PHOENIX – Wildfire season is off to an earlier start this year because of dry conditions, but the state is prepared for the fight, Gov. Jan Brewer and fire officials said Wednesday.
“Everyone in Arizona knows, especially after last year’s tragedy, just how dangerous wildfires can be,” Brewer said at a news conference held at the Arizona Division of Emergency Management.
State Forester Scott Hunt said Arizona has already had 179 fires this year, including 24 just in the past week. The wildfire season usually starts in late May, but he’ll be putting his crews on early this year.
“We are critically dry,” Hunt said. “This is setting the stage for a potentially critical fire season.”
This year’s lack of precipitation was the third consecutive dry winter, and some areas of the state had record levels of dryness, Hunt said.
In the lower elevations around the state, particularly the deserts around the Phoenix area, the lack of rainfall means less annual grass and less firefighting in those areas, he said. He’s primarily concerned about southeastern Arizona and higher elevation areas in the north.
Last year’s wildfire season turned deadly last June when 19 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew were killed while fighting the Yarnell Hire Fire.
In the wake of Yarnell Hill, Hunt said his team is looking at ways to be more prepared: placing resources early, using fire behavior predictions, improving fireline communications and evaluating GPS-tracking units.
He said he couldn’t comment on many specifics about what happened in the Yarnell Hill fire because of pending litigation.
“We can always strive to improve and do better,” he said. “We’re still going to respond to fire with safety as our main concern.”
The governor allocated $1.8 million in her executive budget for fiscal year 2015 for fire safety and equipment throughout the state, including training, staffing and replacing fire engines. Of that, $1.4 million would be for fire mitigation and removing hazardous vegetation that can lead to wildfires.
The state has enough money in its emergency fund and suppression fund to manage this year’s fire season, Brewer said.
The number of air tankers used to fight fires has also doubled this year, bringing the total to 17 nationwide, according to Hunt.
“We feel ready for fire season,” Hunt said. “I feel pretty good about the resources available this year.”
Attending the news conference were women inmates from the Arizona State Prison Complex-Perryville who will be working as firefighters this season.
Janah Westerholm, the sergeant in charge of the crew, said she enjoys the physical challenges of the job and protecting the community, though it can be tough.
“Safety is paramount,” she said. “We need to be mentally and physically prepared for the challenge.”
Westerholm and her crew had seven fire assignments last season, and she said people need to be vigilant in preventing fires to ensure numbers stay low.
“If you see something, even if it’s small, report it right away so we can respond,” Westerholm said.
Michelle Fidler, a fire communication and education specialist with the National Park Service, said fires can often start in ways people wouldn’t normally think of.
“One of the things that folks don’t recognize is that vehicles can start fires,” Fidler said.
Trucks dragging chains on the road as they drive, worn-out tires with treads showing and parking in dry grass while the engine is hot are all hazards, she said.
“It’s not a matter of if the next fire starts, it’s when,” Fidler said.