Wet Winter May Delay, Soften Arizona Fire Season

PHOENIX (AP) -- Heavy winter rains that have drenched the Southwest may mean a delayed, less severe fire season, said an outlook report from a government monitoring group.

Above-average rain across much of the region accompanied by possibly higher-than-normal temperatures in the next few months suggest the fire season will begin later and may intensify in May, said a January report by the Southwest Coordination Center in New Mexico.

``Assuming the prediction for the remainder of winter is accurate, the Southwest area is in the enviable position of not having to depend on unreliable spring precipitation to avert a potentially severe fire season,'' the report said.

In a region that has been haunted by an almost decade-long drought, fire season routinely starts as early as February. The rains are also expected to recharge groundwater stocks hurt by the drought.

But the longer the moisture lingers, the taller and thicker vegetation will grow, which means more fuel for brush fires later in the year, said Kirk Rowdabaugh, a state forestry official.

Wildfires have destroyed hundreds of homes in Arizona and cost millions to fight over the last few years. Arizona experienced its largest wildfire in 2002, when a fire burned 469,000 acres, destroyed 491 buildings and forced the evacuation of 30,000 people.