Mar 28, 2023 - News

Wildfires still a threat despite wetter winter, state officials warn

A man in a blue uniform and a badge gestures from behind a podium while standing in front of a fire truck.

State fire management officer John Truett, with Gov. Katie Hobbs to his right, speaks to reporters yesterday. Photo: Jeremy Duda/Axios

Just because the winter was wetter than usual doesn't mean Arizonans should let their guard down this wildfire season, state fire officials warned Monday.

Driving the news: Arizona has seen above-average rainfall recently, and the National Weather Service is predicting the severity of this year's wildfire season will be normal or below average.

Yes, but: The threat remains, and fire officials emphasized that danger will grow as the weather gets warmer, particularly in central and southern Arizona.

  • A wetter winter is better for drought conditions but creates more vegetation that helps fuel wildfires when it dries out over the summer.
  • The potential for blazes is especially high in southern Arizona, state fire management officer John Truett said, where two to three years' worth of grasses provide plenty of fuel.
  • Glenn Lader, a meteorologist with NWS in Tucson, told Axios Phoenix that elevations below 6,000 feet will be a concern during the early part of fire season, while higher elevations and forests could be a bigger worry in June, before monsoons come.

What they're saying: "All this moisture has done for us is give us one breath that we can take for maybe one season. … You're going to have maybe a shorter season but you're still going to have the potential of large-scale fires," Truett told reporters during a briefing at the Capitol with Gov. Katie Hobbs.

Of note: State forester Tom Torres emphasized that most wildfires are human-caused, and he urged people to take precautions:

  • Clear a defensible space around your home if you're in an area that's prone to wildfires;
  • Never burn yard waste or debris on windy days;
  • Be mindful that fireworks and shooting are prohibited on state trust land;
  • Don't pull your car into tall vegetation on the side of the road;
  • Always make sure your campfires are fully extinguished.

The intrigue: Adding to the possible risk is reduced funding for many of the entities that provide wildland fire services.

  • Chief Scott Freitag of the Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority in Prescott Valley, said state laws in recent years have reduced local fire districts' revenue, which comes from property taxes.
  • He said his district was only able to respond to about half the calls for service last year due to personnel shortages.
  • "We heard the message. We're in budget talks as we speak," Hobbs said.

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