ORACLE - More than a dozen local, state and federal firefighting agencies gathered Tuesday to train for what could be an active fire season in Southern Arizona.
The choice of Oracle for the drill became clear as Capt. Scott Garcia of Golder Ranch Fire District briefed trainees on "triage" decisions they face for homes in jeopardy from fire in a thick stand of oak and brush along Cody Loop.
"This whole town of Oracle has no safety zone," he said. "If we get a fast-moving fire that's got a wind behind it, we're probably not going to spend much time here."
The oak woodland surrounding most of the homes in this town is always a source of concern when Arizona's brutal spring dries the grasses and chaparral beneath them.
Right now, those winter grasses are bright green shoots, but they are surrounded by the dessicated remains of knee-tall grasses that grew in last summer's monsoon rains. They sit beneath denuded husks of catclaw and other desert plants that have yet to leaf out.
Some of the agencies gathered here are already in the midst of an early fire season.
Some State Land Department crews did not make it to the drill, having been detoured Monday to a 66-acre fire south of Willcox.
The Coronado National Forest has battled 16 small fires already this year, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Schewel. The Coronado's Santa Catalina Ranger District borders Oracle.
Leftover monsoon grasses have been burning in the area's dry watercourses. Trinna Motto, spokeswoman for Northwest Fire District, said her agency has battled fires recently in the Rillito and the Santa Cruz River.
A regional forecast by the Southwest Coordination Center shows an above-normal chance for significant fire potential in western New Mexico and Southeastern Arizona by May or June, though the long-term weather forecast is unsettled enough that it could produce some redeeming moisture.
"The thing that really stands out to me is the lack of snowpack in the high country," said Rodgers Wright, assistant fire management officer for the Coronado National Forest.
The north slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains, seen from Oracle, still contain some patchy snow, but the little snow that fell this winter is mostly gone, Wright said.
The same is true on Mount Graham near Safford, the highest of the Coronado's Sky Island forests and a particular concern this year.
Wright said a similar dire forecast last year did not come true. "It's weather- and fuels-dependent," he said, and some strategic rain will help.
The goal is always to keep things under control until monsoon moisture comes in early July.
The only controllable factor, said Wright, is the ignition source. "If everybody keeps their matches in their pocket, we're fine," he said.
Oracle, meanwhile, continues to prepare for fire. The Forest Service, State Land Department and community agencies have been building a fire break around the town and thinning and masticating brush for the past five years, a 14,000-acre project called the Oracle Ridge Ecosystem Restoration Project.
On Tuesday, crews worked to thin trees in the vicinity of the Triangle Y Camp as fire crews trained nearby and resident Holt Bodinson watched approvingly.
Bodinson said he's confident that his year-round preparations and the skill of local firefighters will keep his home safe. "I'm very fire-wise," he said.
On StarNet: Read more articles on past wildfires in Arizona and other Western states at azstarnet.com/wildfire
Contact reporter Tom Beal at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4158.