in March and April.

ROBBINS: Carol Mack already knows the dangers of drought. This is her second general store. The first one burned down three years ago, with more than 300 other buildings in the Aspen Fire.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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