Ducey warns Arizona of a disastrous fire season, requests double fire prevention funding
Conditions are so dire that officials are giving warning two months earlier than usual.
Gov. Doug Ducey warned Thursday that this winter, which is on track to be one of the driest in Arizona history, is paving the way for an equally historic fire season.
During a news conference Thursday morning, Ducey and State Forester Jeff Whitney said fires this year could surpass the damage done by the largest two Arizona fires on record — 2002's Rodeo-Chediski Fire and 2011's Wallow Fire.
Ducey has requested to double the state's investment in fire prevention funding for the upcoming fiscal year, from $1 million to $2 million, he said.
"This includes funds to remove hazardous vegetation and more," he said. "We'll continue to take every step possible to prepare for this fire season to protect people, pets and property."
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Ducey, citing numbers reported earlier by The Arizona Republic, said this winter was the fourth-driest start to a water year for Phoenix, only netting 0.44 inches of rain by late January. The average is 2.85 inches.
"It's no secret we have had a record dry winter," he said. "Arizona is familiar with the devastation that wildfires can bring, but there's no beating around the bush this year. We expect these conditions to make the fire season especially challenging."
What this fire season could bring
Although there's time for spring rains to ease dry conditions, officials aren't holding their breath. They're bracing for dangerous blazes this summer.
Whitney, the state forester, said the outlook for the next three months is "quite alarming." The chaparral, Ponderosa pines and Pinyon-juniper woodlands are all stressed because of Arizona's long-term drought, he said.
The vast majority of Arizona is in a state of severe drought and large swaths are in extreme drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
The concern was reflected in the timing of Thursday's event. The annual fire briefing is usually given in mid-April, but conditions are so dire that it warranted moving to this week, Whitney said.
"This year, we knew it was critical that we got the word out early so that people can take care of their property and work with their neighbors," he said.
Whitney warned that fires could break out much sooner than usual. Officials have already fought small fires in late January and early February.
"It's probably fire season somewhere in Arizona every day," he said.
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In every fire and every natural disaster, some residents are reluctant to evacuate. In leaving, they know they may be leaving their home, their possessions and significant pieces of their livelihoods for good.
But Whitney stressed the importance of evacuating when necessary.
"When fire surfaces, and it could be any time in the next month all the way through next fall, you need to think about what you're going to do if you're asked to evacuate," Whitney said. "Please be ready. And when you're asked to go, please go."
Pinal County already had a fire this year
Arizona has already seen fire this year.
A brush fire in Pinal County spread to 200 acres early in February, stoking concerns that if something is burning this early in the winter, fires in the summer could be exponentially more dangerous.
PINAL COUNTY BRUSH FIRE:Fire burns more than 200 acres, partially contained
"Two weekends ago, we had three large fires across the state at all elevations," Whitney said. "We had a number of people out and it was early February. That's uncharacteristic."
But for officials, this year's conditions invoke memories of some of the state's deadliest fires.
"This year, every fuel bed at every elevation in the state is my biggest concern," Whitney said. "This isn't even comparable to the kind of conditions prior to the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002 ... or the Wallow fire in 2011."
"I'm more concerned now, and I've been doing this since I got out of high school," Whitney said. "I've been doing this for 45 years and this has got us all extremely concerned."
5 things you can do
The majority of fires in Arizona are human-caused, Ducey said. The governor's office has tips for how to prevent wildfires. Here are five things you can do:
- Put campfires, cigarette butts and matches out cold before walking away.
- Always keep an eye on your fire. Don't walk away from it.
- Fasten trailer chains securely. Dragging them on asphalt can cause sparks that could start a fire.
- Mow high grass and tend to your plants regularly.
- Move wood, gas tanks and anything flammable if a fire near your property is likely.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in the Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow the azcentral and Arizona Republic environmental reporting team at OurGrandAZ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.