Originally Published: January 6, 2007 4 a.m.
Exactly a year ago, forest fire managers in Arizona were starting to get really nervous.
Natural Resources Conservation Service snow surveys at the start of the new year in 2006 found absolutely no snowpack at 34 of the 38 sites in Arizona, including the entire Verde River Basin.
Phoenix hadn't seen a drop of rain since Oct. 18. That might as well have been the case for Prescott too, since all it saw since Oct. 18 was 0.03 inches on Nov. 11.
Then in January and February, Prescott saw only one break in the dry spell, three-fourths of an inch of snow on Jan. 15.
In a state where the high country's wildfire season rarely begins before May, the February Fire broke out in the Mogollon Rim's pine forest on Feb. 6. Heavy air tankers were flying out of the Prescott Fire Center.
By Valentine's Day, the National Weather Service was issuing a critical fire weather watch for the Prescott area too, and forecasting a severe wildfire season. The governor declared a state of emergency Feb. 22. The next day, three national forests in Arizona instituted fire-use restrictions.
February ended without one drop of rain or snow in Prescott.
The La Niña weather pattern wasn't bringing any hope for relief. The long-term forecast was bleak.
Then came a break in La Niña, with a series of March storms that dumped 11.5 inches of snow in Prescott. Ironically, firefighters training at the Arizona Wildfire Academy in Prescott had to camp in the snow.
"Without that March, we would've burned down," recalled Mike Staudenmaier, science officer for the National Weather Service office in Flagstaff.
Even in the midst of La Niña, it's not uncommon to see one good month of precipitation, he noted.
"Several of our miracle months have come in March or April" during La Niña winters, he said.
It was just enough to dampen the wildfire danger until the usual dry months of May and June came along. The Prescott National Forest began fire restrictions May 12.
While the Prescott area dodged the bullet on any serious wildfire damage, the focus in 2006 was the Sedona area. First came the La Barranca Fire on June 1 that burned a home and outbuilding in the Village of Oak Creek.
Then the Brins Fire broke out June 19 and threatened one of the most scenic spots in Arizona, Oak Creek Canyon. Firefighters evacuated more than 400 homes and businesses in the canyon and closed the entire Coconino National Forest. But in the end, they were able to hold back the flames.
Crown King had its scare, too. The tiny community about 30 miles south of Prescott was bracing to evacuate from the double threat of the Tiger Fire that burst onto the scene June 30 and then the Rock Hill fire that kicked up July 1 on the Prescott Forest. But Mother Nature poured a half-inch of rain on the flames the night of June 30 and helped save the historic community.
Despite numerous other lightning-caused wildfires, timely pre-monsoonal rains kept them in check. Arizona saw 177,403 acres burn, the lowest acreage since 2001, although 2006 was a record year nationwide.
July ushered in heat records nationwide, including several in Prescott.
The monsoon officially ran from July 2 through Sept. 14. It produced below-average rainfall for Prescott in July and August, but then picked up in September. October was another good month for rain in northern Arizona. On the downside, Oak Creek Canyon experienced several mudslides in the Brins Fire area that closed Highway 89A.
Since then, precipitation has been hard to come by, just like the start of 2006.
The year ended with only 61 percent of its average precipitation in Prescott.
Good news came when the Weather Service announced an El Niño weather pattern was forming with warming Pacific waters, but so far, it hasn't helped Arizona.
That's normal, Staudenmaier said. El Niño usually affects us most in the months of January through April.
El Niño needs more than warm sea-surface temperatures to boost the Southwest's precipitation; it also needs storms near the vicinity of the equator and international dateline in the Pacific. Those storms are what carry the warm, moist air this way.
"I call it an atmospheric bridge," Staudenmaier said. "It's very complicated."
Forecasters now have upgraded El Niño to a moderate event versus a weak event that wouldn't help Arizona at all, Staudenmaier said. And storms are starting to form in the right places.
But for now, Arizona is experiencing a winter drought. Snowpack is 40 percent of average in the Verde River Basin.
And even if El Niño brings a break, when it's over, Arizona probably will fall back into the drought pattern it's been experiencing since 1995.
"A lot of people don't realize we're still in a drought," Staudenmaier observed.
While El Niño could help, it typically produces warmer-than-average temperatures in Prescott that bring more rain than snow.
Globally, six of the seven warmest years on record have occurred since 2001, and 2006 was the sixth warmest on record.
Arctic sea ice continued to melt at a rate of 8 percent per decade, at the same pace it's been melting since records began in 1979, prompting the U.S. government to consider placing the polar bear on the endangered species list.
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