Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

February 22, 2006


Host: Michael Grant

Fire-Weather


  • The anticipated severe fire season and the ongoing drought bring many significant issues to Arizona. HORIZON profiles northern Arizona’s Incident Meteorologist who provides continuous weather forecasts to fire fighters. In studio, we discuss how weather plays a role in fire events and other issues with Weather Service Meteorologist Tony Haffer and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Incident Commander Jeff Whitney, whose job it is to oversee all activities at a fire fight.
Guests:
  • Keith Russell - Maricopa County assessor
  • Tony Haffer - weather service meteorologist
  • Jeff Whitney - U.S. Wildlife service incident commander


View Transcript

Michael Grant:
Tonight on Horizon, Maricopa county property valuation notices will be mailed out at the end of this month. We'll talk about the valuations and the impact to property owners. Plus, Arizona's forest fire managers are preparing for an early and severe fire season. Information -- like up to the minute weather forecasts -- is the key to managing fires when they occur. Those stories next on Horizon.

Announcer:
Horizon is made possible by The Friends of Channel 8, members whop provide financial support to this Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Michael Grant:
Good evening. I'm Michael Grant. Welcome to Horizon. You might get a bit of a shock when you open your mail soon after February 27. That's the date the Maricopa County assessor's office will send out a "notice of value" to every single property owner in the county. That number is used to figure your property taxes, and it will reflect the increase in property values over the past two years, which as we all know, have skyrocketed. Here to calm us down about that notice is Maricopa County assessor Keith Russell.

Michael Grant:
Keith, do you think you'll be successful in calming us down?

Keith Russell:
We certainly will are going to try, Michael. Good to be here with you today. Thank you.

Michael Grant:
It is a combination -- it's a two-year process so in addition to the just enormous valuation increase you've seen here in the past 12 months you've also got another 12 months to add on to that?

Keith Russell:
That's correct. For residential property it will reflect two years worth of appreciation, for commercial property and vacant land it will only be one year.

Michael Grant:
And we obviously tend to focus mostly on residential property. But these go out to all properties in the county?

Keith Russell:
All properties. We are male mailing on the 27th next Monday approximately 1.3 million notices of value.

Michael Grant:
Now, this is a notice, right?

Keith Russell:
Yes, it is.

Michael Grant:
It is not a tax bill. Explain the difference between the two.

Keith Russell:
Thank you. And absolutely. It is just a notice of our assessed value. This is not a tax bill. It will not turn into a tax bill for over 18 months. This will be titled "the 2007 notice of value"." and so the taxes won't be collected until the fall of 2007 on this notice.

Michael Grant:
Explain the time table involved there. I mean, why are we sending out a valuation notice, obviously in the spring or so of 2006 when it doesn't lock in until the fall of 2007.

Keith Russell:
Sure. One of the things that's important for property owners to understand when they get this notice is, if they can not sell their property for the amount of the value that's reflected on the notice they have appeal rights. We basically will spend most of this year doing those appeals, giving the property owner an opportunity to demonstrate if they feel like we have made a mistake with that valuation. One of the important things, though, with that is they need to act relatively quickly. On the notice there is a date by which an appeal has to be filed. It's basically 60 days from when the notice is mailed. If you get involved in the process after that you start to loose some of those appeal rights.

Michael Grant:
All right. I want to walk a little bit more in detail through that process. But first the valuation itself. I think we heard roughly 45\% plus appreciation for the past 12 months or so period.

Keith Russell:
Right.

Michael Grant:
There was a fairly good increment, was there not, the prior year?

Michael Grant:
I mean, it wasn't in that category.

Keith Russell:
It wasn't that magnitude.

Michael Grant:
But it was still a good increase, wasn't it?

Keith Russell:
Yes, it was, absolutely. So we're going to be reflecting two years worth of appreciation for residential properties. We will be in the percent of about 50\% increase from where we were two years allege.

Michael Grant:
So just illustratively using round numbers for ease of reference, you get a $200,000 $200,000 house you may see that thing going to $300,000.

Keith Russell:
You may see it going up that much. Of course these are only averages. There are neighborhoods increasing a little bit faster, other neighborhoods increasing a little bit slower.

Michael Grant:
How close is this valuation supposed to be to fair market valuation as you put it, what you could sell your house for?

Keith Russell:
It's intended to be less than what you can tell sell your property for. It is a reflection of the market conditions. So as property values go up, the assessed value will also be increasing. And conversely if the market values went down, the assessed value would also be doing the same going down.

Michael Grant:
And in preparing these, does the -- I take it the assessor takes a look at things like comparable and recent sales in your neighborhood to ascertain the value.

Keith Russell:
That is the process for residential properties. We look at comparable sales that are happening in the neighborhood and try to account for the differences between your property and your neighbor's property down the street that just sold.

Michael Grant:
Okay. I pop open the envelope. I see $300,000. After I've come down off the ceiling and I'm thinking, what can I do about this?

Michael Grant:
What can I do about this?

Keith Russell:
On the notice of value you will have a form that you can fill out and mail into us to get the process started. Or you can go to the website to get the process started. Or you can just simply call the office and we'll send you the information and application to get involved in the appeal process.

Michael Grant:
So the first stage is through the assessor's office itself?

Keith Russell:
Yes.

Michael Grant:
And then if you are -- don't need to get into horrendous detail here, but if you're still dissatisfied with that result you can take that without get yet going to court you can take that up to some additional rates, can't you?

Keith Russell:
The first level is an inch informal meeting with the assessor's office. If your you dissatisfied with the results of that you can appeal, if you appeal within 25 days to the state board of equalization. That's an independent body which is set up to hear the appeal. The property owner or representative can come in and make their case. My office will come in and make our case and they make an independent decision.

Michael Grant:
What do I need to arm myself with?

Michael Grant:
And incidentally, what is the target here?

Michael Grant:
What are you trying to gosh 300,000 bucks, this is bad. How do I fill in that blank?

Michael Grant:
For what reasons and with what information?

Keith Russell:
You need to be making an argument basically the same as the argument we're making. Such as neighborhood, homes and sales in the neighborhood have not been going up or did not reflect basically that valuation that we've assigned to the property. If you have a similar house down the street and it sold for say 250 and you're at 300 that would be a great argument for the case.

Michael Grant:
How do I go about getting that data?

Michael Grant:
I may know that the house three doors down sold, but I probably don't intuitively know precisely what it sold for.

Keith Russell:
Our website has got a lot of that information on it. If somebody wants to go to Maricopa.gov they can click in on the upper left hand corner on the assessor and you can follow the links and actually do research on sales in your neighborhood.

Michael Grant:
And does the information that's contained on the site also give you more than just a sales price number?

Michael Grant:
Because as you point out, it needs to be a comparable kind of property of bedrooms, acreage, whatever the case may be.

Keith Russell:
It doesn't give a lot but it does give some information, for example the year it was built, the size of the property. You can look and see the size of the lot on the website. So that type of information is there. But we don't drill down very deeply.

Michael Grant:
How deeply does the assessor's office drill in terms of forming its own opinions?

Michael Grant:
Will it use trend lines and those kinds of things?

Michael Grant:
Or is it actually doing in a certain radius, whatever would be the relevant neighborhood, I suppose, a singular examination of recent comparable sales and if they are comparable and that kind of thing?

