Napolitano: More Communities Could Face Wildfire Risk This Year in Arizona

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- Bumper crops of grasses and weeds that have sprouted in the desert during an exceptionally wet winter have some people worried about potential fuel for wildfires in Arizona this year.

But the consensus among firefighters and state land managers is that blazes will burn at lower elevations and in locations that haven't been scorched since the last wet spell a decade ago.

Grassland and brush fires tend to be less costly and lengthy than forest fires, but when the flames are propelled by the wind, they can easily outrun firefighters and their vehicles.

This year's most fire-prone areas also tend to have plenty of homes, Gov. Janet Napolitano said Tuesday at her third annual forest health conference in Prescott.

''I think we'll have, if anything, more communities at risk of fire this year than in previous years,'' she said.

State fire-prevention officer Cliff Pearlberg said he's already seeing some grass turn brown around Phoenix.

''Central Arizona is where we'll have the most potential,'' he said.

Despite all the rain this winter around Arizona, the drought isn't over, said Jim Paxon, a former U.S. Forest Service spokesman. ''We have a respite. In the meantime, we've grown a lot of fuel for wildfires, everywhere from downtown Phoenix to Nogales to Bisbee to Wickenburg, and perhaps even the outskirts of Flagstaff.''

Although a drought-induced bark beetle outbreak peaked in 2002 and 2003, the forests are now clogged with deadwood, said Diane Vosick, associate director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.

''All that fuel is on the ground just waiting for a dry year,'' Vosick said.

The federal government identifies 158 Arizona communities at risk of wildfires, and 64 of them have completed plans that prioritize what areas need pruning and prescribed burns.