Fire Hazard Weather

High wind and dry conditions are a bad mix.

I’ve been watching the northwestern Arizona weather carefully for the past few days, checking National Weather Service forecasts for Wickenburg (where I live) and Kingman. I had a flying gig at Wickieup this weekend and although I didn’t expect much revenue from it, it was an opportunity for Mike and I to escape home responsibilities for a few days and camp out with some extremely unusual folks. Wickieup is 2/3 of the way between Wickenburg and Kingman, so I figured that if I extrapolated between the two, I’d get a good forecast.

The forecast wasn’t good. It called for high winds — 30 mph or more — on Saturday and Sunday. Although I have flown (and I suppose I will fly) in winds up to 50 mph (not recommended, folks), the landing zone in Wickieup is on a narrow ridge with one way in and out while the event was going on. If the wind was coming from the northwest, I’d be operating with a tailwind, which is always a bad idea when you have a heavy load at 4,000+ feet elevation. The area is very mountainous, so all that wind going over the mountains would make for a rough ride. The end result: me operating in marginal conditions to give my passengers rides that they might not enjoy.

Since I’m just coming off a month-long period of heavy flying — I flew about 50 hours in the past 30 days — I decided that it just wasn’t worth it to spend the weekend. So we flew up for the day, did a few rides, watched the activities — more on that in another post — and flew home.

When we got home, I checked the weather again, mostly to make sure I’d made the right decision about the weekend. (I had.) The Wickenburg weather forecast included something I’d never seen before: a Fire Hazard Watch. Here’s what it said when I checked it again this morning:

...FIRE WEATHER WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM LATE TONIGHT THROUGH SUNDAY EVENING DUE TO STRONG AND GUSTY NORTH WINDS AND LOW RELATIVE HUMIDITY..

A LOW PRESSURE SYSTEM IS DEVELOPING OVER THE WESTERN STATES THIS MORNING. THE COLD FRONT ASSOCIATED WITH THIS SYSTEM WAS LOCATED IN NEVADA AND WILL CONTINUE TO MOVE SOUTHWARD TODAY AND TONIGHT. SUSTAINED NORTH WINDS OF 20 TO 30 MPH WITH HIGHER GUSTS APPROACHING 45 MPH MAY DEVELOP ON SUNDAY. IN ADDITION...VERY LOW RELATIVE HUMIDITY CAN BE EXPECTED. THE COMBINATION OF STRONG WINDS AND VERY LOW HUMIDITY MAY CREATE HAZARDOUS FIRE WEATHER CONDITIONS.

(Sorry about the ALL CAPS, but that’s the way they publish them.)

This warning just emphasizes how dry it can be here in the desert. I can’t remember the last time it rained here — maybe a month ago? We have plenty of stretches where it doesn’t rain for two or more months. Not long ago, Phoenix had a record 143-day dry spell. That’s almost 5 months!

The weather, in case you’re wondering, is almost always clear here, with bright blue skies. During our dry season — which is 8 to 10 months out of the year — there are rarely any clouds at all. Sure it’s beautiful, but it gets a bit tedious at times. You find yourself wishing for some cloud activity. You find yourself wishing for rain.

Right now, there’s a fire burning north of Wickenburg, although I’m not sure exactly where. We saw the smoke as we flew home from Wickieup. I have a feeling it’s somewhere southwest of Williams, AZ, perhaps in the Big Chino Wash area. There was another one burning southeast of Flagstaff when I flew back from Flag with passengers last Friday. In this dryness, it doesn’t take much to get a fire going. And when the wind kicks up, a small fire can quickly turn into an out-of-control blaze.

Yet people will continue to toss their cigarette butts out their car windows as they drive on highways and back roads. I can see the results of their carelessness as I fly around the state. Acres and acres burned east of Vulture Mine Road just south of Wickenburg. More burned along I-40, I-10, I-17, and SR-89. Signs up and down the highways proclaim Fire Danger Extreme, but no one stops to think of the consequences of a tiny cigarette butt or the sparks from an ATV or dirt bike. Those signs are for other people.

While I don’t expect a fire to break out in the area this weekend, I hope one doesn’t. If it does, with the high winds that are expected, we could get clouds — clouds of smoke.

What do you think?