Keith Russell:
We compile the sales data from the areas and we put it into computer models. This last year we had about 70 different computer models that try to take into consideration the differences between your property and the properties in the neighborhood that have sold. So we actually are doing a real analysis based on each individual property.

Michael Grant:
And on the notices themselves, I know at one point in time there was a problem where if you had, oh, impound accounts or you were paying your payments to an agent who then busted them up, sent some of the money to the county and some of the money to the insurance company and some of the money to the mortgage holder, sometimes that mail would not get through. Are these mailed to the actual home addresses?

Keith Russell:
Yes. These are male mailed to the actual home addresses.

Michael Grant:
If on the other hand you don't see this show up in the next couple of weeks, is there a number that you can -- or an office that you can get in touch with?

Keith Russell:
Absolutely. You can call the office or the information will be posted on the website within just a few days after the notices are mail mailed. But you can call 602-506-3406 and we have operators standing by. We've actually beefed up the staff that will be answering the phones in anticipation of a number of calls with questions on exactly what this means.

Michael Grant:
Okay. But again, probably wait at least a few days.

Keith Russell:
A few days.

Michael Grant:
Into next week or so.

Keith Russell:
Absolutely.

Michael Grant:
Okay. Keith Russell, thank you very much for joining us. I guess we'll wait with baited breath.

Keith Russell:
Thank you. Good to be here with you.

Michael Grant:
Fuel thinning and prescribed burn projects by the Payson ranger district in the Tonto national forest made fighting the February fire on the Mogollon rim a lot easier. Still, the extremely dry conditions in our state's high country has fire and forest managers concerned. In a moment we'll talk about how fire officials are gearing up for the season. First, Merry Lucero tells us about some information that is vital to the fire fighting efforts.

Merry Lucero:
The February fire was apparently started by an abandoned camp fire in the Tonto national forest on the Mogollon rim. The fire eventually burned more than 4200-acres of Chaparral, Pine and Juniper. Before firefighters contained it, a lot of people worked a lot of different jobs at the base camp near Payson.

Walkie Talkie Exchange:
Tonto engine 26 on channel 4.

Merry Lucero:
Every task from talking with firefighters on the front line to stocking much needed supplies like bottled water is important to keeping the camp running smoothly. The fire personnel supported and the communication flowing. One individual who plays a key role in updating information is the incident meteorologist.

Mark Stubblefield:
As an incident meteorologist we're trained to know what types of weather patterns to look for, what types of storms would effect the firefighters. We have access to information that's just a few minutes old. So we're able to get that information especially if it's changing what was already forecast. We're able to get that to communications and out to the crews within minutes to alert them of wind shift of thunderstorm activity that's approaching the fire.

Merry Lucero:
Mark Stubblefield gets his information from a portable two way satellite dish that he can set up anywhere incident command base is, even remote forest locations. All he needs is generator power.

Mark Stubblefield:
Part of our job is to look at any storm fronts that would be coming in several days out. That helps the firefighters, the planners plan for an event like today where there's high wind expected and also low humidity.

Merry Lucero:
Up to the minute information about at a weather pattern like wind is crucial.

Mark Stubblefield:
This wind event not only effects the fire that's remaining remaining, it can stir it up, can push it. It also can knock down trees that have been weakened by the fire. The wind the previous week has been out of the other direction, out of the northeast. The wind today is out of the southwest.

Merry Lucero:
The base camp was slated to demobilize on this day. But with the wind that was up in the air.

Jean Gilbertson:
It is on hold. We did get word that there is another fire start up. It started on the rim and is on the Tonto. So they're holding the team in place to see what this fire does throughout the course of the day.

Merry Lucero:
The winds eventually calmed and the fire was contained. Weather information helps firefighters plan ahead for the fire season.

Mark Stubblefield:
One of the things that we look at to determine how bad a fire season would be is the climatological data, what has happened the last month over the winter and the fall. As you know, this winter and fall have been the driest on record in this area. And that helps fire planners, fire managers assess the type, the potential for large fire growth.

Merry Lucero:
Fire and forest managers had anticipated an early fire season just not quite this early.

Jean Gilbertson:
Well, this time of year the February fire, we normally never have fires in the winter. And the type of fire behavior that we're having on this -- that we had on this fire, is the type of fire behavior that we normally have in June.

Merry Lucero:
But the especially dry forest and lack of snow and rain has fire personnel gearing up for what's ahead, an early and potentially disastrous fire season.

Michael Grant:
Here with more on weather and fire is weather service meteorologist Tony Haffer, and US wildlife service incident commander Jeff Whitney, whose job it is to oversee all activities at a fire fight.

Michael Grant:
Toni, I avoided saying that other world word by calling you weather guy. Gentlemen, good to see you. Toni, we want to talk about a variety of things. But first why don't we get an up update. Where are we -- we're what?

Michael Grant:
Four months plus without rain. And you were pointing out if we hadn't had that little spritz in mid October it would be longer than that.

Tony Haffer:
We've had 125 days. Today will make 126 days here in Phoenix without even a drop of rain. And that's about as dry as it gets. It's a new record from that point of view. You're absolutely right. We only had a spritz of participation in October. The last heavier rain we've had had been a monsoon, so It's been almost half a year give or take that we've seen rainfall.

Michael Grant:
What's the pattern and is it still in place?

Michael Grant:
There's been this weak, high pressure with la Nina sitting for quite awhile.

Tony Haffer:
Yeah. La Nina is pretty well established now. It's not a very strong one but it is a la Nina event which means generally speaking the southwestern united states will see far less precipitation than they normally would in the wintertime. It's hard to have less than 0. But the bottom line is it looks like the dry conditions will continue. Not to say we won't see a wet period. In fact the weather charts are slow showing by some time over the middle of this next week this high pressure that has three deflected the storms north of Arizona is going to yield to a low pressure or trough which we meteorologists call. The hope is that the trough will bring with it some moisture and we might begin to see rainfall and snow fall in the higher elevations of Arizona next week.

Michael Grant:
When we say a weak law mean yeah, often, Tony, when we've had these kinds of dry spells in the traditionally wet season, it has however, the storm track has slid down enough that the northern third of the state would still get some precip. This has just forced it completely out of the state, which makes me wonder why we're calling it a weak la Nina. It seems pretty dang darn strong to me.

Tony Haffer:
Actually the reality to have of it is the la Nina has only become well established here in the first month or so. So the first part of winter which was precipitation free generally statewide which is rather amazing was not directly related to the la Nina per se. It was related to this blocking high pressure area we had deflecting everything over Arizona. Now that we've had the relief of high pressure area it looks like the process of any relief through the remainder of winter is very slim at best.

Michael Grant:
Jeff, I would think as a fire incident commander this has got to be your worst nightmare.

Jeff Whitney: It certainly has us concerned. We've been watching it all along with the weather service and with our predictive services folks. And it has a cumulative effect. We've had a series of years that have been drier than normal. And normal being a relative term. We had a couple of wet decades in the 80's and 90's. But we're in the midst of a long-term drought. And these conditions have an additive effect over time.

Michael Grant:
When was the February fire contained?

Jeff Whitney:
Well, it was the middle of last week. It was Wednesday they were in the process of transitioning. And I think just naming it the February fire speaks for itself. None of us recall ever having a large fire in February.

Michael Grant:
Yeah. I had made the comment that you know it's a bad fire season when you're naming fires -- one a month.

Michael Grant:
February fire. We mentioned forest thinning in the package. Did it help play a role?

