Arizona fire season ignites in Wittmann; Despite record rainfall, state remains at high risk for wildfires

More than 85 firefighters from area departments continued to battle the 384-acre Painted Wagon fire Monday in Maricopa County 20 miles west of Wittmann. As of Tuesday, state officials stated the fire, which is still under investigation, was 30% contained. [Courtesy of Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management]

By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia

One of the wettest winters on record won’t make for an easier fire season in Arizona this year — in fact, record rain and snowfall could make the spring and summer wild fire risk even worse this year.

“Just because we received all of that moisture doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods by any means,” said Tiffany Davila, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. “Please don’t get complacent. One spark is really all it takes to start a fast-moving wildfire.”

The National Weather Service in Phoenix reported the 6th greatest amount of Arizona precipitation over the winter season, with record snowfall in some areas.

“Above normal snowfall across much of the Great Basin and Desert Southwest has helped improve or eliminate #drought conditions across most of the region. The snow water equivalent over the Verde Basin here in #Arizona is more than four times greater than normal!” the agency Tweeted in a March 29 post.

But while more snow on the mountains may appear to relieve drought conditions, much remains to be seen as the warmer months commence, according to Arizona Department of Water Resources officials.

“Further improvement in drought conditions will depend on continued spring precipitation as warm temperatures have set the stage for early snow melt and spring green-up. El Niño conditions will persist through the remainder of the spring and potentially through the summer. However, this has had little to no effect on our typical dry spring season and will have minimal predictable influence on the summer monsoon,” the agency stated in its monthly drought status summary in March.

More precipitation may produce better conditions today, but increased growth of flammable undergrowth and shrubs can worsen conditions later in the season, according to Ms. Davila.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword. We had a lot of moisture across Arizona and we had an abundance of it at that. But those grasses are going to start to grow and they’re going to overgrow because of the moisture we’ve had,” Ms. Davila said. “Especially in southern Arizona, those grasses are going to dry up quickly and as soon as it starts to heat up, we could start seeing some high fire activity there along with those desert areas, like the fire we’re seeing in Wittmann.”

Steve Pine, professor emeritus at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences is an expert who has written more than 30 books on the history and management of wildland and rural fires. He concurred with Ms. Davila’s assessment.

“The general formula is: Wet winters create lots of fuel in the lower elevations and lead to spring fires in the deserts and hills because there is lots to burn and it dries quickly. Dry winters push fires into the mountains, where forests have dried and there is not enough to burn in the lowlands,” Mr. Pyne stated. “Dry lightning — typical of the earliest monsoon storms — can spark fires at all elevations, but people can ignite fires earlier in the cycle when the winds are highest.”

The good news, though, at least for the higher elevations, is the fire season may start later because of the excess precipitation, Ms. Davila said.

“In northern Arizona, since we did have all of that snow, if we so see any activity there it could be a little delayed,” she said.

Normally, the fire season ignites in northern Arizona as in April or early May; but because of the record winter precipitation, the fire season may not heat up until June or later this year.

However, the delay won’t reduce the risk of fires or their intensity when they occur, Ms. Davila said.

Fire prevention

In a joint press release issued by DFFM and Gov. Doug Ducey’s office earlier this week, officials offered a variety of fire prevention tips:

  • Properly douse campfires. If the fire isn’t cool to the touch, then it’s not okay to leave.
  • Trim your trees. Cut your plants. Mow your grass. A wildfire knows no boundaries, so take these proactive measures to reduce the risk of a destructive wildfire — and do it now.
  • Don’t fly your drone. It is both illegal and extremely dangerous to fly drones near or around wildfires. Unauthorized drones bring air support operations to a halt — putting people, pets and property in danger.
  • Don’t feed the fire with flammable materials. Move wood piles, propane tanks and anything else flammable around your property so a bad situation doesn’t get worse.
  • Don’t drag chains. Make sure to store chains tightly and avoid letting them dangle off the bed of your truck because one spark from a chain is enough to start a fire.

The department also offers a mobile application available from iTunes or Google Play by searching for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

Ms. Davila said wild fires aren’t just a concern in remote areas; but can also affect the urban areas and outlying communities nearby as well.

“Fires have no boundaries. They can start anywhere at any time,” she said. “A fire can start any time in Arizona and we just want to be sure that everyone is doing their part to ensure that we have low fire activity this year and every year.”

She pointed to previous fires in Cave Creek and on Camelback Mountain as examples of the risk posed across the state, as well as the fire now burning just north of the Valley.

Crews continue to battle the Painted Wagon fire in Maricopa County 20 miles west of Wittmann, with 85 firefighters working to squelch a 384-acre blaze, which the forestry department described as “slow-moving” and 30% contained.

“Today, crews will continue to build line around the fire, but wind gusts may pose a challenge for firefighters as they work to secure the line,” agency officials stated in an April 9 press release.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Firefighters from the Department of Forestry and Fire Management and Bureau of Land Management are joined by crews from Harquahala Valley, Guadalupe, Central Arizona Fire and Medical, Jerome, North County, Sedona and Surprise.

Other local agencies, such fire departments serving the Sun Cities, will continue to support wildland firefighting efforts this season as well.

Sun City Fire and Medical Department Chief Ron Deadman said his department will deploy crews to help battle fires when asked.

“We have 12 members certified, with three engine bosses and one Type 6 brush truck ready for deployment within the state,” Mr. Deadman said.

Firefighters from Surprise will also continue to help as needs arise this season.

“We have a small team of firefighters who are certified to battle wildland fires,” stated Battalion Chief Julie Moore, spokeswoman for the Surprise Fire-Medical Department.

“As the need arises and we receive a help request, we do what we can to send manpower and vehicles — if available.”

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