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Arizonas 2021 wildfire season to be severe, according to officials

Fire and weather service officials expect the upcoming wildfire season to be “severe” and on par with last year’s season. 

“Nothing has changed in the last year, and all the forecasts out there put us in an extreme drought; conditions we have not seen pretty much ever,” said Cory Carlson, fire management officer for the Bradshaw and Chino Valley ranger districts of the Prescott National Forest.  

Last year, 2,520 wildfires burned nearly 1 million acres across state, federal and tribal lands, making it one of the worst fire seasons in a decade, according to the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

More than 80% of the fires were caused by humans, and the ongoing drought and lack of rain also contributed to the increase in fires. 

The Bush Fire became the state’s fifth-largest, burning 193,000 acres in the Tonto National Forest. 

This year poses to be similar if not worse given current wildland conditions and an abundance of fuels across Arizona, especially in the northern regions. 

In March, Gov. Doug Ducey spoke about the “heightened risk” of fire, and weather service and agricultural officials warned of increasing wildfires. 

Wildland conditions have been impacted by the drought and other factors, adding to the potential fire hazards. Dead and dry vegetation and trees are “susceptible to fire and carrying fire” due to a lack of moisture and growth, Carlson said. 

“These are conditions we normally see in the middle or end of June, and we are seeing them in the beginning of May,” he said. 

Tiffany Davila, spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, said this potential for wildfires could be widespread and statewide, affecting many regions including the Sonoran Desert.

“These fuels have been dry for some time, and it is basically a carpet of kindling across the Sonoran Desert,” she said. “Any spark that would start in this fuel bed is going to start very quickly and spread very rapidly.”

On May 13, much of northern Arizona issued a red flag warning, which signals to avoid activities that could cause a spark and start a wildfire. Likewise, several national forests in Arizona, including the Prescott National Forest and the Tonto National Forest, have put Stage 1 restrictions into place, which prohibits shooting, smoking and most campfires, among other restrictions. 

“Fire danger levels are definitely above normal. Right now, most of the state of Arizona is in extreme to exceptional drought,” said Marvin Percha, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Phoenix. “All it takes now is some dusty winds and hot temperatures, and that is a recipe for extreme fire danger levels.”

Percha said the drought has dried out vegetation to the point that fires are “easier to ignite.” 

The wildfire season started early this year: In March, the Punkin Fire burned about 305 acres and also closed down a state route. 

“It is going to be another challenging and long season,” Carlson said. 

Officials are trying to educate the public about these conditions and what to do to prevent wildfires. 

“I can’t stress enough being careful with ignition sources and also with off-road vehicles,” Percha said. He said dragging metal chains on trailers could produce sparks and ignite grass by the side of the road. He added that the exhaust pipes on a vehicle could also start a fire. 

The Prescott National Forest has also staffed additional workers to enforce restrictions and prevent fires and potential forest closures. 

“We don’t want to get to that point (of closure); we want the public to enjoy the public lands, but it is dependent on the condition and it is dependent on people behaving in the woods,” Carlson said. 

Reach breaking news reporter Olivia Munson at olivia.munson@arizonarepublic.com or on Twitter @munson_olivia. 

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