Jeff Whitney:
Absolutely. It's really a big story. A very good friend of mine has a property up in brave creek and had partnered up with the forest service and with state land department and has had obtained a series of grants. This particular property has been in the family for several generations. He took it upon himself to do some very pro active work, take advantage of some government programs. And without the benefit of those projects it would have been extremely difficult and perhaps unlikely that the firefighters could have saved the property last week.

Michael Grant:
They were making the comment up there that the conditions they were seeing were June-type conditions.

Jeff Whitney:
Absolutely. It's a function of a combination of factors that we wrap into what we call an energy release component. It has to do with historic drought conditions or precipitation climate conditions, live and dead fuel moisture content, relative humidity temperature. And in the middle of February we're looking at late may-early June-like conditions. I think the fire behavior would indicate that that we saw on the February fire.

Michael Grant:
The snow pack conditions, Toni, read like a very bad novel up there. Some of the percentages that I was seeing a couple of weeks ago were just terrible.

Tony Haffer:
Yeah. We flew over up to Albuquerque to talk with the fire service a week or so ago. The whole route was snowless. It was less than normal. It was nothing there. There's very little if any on the San Francisco peak. So the bottom line is, the moisture that we normally would have to wet the fuels up during the wintertime has not been there. So everything is just primed for an incredible fire season.

Michael Grant:
Interesting role. We were talking about the incident meteorologist that -- see, I got it.

Tony Haffer:
I'm proud of you.

Michael Grant:
That's assigned at the site of fires like this. I would think that would be a pretty challenging assignment.

Tony Haffer:
It certainly is. We have incident meteorologists at a number of our offices around the western United States. And they provide weather support on scene to fire fighting activities. Geoff and his crew have a whole bunch of fire science to determine strategies for fighting the fire that they have at hand. But the probably the most important thing is just what the weather is doing and what it's expected to do so resources can be dealt with. We do have these folks that go on two-week stints out at a fire camp that provide weather support, they're in contact with our offices but they actually have information on the fire.

Michael Grant:
Jeff, do you trust these guys or not?

Jeff Whitney:
As difficult as it is to admit, we absolutely do. The only reason we do is because of their track record. They're extremely good at what they do. As I mentioned earlier, we asked them to focus in on a relatively small piece of real estate. It's not like trying to predict all of Arizona and making those generalities. So we're on an incident, we're looking at that location and they've got access to all of the weather service information. They process that for us real short turn around and we incorporate that virtually every 12 hours into our next planning process.

Michael Grant:
Now, your team is going to be interested in a variety of things that come immediately to mind. Obviously you'll be very concerned about winds, strength of winds. What other weather elements are you --

Jeff Whitney:
The wind is probably the big biggest thing that we really can't track. But obviously fast-moving low or high pressure systems, the onset of a little influx of humidity that's going to increase the thunderstorm activity. We've got people out on the ground. If you've got pop-up thunderstorms that's going to create a lot of different situations for us. So the advanced notice that we get -- it's real time and it's a short turn around but they do a phenomenal job of predicting what those local conditions are going to be. As you say, the winds are very important but there are a number of other factors that we press them on and they always deliver.

Michael Grant:
Now, are these -- and I'll use the term embedded weather guys, are they -- I take it they've got to have a data base. They've got to be tied in some way to weather service capabilities and getting inputs and information from a variety of different sources?

Tony Haffer:
You bet. We do provide routine weather forecasts to the fire management agencies, land management agency agencies for planning purposes. When there's a wildfire and it's big enough they'll bring Jeff in and a type 1 team in and generally we'll have a meteorologist brought in or ordered with the team. And the connection between our meteorologist in the field at the fire and the forecast office, for example here in Phoenix, is maintained. We have satellite communication. We talk on the phone a number of times. If there's something that we see in our office we can call them quickly and alert them to what's going on in the fire. Hence they can provide the incident commander and the rest of the firefighters with a heads up or what's going to come down the pike in the next few hours or so.

Michael Grant:
Let's look at ahead just a few weeks or so. March can sometimes be rainy. What do you think?

Tony Haffer:
Yes. We're hopeful that the first couple of weeks of march will show a turn about from what we've had all winter. As I mentioned, this trough that's been coming down and most mostly being deflected north of Arizona looks like we're going to see a good chance of it pass passing over Arizona first part of march. The question is, will we have any moisture for the trough or the upper air disturbance to act on and provide us with participation.

Michael Grant:
Jeff, I hate to rain on anybody's parade. But at this point in time we'll take anything we can get. But it really just shoves things back.

Jeff Whitney:
Our perspective on that and experience has been in the past that it's perhaps too little too late. It might push things back, might give us a little bit of relief for a few weeks. But we certainly anticipate a very is a fear fire season.

Michael Grant:
Jeff Whitney thanks to join joining us. Toni half, thanks to you as well. You can see transcripts of Horizon and find out about up upcoming topics on the website. The address is azpbs.org. Thank you very much for joining us this evening. I'm Michael Grant. Have a good night.

Announcer:
Horizon is made possible by The Friends of Channel 8. Members who provide financial support to this Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Immigration bill


  • Immigration continues to be a priority for the Arizona Legislature and at the forefront is Employer Sanctions. What bills have cleared committees and what do they consist of? Michael Grant talks to Senator Bill Brotherton about the bill he introduced earlier this month, which penalizes agencies who intentionally hire undocumented employees.
Guests:
  • Keith Russell - Maricopa County assessor
  • Tony Haffer - weather service meteorologist
  • Jeff Whitney - U.S. Wildlife service incident commander


View Transcript

Michael Grant:
Tonight on Horizon, Maricopa county property valuation notices will be mailed out at the end of this month. We'll talk about the valuations and the impact to property owners. Plus, Arizona's forest fire managers are preparing for an early and severe fire season. Information -- like up to the minute weather forecasts -- is the key to managing fires when they occur. Those stories next on Horizon.

Announcer:
Horizon is made possible by The Friends of Channel 8, members whop provide financial support to this Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Michael Grant:
Good evening. I'm Michael Grant. Welcome to Horizon. You might get a bit of a shock when you open your mail soon after February 27. That's the date the Maricopa County assessor's office will send out a "notice of value" to every single property owner in the county. That number is used to figure your property taxes, and it will reflect the increase in property values over the past two years, which as we all know, have skyrocketed. Here to calm us down about that notice is Maricopa County assessor Keith Russell.

Michael Grant:
Keith, do you think you'll be successful in calming us down?

Keith Russell:
We certainly will are going to try, Michael. Good to be here with you today. Thank you.

Michael Grant:
It is a combination -- it's a two-year process so in addition to the just enormous valuation increase you've seen here in the past 12 months you've also got another 12 months to add on to that?

Keith Russell:
That's correct. For residential property it will reflect two years worth of appreciation, for commercial property and vacant land it will only be one year.

Michael Grant:
And we obviously tend to focus mostly on residential property. But these go out to all properties in the county?

Keith Russell:
All properties. We are male mailing on the 27th next Monday approximately 1.3 million notices of value.

Michael Grant:
Now, this is a notice, right?

Keith Russell:
Yes, it is.

Michael Grant:
It is not a tax bill. Explain the difference between the two.

Keith Russell:
Thank you. And absolutely. It is just a notice of our assessed value. This is not a tax bill. It will not turn into a tax bill for over 18 months. This will be titled "the 2007 notice of value"." and so the taxes won't be collected until the fall of 2007 on this notice.

