AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECasino Insider: Here’s a look at San Manuel’s new high limit rooms, Asian restaurant Smoke is already starting to curl up in some spots. A grass fire last week in New Mexico grew to more than 26,000 acres and led to the evacuation of a small farming and ranching community. “Pretty impressive for this time of year,” Payne said. And in Arizona last month, a fire burned more than 4,000 acres in the Tonto National Forest, jangling nerves because it was the earliest large fire ever. The Forest Service has already imposed the earliest fire restrictions ever in Arizona and New Mexico and asked for and received additional money for the fire season in those states. “We’re kind of sitting on the edge of our chairs,” Payne said. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! This year’s fire season will follow an unusual one last year, during which more than 8.6 million acres of state and federal lands were scorched. That’s the most since the record year of 2000, but wildfire experts did not consider it a bad season. More than half of the total acreage was in Alaska, where large, remote wildfires often are allowed to burn themselves out, and the rest was dominated by range fires, not timber fires. Early signs suggest a possible repeat. And the notion that grass fires are somehow less significant than forest fires is of little comfort for those who live or work on the open range. Fire season in the Southwest usually begins slowly in April and in earnest in May and June. But in a way, fire season in the Southwest never ended from last year. Big range fires burned even in November and December in New Mexico. At the Arizona Snowbowl near Flagstaff, the 30 full-time employees are still clearing brush and painting trim, because for the first time the ski resort hasn’t had enough snow to open. There is still hope among some, but so far the 400 seasonal employees are out of work, said Dave Smith, resort spokesman. The statistics in the Southwest read like a laundry list of bad news: No rain in Phoenix in some four months. Driest winter on record for Tucson, Ariz. Ditto for Albuquerque, N.M. Some Tucson homeowners actually have been watering cactus plants to keep them alive. In Texas and Oklahoma, it’s not much better. Oklahoma has recorded its second driest winter in more than 100 years; Texas suffered its third driest fall and winter yet. “We’re just shattering the records for dryness for this winter in that part of the country,” said Douglas LeComte, drought specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center. “It’s not very optimistic at all.” A rainstorm did find its way to Arizona last week, but not a drop fell in Phoenix. Now, even if a little rain were to fall, it likely would do more harm than good. That’s because the Southwest enjoyed a wet season last year, allowing grasses to grow waist high. That grass now is dry and prime to burn. A little rain would be enough to spur more growth in those vulnerable fuels, but trees and brush probably wouldn’t absorb enough moisture to resist fire, said Rick Ochoa, national fire weather program manager for the Bureau of Land Management in Boise, Idaho. “I think we’ve seen enough of the cards dealt to the Southwest that we’re concerned about that area,” Ochoa said. “What you need is not just one storm. You need a number of storms occurring over a month or two to really put a big dent in the fire season.” March could bring a slightly better chance for rain in the Southwest, but LeComte doesn’t see much of a break in the drought, though he does predict the dry streak in Phoenix will be broken within the next 10 days. Some relief should also come to eastern Oklahoma and Texas as a stormy pattern develops over the next few days and extends into Arkansas and Missouri. The Pacific Northwest is in good shape, having had a pretty wet winter. Other parts of the West are predicted to have normal to above normal rain, said Larry Van Bussum, fire weather operations coordinator for the National Weather Service. “The Southwest is going to be the really big concern,” he said. “It’s looking like it’s going to be dry for most of the spring.” In Phoenix, where Monday marked a record 139 days without measurable precipitation, it’s almost possible to forget what rain is like. And that is raising a serious worry: The Southwest’s spring wildfire season is approaching – and it’s coming early. “The conditions right now are about the worst we’ve seen,” said Jim Payne, spokesman for the Forest Service’s Southwest region. “It’s already brittle dry. All we need is ignitions to see wildfires.” While much of the West is accumulating an above average mountain snowpack, the source of most of the year’s water in the region, Arizona and New Mexico haven’t been so lucky. Those states, along with parts of Alaska, Wyoming, Colorado and the southern portions of Nevada, Utah and California show an above normal fire potential, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.