Michael Grant:
Explain the time table involved there. I mean, why are we sending out a valuation notice, obviously in the spring or so of 2006 when it doesn't lock in until the fall of 2007.

Keith Russell:
Sure. One of the things that's important for property owners to understand when they get this notice is, if they can not sell their property for the amount of the value that's reflected on the notice they have appeal rights. We basically will spend most of this year doing those appeals, giving the property owner an opportunity to demonstrate if they feel like we have made a mistake with that valuation. One of the important things, though, with that is they need to act relatively quickly. On the notice there is a date by which an appeal has to be filed. It's basically 60 days from when the notice is mailed. If you get involved in the process after that you start to loose some of those appeal rights.

Michael Grant:
All right. I want to walk a little bit more in detail through that process. But first the valuation itself. I think we heard roughly 45\% plus appreciation for the past 12 months or so period.

Keith Russell:
Right.

Michael Grant:
There was a fairly good increment, was there not, the prior year?

Michael Grant:
I mean, it wasn't in that category.

Keith Russell:
It wasn't that magnitude.

Michael Grant:
But it was still a good increase, wasn't it?

Keith Russell:
Yes, it was, absolutely. So we're going to be reflecting two years worth of appreciation for residential properties. We will be in the percent of about 50\% increase from where we were two years allege.

Michael Grant:
So just illustratively using round numbers for ease of reference, you get a $200,000 $200,000 house you may see that thing going to $300,000.

Keith Russell:
You may see it going up that much. Of course these are only averages. There are neighborhoods increasing a little bit faster, other neighborhoods increasing a little bit slower.

Michael Grant:
How close is this valuation supposed to be to fair market valuation as you put it, what you could sell your house for?

Keith Russell:
It's intended to be less than what you can tell sell your property for. It is a reflection of the market conditions. So as property values go up, the assessed value will also be increasing. And conversely if the market values went down, the assessed value would also be doing the same going down.

Michael Grant:
And in preparing these, does the -- I take it the assessor takes a look at things like comparable and recent sales in your neighborhood to ascertain the value.

Keith Russell:
That is the process for residential properties. We look at comparable sales that are happening in the neighborhood and try to account for the differences between your property and your neighbor's property down the street that just sold.

Michael Grant:
Okay. I pop open the envelope. I see $300,000. After I've come down off the ceiling and I'm thinking, what can I do about this?

Michael Grant:
What can I do about this?

Keith Russell:
On the notice of value you will have a form that you can fill out and mail into us to get the process started. Or you can go to the website to get the process started. Or you can just simply call the office and we'll send you the information and application to get involved in the appeal process.

Michael Grant:
So the first stage is through the assessor's office itself?

Keith Russell:
Yes.

Michael Grant:
And then if you are -- don't need to get into horrendous detail here, but if you're still dissatisfied with that result you can take that without get yet going to court you can take that up to some additional rates, can't you?

Keith Russell:
The first level is an inch informal meeting with the assessor's office. If your you dissatisfied with the results of that you can appeal, if you appeal within 25 days to the state board of equalization. That's an independent body which is set up to hear the appeal. The property owner or representative can come in and make their case. My office will come in and make our case and they make an independent decision.

Michael Grant:
What do I need to arm myself with?

Michael Grant:
And incidentally, what is the target here?

Michael Grant:
What are you trying to gosh 300,000 bucks, this is bad. How do I fill in that blank?

Michael Grant:
For what reasons and with what information?

Keith Russell:
You need to be making an argument basically the same as the argument we're making. Such as neighborhood, homes and sales in the neighborhood have not been going up or did not reflect basically that valuation that we've assigned to the property. If you have a similar house down the street and it sold for say 250 and you're at 300 that would be a great argument for the case.

Michael Grant:
How do I go about getting that data?

Michael Grant:
I may know that the house three doors down sold, but I probably don't intuitively know precisely what it sold for.

Keith Russell:
Our website has got a lot of that information on it. If somebody wants to go to Maricopa.gov they can click in on the upper left hand corner on the assessor and you can follow the links and actually do research on sales in your neighborhood.

Michael Grant:
And does the information that's contained on the site also give you more than just a sales price number?

Michael Grant:
Because as you point out, it needs to be a comparable kind of property of bedrooms, acreage, whatever the case may be.

Keith Russell:
It doesn't give a lot but it does give some information, for example the year it was built, the size of the property. You can look and see the size of the lot on the website. So that type of information is there. But we don't drill down very deeply.

Michael Grant:
How deeply does the assessor's office drill in terms of forming its own opinions?

Michael Grant:
Will it use trend lines and those kinds of things?

Michael Grant:
Or is it actually doing in a certain radius, whatever would be the relevant neighborhood, I suppose, a singular examination of recent comparable sales and if they are comparable and that kind of thing?

Keith Russell:
We compile the sales data from the areas and we put it into computer models. This last year we had about 70 different computer models that try to take into consideration the differences between your property and the properties in the neighborhood that have sold. So we actually are doing a real analysis based on each individual property.

Michael Grant:
And on the notices themselves, I know at one point in time there was a problem where if you had, oh, impound accounts or you were paying your payments to an agent who then busted them up, sent some of the money to the county and some of the money to the insurance company and some of the money to the mortgage holder, sometimes that mail would not get through. Are these mailed to the actual home addresses?

Keith Russell:
Yes. These are male mailed to the actual home addresses.

Michael Grant:
If on the other hand you don't see this show up in the next couple of weeks, is there a number that you can -- or an office that you can get in touch with?

Keith Russell:
Absolutely. You can call the office or the information will be posted on the website within just a few days after the notices are mail mailed. But you can call 602-506-3406 and we have operators standing by. We've actually beefed up the staff that will be answering the phones in anticipation of a number of calls with questions on exactly what this means.

Michael Grant:
Okay. But again, probably wait at least a few days.

Keith Russell:
A few days.

Michael Grant:
Into next week or so.

Keith Russell:
Absolutely.

Michael Grant:
Okay. Keith Russell, thank you very much for joining us. I guess we'll wait with baited breath.

Keith Russell:
Thank you. Good to be here with you.

Michael Grant:
Fuel thinning and prescribed burn projects by the Payson ranger district in the Tonto national forest made fighting the February fire on the Mogollon rim a lot easier. Still, the extremely dry conditions in our state's high country has fire and forest managers concerned. In a moment we'll talk about how fire officials are gearing up for the season. First, Merry Lucero tells us about some information that is vital to the fire fighting efforts.

Merry Lucero:
The February fire was apparently started by an abandoned camp fire in the Tonto national forest on the Mogollon rim. The fire eventually burned more than 4200-acres of Chaparral, Pine and Juniper. Before firefighters contained it, a lot of people worked a lot of different jobs at the base camp near Payson.

Walkie Talkie Exchange:
Tonto engine 26 on channel 4.

Merry Lucero:
Every task from talking with firefighters on the front line to stocking much needed supplies like bottled water is important to keeping the camp running smoothly. The fire personnel supported and the communication flowing. One individual who plays a key role in updating information is the incident meteorologist.

Mark Stubblefield:
As an incident meteorologist we're trained to know what types of weather patterns to look for, what types of storms would effect the firefighters. We have access to information that's just a few minutes old. So we're able to get that information especially if it's changing what was already forecast. We're able to get that to communications and out to the crews within minutes to alert them of wind shift of thunderstorm activity that's approaching the fire.

Merry Lucero:
Mark Stubblefield gets his information from a portable two way satellite dish that he can set up anywhere incident command base is, even remote forest locations. All he needs is generator power.

Mark Stubblefield:
Part of our job is to look at any storm fronts that would be coming in several days out. That helps the firefighters, the planners plan for an event like today where there's high wind expected and also low humidity.

Merry Lucero:
Up to the minute information about at a weather pattern like wind is crucial.

Mark Stubblefield:
This wind event not only effects the fire that's remaining remaining, it can stir it up, can push it. It also can knock down trees that have been weakened by the fire. The wind the previous week has been out of the other direction, out of the northeast. The wind today is out of the southwest.

Merry Lucero:
The base camp was slated to demobilize on this day. But with the wind that was up in the air.

Jean Gilbertson:
It is on hold. We did get word that there is another fire start up. It started on the rim and is on the Tonto. So they're holding the team in place to see what this fire does throughout the course of the day.

Merry Lucero:
The winds eventually calmed and the fire was contained. Weather information helps firefighters plan ahead for the fire season.

Mark Stubblefield:
One of the things that we look at to determine how bad a fire season would be is the climatological data, what has happened the last month over the winter and the fall. As you know, this winter and fall have been the driest on record in this area. And that helps fire planners, fire managers assess the type, the potential for large fire growth.

Merry Lucero:
Fire and forest managers had anticipated an early fire season just not quite this early.

Jean Gilbertson:
Well, this time of year the February fire, we normally never have fires in the winter. And the type of fire behavior that we're having on this -- that we had on this fire, is the type of fire behavior that we normally have in June.

Merry Lucero:
But the especially dry forest and lack of snow and rain has fire personnel gearing up for what's ahead, an early and potentially disastrous fire season.

Michael Grant:
Here with more on weather and fire is weather service meteorologist Tony Haffer, and US wildlife service incident commander Jeff Whitney, whose job it is to oversee all activities at a fire fight.

Michael Grant:
Toni, I avoided saying that other world word by calling you weather guy. Gentlemen, good to see you. Toni, we want to talk about a variety of things. But first why don't we get an up update. Where are we -- we're what?

Michael Grant:
Four months plus without rain. And you were pointing out if we hadn't had that little spritz in mid October it would be longer than that.

Tony Haffer:
We've had 125 days. Today will make 126 days here in Phoenix without even a drop of rain. And that's about as dry as it gets. It's a new record from that point of view. You're absolutely right. We only had a spritz of participation in October. The last heavier rain we've had had been a monsoon, so It's been almost half a year give or take that we've seen rainfall.

Michael Grant:
What's the pattern and is it still in place?

Michael Grant:
There's been this weak, high pressure with la Nina sitting for quite awhile.

Tony Haffer:
Yeah. La Nina is pretty well established now. It's not a very strong one but it is a la Nina event which means generally speaking the southwestern united states will see far less precipitation than they normally would in the wintertime. It's hard to have less than 0. But the bottom line is it looks like the dry conditions will continue. Not to say we won't see a wet period. In fact the weather charts are slow showing by some time over the middle of this next week this high pressure that has three deflected the storms north of Arizona is going to yield to a low pressure or trough which we meteorologists call. The hope is that the trough will bring with it some moisture and we might begin to see rainfall and snow fall in the higher elevations of Arizona next week.

Michael Grant:
When we say a weak law mean yeah, often, Tony, when we've had these kinds of dry spells in the traditionally wet season, it has however, the storm track has slid down enough that the northern third of the state would still get some precip. This has just forced it completely out of the state, which makes me wonder why we're calling it a weak la Nina. It seems pretty dang darn strong to me.

Tony Haffer:
Actually the reality to have of it is the la Nina has only become well established here in the first month or so. So the first part of winter which was precipitation free generally statewide which is rather amazing was not directly related to the la Nina per se. It was related to this blocking high pressure area we had deflecting everything over Arizona. Now that we've had the relief of high pressure area it looks like the process of any relief through the remainder of winter is very slim at best.

Michael Grant:
Jeff, I would think as a fire incident commander this has got to be your worst nightmare.

Jeff Whitney: It certainly has us concerned. We've been watching it all along with the weather service and with our predictive services folks. And it has a cumulative effect. We've had a series of years that have been drier than normal. And normal being a relative term. We had a couple of wet decades in the 80's and 90's. But we're in the midst of a long-term drought. And these conditions have an additive effect over time.

Michael Grant:
When was the February fire contained?

Jeff Whitney:
Well, it was the middle of last week. It was Wednesday they were in the process of transitioning. And I think just naming it the February fire speaks for itself. None of us recall ever having a large fire in February.

Michael Grant:
Yeah. I had made the comment that you know it's a bad fire season when you're naming fires -- one a month.

Michael Grant:
February fire. We mentioned forest thinning in the package. Did it help play a role?

Jeff Whitney:
Absolutely. It's really a big story. A very good friend of mine has a property up in brave creek and had partnered up with the forest service and with state land department and has had obtained a series of grants. This particular property has been in the family for several generations. He took it upon himself to do some very pro active work, take advantage of some government programs. And without the benefit of those projects it would have been extremely difficult and perhaps unlikely that the firefighters could have saved the property last week.

Michael Grant:
They were making the comment up there that the conditions they were seeing were June-type conditions.

Jeff Whitney:
Absolutely. It's a function of a combination of factors that we wrap into what we call an energy release component. It has to do with historic drought conditions or precipitation climate conditions, live and dead fuel moisture content, relative humidity temperature. And in the middle of February we're looking at late may-early June-like conditions. I think the fire behavior would indicate that that we saw on the February fire.

Michael Grant:
The snow pack conditions, Toni, read like a very bad novel up there. Some of the percentages that I was seeing a couple of weeks ago were just terrible.

Tony Haffer:
Yeah. We flew over up to Albuquerque to talk with the fire service a week or so ago. The whole route was snowless. It was less than normal. It was nothing there. There's very little if any on the San Francisco peak. So the bottom line is, the moisture that we normally would have to wet the fuels up during the wintertime has not been there. So everything is just primed for an incredible fire season.

Michael Grant:
Interesting role. We were talking about the incident meteorologist that -- see, I got it.

Tony Haffer:
I'm proud of you.

Michael Grant:
That's assigned at the site of fires like this. I would think that would be a pretty challenging assignment.

Tony Haffer:
It certainly is. We have incident meteorologists at a number of our offices around the western United States. And they provide weather support on scene to fire fighting activities. Geoff and his crew have a whole bunch of fire science to determine strategies for fighting the fire that they have at hand. But the probably the most important thing is just what the weather is doing and what it's expected to do so resources can be dealt with. We do have these folks that go on two-week stints out at a fire camp that provide weather support, they're in contact with our offices but they actually have information on the fire.

Michael Grant:
Jeff, do you trust these guys or not?

Jeff Whitney:
As difficult as it is to admit, we absolutely do. The only reason we do is because of their track record. They're extremely good at what they do. As I mentioned earlier, we asked them to focus in on a relatively small piece of real estate. It's not like trying to predict all of Arizona and making those generalities. So we're on an incident, we're looking at that location and they've got access to all of the weather service information. They process that for us real short turn around and we incorporate that virtually every 12 hours into our next planning process.

Michael Grant:
Now, your team is going to be interested in a variety of things that come immediately to mind. Obviously you'll be very concerned about winds, strength of winds. What other weather elements are you --

Jeff Whitney:
The wind is probably the big biggest thing that we really can't track. But obviously fast-moving low or high pressure systems, the onset of a little influx of humidity that's going to increase the thunderstorm activity. We've got people out on the ground. If you've got pop-up thunderstorms that's going to create a lot of different situations for us. So the advanced notice that we get -- it's real time and it's a short turn around but they do a phenomenal job of predicting what those local conditions are going to be. As you say, the winds are very important but there are a number of other factors that we press them on and they always deliver.

Michael Grant:
Now, are these -- and I'll use the term embedded weather guys, are they -- I take it they've got to have a data base. They've got to be tied in some way to weather service capabilities and getting inputs and information from a variety of different sources?

Tony Haffer:
You bet. We do provide routine weather forecasts to the fire management agencies, land management agency agencies for planning purposes. When there's a wildfire and it's big enough they'll bring Jeff in and a type 1 team in and generally we'll have a meteorologist brought in or ordered with the team. And the connection between our meteorologist in the field at the fire and the forecast office, for example here in Phoenix, is maintained. We have satellite communication. We talk on the phone a number of times. If there's something that we see in our office we can call them quickly and alert them to what's going on in the fire. Hence they can provide the incident commander and the rest of the firefighters with a heads up or what's going to come down the pike in the next few hours or so.

Michael Grant:
Let's look at ahead just a few weeks or so. March can sometimes be rainy. What do you think?

Tony Haffer:
Yes. We're hopeful that the first couple of weeks of march will show a turn about from what we've had all winter. As I mentioned, this trough that's been coming down and most mostly being deflected north of Arizona looks like we're going to see a good chance of it pass passing over Arizona first part of march. The question is, will we have any moisture for the trough or the upper air disturbance to act on and provide us with participation.

Michael Grant:
Jeff, I hate to rain on anybody's parade. But at this point in time we'll take anything we can get. But it really just shoves things back.

Jeff Whitney:
Our perspective on that and experience has been in the past that it's perhaps too little too late. It might push things back, might give us a little bit of relief for a few weeks. But we certainly anticipate a very is a fear fire season.

Michael Grant:
Jeff Whitney thanks to join joining us. Toni half, thanks to you as well. You can see transcripts of Horizon and find out about up upcoming topics on the website. The address is azpbs.org. Thank you very much for joining us this evening. I'm Michael Grant. Have a good night.

Announcer:
Horizon is made possible by The Friends of Channel 8. Members who provide financial support to this Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

scholars Program


  • More than a dozen Arizona high school students will travel to Washington D.C. to attend the Honeywell Scholars Presidential Classroom Program. At the conference, students get a behind the scenes look at the interrelations between science, technology and public policy. Michael Grant will talk with Don Wilt, the Director of Public Affairs for Honeywell Aerospace, and Dustin Young of Gilbert High School, a student who will attend the one week program.
Guests:
  • Keith Russell - Maricopa County assessor
  • Tony Haffer - weather service meteorologist
  • Jeff Whitney - U.S. Wildlife service incident commander


View Transcript

Michael Grant:
Tonight on Horizon, Maricopa county property valuation notices will be mailed out at the end of this month. We'll talk about the valuations and the impact to property owners. Plus, Arizona's forest fire managers are preparing for an early and severe fire season. Information -- like up to the minute weather forecasts -- is the key to managing fires when they occur. Those stories next on Horizon.

Announcer:
Horizon is made possible by The Friends of Channel 8, members whop provide financial support to this Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Michael Grant:
Good evening. I'm Michael Grant. Welcome to Horizon. You might get a bit of a shock when you open your mail soon after February 27. That's the date the Maricopa County assessor's office will send out a "notice of value" to every single property owner in the county. That number is used to figure your property taxes, and it will reflect the increase in property values over the past two years, which as we all know, have skyrocketed. Here to calm us down about that notice is Maricopa County assessor Keith Russell.

Michael Grant:
Keith, do you think you'll be successful in calming us down?

Keith Russell:
We certainly will are going to try, Michael. Good to be here with you today. Thank you.

Michael Grant:
It is a combination -- it's a two-year process so in addition to the just enormous valuation increase you've seen here in the past 12 months you've also got another 12 months to add on to that?

Keith Russell:
That's correct. For residential property it will reflect two years worth of appreciation, for commercial property and vacant land it will only be one year.

Michael Grant:
And we obviously tend to focus mostly on residential property. But these go out to all properties in the county?

Keith Russell:
All properties. We are male mailing on the 27th next Monday approximately 1.3 million notices of value.

Michael Grant:
Now, this is a notice, right?

Keith Russell:
Yes, it is.

Michael Grant:
It is not a tax bill. Explain the difference between the two.

Keith Russell:
Thank you. And absolutely. It is just a notice of our assessed value. This is not a tax bill. It will not turn into a tax bill for over 18 months. This will be titled "the 2007 notice of value"." and so the taxes won't be collected until the fall of 2007 on this notice.

Michael Grant:
Explain the time table involved there. I mean, why are we sending out a valuation notice, obviously in the spring or so of 2006 when it doesn't lock in until the fall of 2007.

Keith Russell:
Sure. One of the things that's important for property owners to understand when they get this notice is, if they can not sell their property for the amount of the value that's reflected on the notice they have appeal rights. We basically will spend most of this year doing those appeals, giving the property owner an opportunity to demonstrate if they feel like we have made a mistake with that valuation. One of the important things, though, with that is they need to act relatively quickly. On the notice there is a date by which an appeal has to be filed. It's basically 60 days from when the notice is mailed. If you get involved in the process after that you start to loose some of those appeal rights.

Michael Grant:
All right. I want to walk a little bit more in detail through that process. But first the valuation itself. I think we heard roughly 45\% plus appreciation for the past 12 months or so period.

Keith Russell:
Right.

Michael Grant:
There was a fairly good increment, was there not, the prior year?

Michael Grant:
I mean, it wasn't in that category.

Keith Russell:
It wasn't that magnitude.

Michael Grant:
But it was still a good increase, wasn't it?

Keith Russell:
Yes, it was, absolutely. So we're going to be reflecting two years worth of appreciation for residential properties. We will be in the percent of about 50\% increase from where we were two years allege.

Michael Grant:
So just illustratively using round numbers for ease of reference, you get a $200,000 $200,000 house you may see that thing going to $300,000.

Keith Russell:
You may see it going up that much. Of course these are only averages. There are neighborhoods increasing a little bit faster, other neighborhoods increasing a little bit slower.

Michael Grant:
How close is this valuation supposed to be to fair market valuation as you put it, what you could sell your house for?

Keith Russell:
It's intended to be less than what you can tell sell your property for. It is a reflection of the market conditions. So as property values go up, the assessed value will also be increasing. And conversely if the market values went down, the assessed value would also be doing the same going down.

Michael Grant:
And in preparing these, does the -- I take it the assessor takes a look at things like comparable and recent sales in your neighborhood to ascertain the value.

Keith Russell:
That is the process for residential properties. We look at comparable sales that are happening in the neighborhood and try to account for the differences between your property and your neighbor's property down the street that just sold.

Michael Grant:
Okay. I pop open the envelope. I see $300,000. After I've come down off the ceiling and I'm thinking, what can I do about this?

Michael Grant:
What can I do about this?

Keith Russell:
On the notice of value you will have a form that you can fill out and mail into us to get the process started. Or you can go to the website to get the process started. Or you can just simply call the office and we'll send you the information and application to get involved in the appeal process.

Michael Grant:
So the first stage is through the assessor's office itself?

Keith Russell:
Yes.

Michael Grant:
And then if you are -- don't need to get into horrendous detail here, but if you're still dissatisfied with that result you can take that without get yet going to court you can take that up to some additional rates, can't you?

Keith Russell:
The first level is an inch informal meeting with the assessor's office. If your you dissatisfied with the results of that you can appeal, if you appeal within 25 days to the state board of equalization. That's an independent body which is set up to hear the appeal. The property owner or representative can come in and make their case. My office will come in and make our case and they make an independent decision.

Michael Grant:
What do I need to arm myself with?

Michael Grant:
And incidentally, what is the target here?

Michael Grant:
What are you trying to gosh 300,000 bucks, this is bad. How do I fill in that blank?

Michael Grant:
For what reasons and with what information?

Keith Russell:
You need to be making an argument basically the same as the argument we're making. Such as neighborhood, homes and sales in the neighborhood have not been going up or did not reflect basically that valuation that we've assigned to the property. If you have a similar house down the street and it sold for say 250 and you're at 300 that would be a great argument for the case.

Michael Grant:
How do I go about getting that data?

Michael Grant:
I may know that the house three doors down sold, but I probably don't intuitively know precisely what it sold for.

Keith Russell:
Our website has got a lot of that information on it. If somebody wants to go to Maricopa.gov they can click in on the upper left hand corner on the assessor and you can follow the links and actually do research on sales in your neighborhood.

Michael Grant:
And does the information that's contained on the site also give you more than just a sales price number?

Michael Grant:
Because as you point out, it needs to be a comparable kind of property of bedrooms, acreage, whatever the case may be.

Keith Russell:
It doesn't give a lot but it does give some information, for example the year it was built, the size of the property. You can look and see the size of the lot on the website. So that type of information is there. But we don't drill down very deeply.

Michael Grant:
How deeply does the assessor's office drill in terms of forming its own opinions?

Michael Grant:
Will it use trend lines and those kinds of things?

Michael Grant:
Or is it actually doing in a certain radius, whatever would be the relevant neighborhood, I suppose, a singular examination of recent comparable sales and if they are comparable and that kind of thing?

Keith Russell:
We compile the sales data from the areas and we put it into computer models. This last year we had about 70 different computer models that try to take into consideration the differences between your property and the properties in the neighborhood that have sold. So we actually are doing a real analysis based on each individual property.

Michael Grant:
And on the notices themselves, I know at one point in time there was a problem where if you had, oh, impound accounts or you were paying your payments to an agent who then busted them up, sent some of the money to the county and some of the money to the insurance company and some of the money to the mortgage holder, sometimes that mail would not get through. Are these mailed to the actual home addresses?

Keith Russell:
Yes. These are male mailed to the actual home addresses.

Michael Grant:
If on the other hand you don't see this show up in the next couple of weeks, is there a number that you can -- or an office that you can get in touch with?

Keith Russell:
Absolutely. You can call the office or the information will be posted on the website within just a few days after the notices are mail mailed. But you can call 602-506-3406 and we have operators standing by. We've actually beefed up the staff that will be answering the phones in anticipation of a number of calls with questions on exactly what this means.

Michael Grant:
Okay. But again, probably wait at least a few days.

Keith Russell:
A few days.

Michael Grant:
Into next week or so.

Keith Russell:
Absolutely.

Michael Grant:
Okay. Keith Russell, thank you very much for joining us. I guess we'll wait with baited breath.

Keith Russell:
Thank you. Good to be here with you.

Michael Grant:
Fuel thinning and prescribed burn projects by the Payson ranger district in the Tonto national forest made fighting the February fire on the Mogollon rim a lot easier. Still, the extremely dry conditions in our state's high country has fire and forest managers concerned. In a moment we'll talk about how fire officials are gearing up for the season. First, Merry Lucero tells us about some information that is vital to the fire fighting efforts.

Merry Lucero:
The February fire was apparently started by an abandoned camp fire in the Tonto national forest on the Mogollon rim. The fire eventually burned more than 4200-acres of Chaparral, Pine and Juniper. Before firefighters contained it, a lot of people worked a lot of different jobs at the base camp near Payson.

Walkie Talkie Exchange:
Tonto engine 26 on channel 4.

Merry Lucero:
Every task from talking with firefighters on the front line to stocking much needed supplies like bottled water is important to keeping the camp running smoothly. The fire personnel supported and the communication flowing. One individual who plays a key role in updating information is the incident meteorologist.

Mark Stubblefield:
As an incident meteorologist we're trained to know what types of weather patterns to look for, what types of storms would effect the firefighters. We have access to information that's just a few minutes old. So we're able to get that information especially if it's changing what was already forecast. We're able to get that to communications and out to the crews within minutes to alert them of wind shift of thunderstorm activity that's approaching the fire.

Merry Lucero:
Mark Stubblefield gets his information from a portable two way satellite dish that he can set up anywhere incident command base is, even remote forest locations. All he needs is generator power.

Mark Stubblefield:
Part of our job is to look at any storm fronts that would be coming in several days out. That helps the firefighters, the planners plan for an event like today where there's high wind expected and also low humidity.

Merry Lucero:
Up to the minute information about at a weather pattern like wind is crucial.

Mark Stubblefield:
This wind event not only effects the fire that's remaining remaining, it can stir it up, can push it. It also can knock down trees that have been weakened by the fire. The wind the previous week has been out of the other direction, out of the northeast. The wind today is out of the southwest.

Merry Lucero:
The base camp was slated to demobilize on this day. But with the wind that was up in the air.

Jean Gilbertson:
It is on hold. We did get word that there is another fire start up. It started on the rim and is on the Tonto. So they're holding the team in place to see what this fire does throughout the course of the day.

Merry Lucero:
The winds eventually calmed and the fire was contained. Weather information helps firefighters plan ahead for the fire season.

Mark Stubblefield:
One of the things that we look at to determine how bad a fire season would be is the climatological data, what has happened the last month over the winter and the fall. As you know, this winter and fall have been the driest on record in this area. And that helps fire planners, fire managers assess the type, the potential for large fire growth.

Merry Lucero:
Fire and forest managers had anticipated an early fire season just not quite this early.

Jean Gilbertson:
Well, this time of year the February fire, we normally never have fires in the winter. And the type of fire behavior that we're having on this -- that we had on this fire, is the type of fire behavior that we normally have in June.

Merry Lucero:
But the especially dry forest and lack of snow and rain has fire personnel gearing up for what's ahead, an early and potentially disastrous fire season.

Michael Grant:
Here with more on weather and fire is weather service meteorologist Tony Haffer, and US wildlife service incident commander Jeff Whitney, whose job it is to oversee all activities at a fire fight.

Michael Grant:
Toni, I avoided saying that other world word by calling you weather guy. Gentlemen, good to see you. Toni, we want to talk about a variety of things. But first why don't we get an up update. Where are we -- we're what?

Michael Grant:
Four months plus without rain. And you were pointing out if we hadn't had that little spritz in mid October it would be longer than that.

Tony Haffer:
We've had 125 days. Today will make 126 days here in Phoenix without even a drop of rain. And that's about as dry as it gets. It's a new record from that point of view. You're absolutely right. We only had a spritz of participation in October. The last heavier rain we've had had been a monsoon, so It's been almost half a year give or take that we've seen rainfall.

Michael Grant:
What's the pattern and is it still in place?

Michael Grant:
There's been this weak, high pressure with la Nina sitting for quite awhile.

Tony Haffer:
Yeah. La Nina is pretty well established now. It's not a very strong one but it is a la Nina event which means generally speaking the southwestern united states will see far less precipitation than they normally would in the wintertime. It's hard to have less than 0. But the bottom line is it looks like the dry conditions will continue. Not to say we won't see a wet period. In fact the weather charts are slow showing by some time over the middle of this next week this high pressure that has three deflected the storms north of Arizona is going to yield to a low pressure or trough which we meteorologists call. The hope is that the trough will bring with it some moisture and we might begin to see rainfall and snow fall in the higher elevations of Arizona next week.

Michael Grant:
When we say a weak law mean yeah, often, Tony, when we've had these kinds of dry spells in the traditionally wet season, it has however, the storm track has slid down enough that the northern third of the state would still get some precip. This has just forced it completely out of the state, which makes me wonder why we're calling it a weak la Nina. It seems pretty dang darn strong to me.

Tony Haffer:
Actually the reality to have of it is the la Nina has only become well established here in the first month or so. So the first part of winter which was precipitation free generally statewide which is rather amazing was not directly related to the la Nina per se. It was related to this blocking high pressure area we had deflecting everything over Arizona. Now that we've had the relief of high pressure area it looks like the process of any relief through the remainder of winter is very slim at best.

Michael Grant:
Jeff, I would think as a fire incident commander this has got to be your worst nightmare.

Jeff Whitney: It certainly has us concerned. We've been watching it all along with the weather service and with our predictive services folks. And it has a cumulative effect. We've had a series of years that have been drier than normal. And normal being a relative term. We had a couple of wet decades in the 80's and 90's. But we're in the midst of a long-term drought. And these conditions have an additive effect over time.

Michael Grant:
When was the February fire contained?

Jeff Whitney:
Well, it was the middle of last week. It was Wednesday they were in the process of transitioning. And I think just naming it the February fire speaks for itself. None of us recall ever having a large fire in February.

Michael Grant:
Yeah. I had made the comment that you know it's a bad fire season when you're naming fires -- one a month.

Michael Grant:
February fire. We mentioned forest thinning in the package. Did it help play a role?

Jeff Whitney:
Absolutely. It's really a big story. A very good friend of mine has a property up in brave creek and had partnered up with the forest service and with state land department and has had obtained a series of grants. This particular property has been in the family for several generations. He took it upon himself to do some very pro active work, take advantage of some government programs. And without the benefit of those projects it would have been extremely difficult and perhaps unlikely that the firefighters could have saved the property last week.

Michael Grant:
They were making the comment up there that the conditions they were seeing were June-type conditions.

Jeff Whitney:
Absolutely. It's a function of a combination of factors that we wrap into what we call an energy release component. It has to do with historic drought conditions or precipitation climate conditions, live and dead fuel moisture content, relative humidity temperature. And in the middle of February we're looking at late may-early June-like conditions. I think the fire behavior would indicate that that we saw on the February fire.

Michael Grant:
The snow pack conditions, Toni, read like a very bad novel up there. Some of the percentages that I was seeing a couple of weeks ago were just terrible.

Tony Haffer:
Yeah. We flew over up to Albuquerque to talk with the fire service a week or so ago. The whole route was snowless. It was less than normal. It was nothing there. There's very little if any on the San Francisco peak. So the bottom line is, the moisture that we normally would have to wet the fuels up during the wintertime has not been there. So everything is just primed for an incredible fire season.

Michael Grant:
Interesting role. We were talking about the incident meteorologist that -- see, I got it.

Tony Haffer:
I'm proud of you.

Michael Grant:
That's assigned at the site of fires like this. I would think that would be a pretty challenging assignment.

Tony Haffer:
It certainly is. We have incident meteorologists at a number of our offices around the western United States. And they provide weather support on scene to fire fighting activities. Geoff and his crew have a whole bunch of fire science to determine strategies for fighting the fire that they have at hand. But the probably the most important thing is just what the weather is doing and what it's expected to do so resources can be dealt with. We do have these folks that go on two-week stints out at a fire camp that provide weather support, they're in contact with our offices but they actually have information on the fire.

Michael Grant:
Jeff, do you trust these guys or not?

Jeff Whitney:
As difficult as it is to admit, we absolutely do. The only reason we do is because of their track record. They're extremely good at what they do. As I mentioned earlier, we asked them to focus in on a relatively small piece of real estate. It's not like trying to predict all of Arizona and making those generalities. So we're on an incident, we're looking at that location and they've got access to all of the weather service information. They process that for us real short turn around and we incorporate that virtually every 12 hours into our next planning process.

Michael Grant:
Now, your team is going to be interested in a variety of things that come immediately to mind. Obviously you'll be very concerned about winds, strength of winds. What other weather elements are you --

Jeff Whitney:
The wind is probably the big biggest thing that we really can't track. But obviously fast-moving low or high pressure systems, the onset of a little influx of humidity that's going to increase the thunderstorm activity. We've got people out on the ground. If you've got pop-up thunderstorms that's going to create a lot of different situations for us. So the advanced notice that we get -- it's real time and it's a short turn around but they do a phenomenal job of predicting what those local conditions are going to be. As you say, the winds are very important but there are a number of other factors that we press them on and they always deliver.

Michael Grant:
Now, are these -- and I'll use the term embedded weather guys, are they -- I take it they've got to have a data base. They've got to be tied in some way to weather service capabilities and getting inputs and information from a variety of different sources?

Tony Haffer:
You bet. We do provide routine weather forecasts to the fire management agencies, land management agency agencies for planning purposes. When there's a wildfire and it's big enough they'll bring Jeff in and a type 1 team in and generally we'll have a meteorologist brought in or ordered with the team. And the connection between our meteorologist in the field at the fire and the forecast office, for example here in Phoenix, is maintained. We have satellite communication. We talk on the phone a number of times. If there's something that we see in our office we can call them quickly and alert them to what's going on in the fire. Hence they can provide the incident commander and the rest of the firefighters with a heads up or what's going to come down the pike in the next few hours or so.

Michael Grant:
Let's look at ahead just a few weeks or so. March can sometimes be rainy. What do you think?

Tony Haffer:
Yes. We're hopeful that the first couple of weeks of march will show a turn about from what we've had all winter. As I mentioned, this trough that's been coming down and most mostly being deflected north of Arizona looks like we're going to see a good chance of it pass passing over Arizona first part of march. The question is, will we have any moisture for the trough or the upper air disturbance to act on and provide us with participation.

Michael Grant:
Jeff, I hate to rain on anybody's parade. But at this point in time we'll take anything we can get. But it really just shoves things back.

Jeff Whitney:
Our perspective on that and experience has been in the past that it's perhaps too little too late. It might push things back, might give us a little bit of relief for a few weeks. But we certainly anticipate a very is a fear fire season.

Michael Grant:
Jeff Whitney thanks to join joining us. Toni half, thanks to you as well. You can see transcripts of Horizon and find out about up upcoming topics on the website. The address is azpbs.org. Thank you very much for joining us this evening. I'm Michael Grant. Have a good night.

Announcer:
Horizon is made possible by The Friends of Channel 8. Members who provide financial support to this Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

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