State officials warn of potentially ‘explosive’ wildfires this summer

A charred tree left behind by the 2011 Wallow Fire, the largest in state history, which burned more than a half-million acres. All wildfires combined in 2023 burned 188,000 acres, but state officials are warning of a more active season in 2024. (File photo by Brandon Quester/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Forestry officials said Arizona is on the verge of a volatile wildfire season, and they urged state residents to be prepared and to take steps now to head off the worst of it.

“The first day of any firefight starts with the actions and efforts that we do today,” said Aaron Casem, the prevention officer at the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

He was speaking at a news conference Monday where state officials said a wet winter spurred excessive growth of vegetation that has the potential to become a “heavy fuel load” for fires as the state dries out this summer.

That wet winter should delay the start of fire season in high country, where heavy snows fell, but at lower elevations there is the potential for “explosive” fire behavior this summer.

“Wind and terrain can influence explosive fire behavior, making the challenge for firefighters harder to contain,” said department Fire Management Officer John Truett. “Due to the elevation changes, there will be specific challenges in how they get in and how they get out of fire season.”

The warnings follow several years of relatively mild wildfire seasons in Arizona. The state recorded 1,837 wildfires in 2023 that burned about 188,000 acres – well below 2020 when 2,519 fires over 978,519 acres.

Aaron Casem, with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, called on state residents to take steps now to head off future wildfires. (Photo by Martin Dreyfuss/Cronkite News)

Officials Monday noted that 71% of the 2023 fires were caused by people. They said the theme of this year’s Wildfire Awareness Week, which is next week in Arizona and New Mexico, is “A Time for Action,” to encourage homeowners to do their part.

Individual steps to boost fire protection across the state include clearing dying vegetation and debris, watering and mowing lawns, and staying aware of state fire restrictions, including prohibitions on target shooting and fireworks on state trust land.

Casem said that Arizonans should start with their own property, addressing vulnerable areas to create a “defensible space” around their homes, while remaining aware of fire risks when engaging in outdoor activities.

Gov. Katie Hobbs joined Monday’s event, where she outlined the nationwide “Ready, Set, Go!” program that has been adopted by the Arizona Emergency information Network to educate Arizonans on “proactive measures to take before an emergency.”

The plan starts with residents signing up for local fire notifications, creating a “go bag” of necessities in case of an evacuation and, finally, evacuating when told to do so. AZEIN says a go kit should contain food, water and health supplies for up to two weeks, while officials Monday added money and a family rally point as two more keys to being prepared.

Hobbs said her budget proposal for fiscal 2025 “continues support of fire prevention and fire restoration,” despite the severe budget shortfall currently facing state lawmakers.

During Wildfire Prevention Week, Arizonans can expect social media messaging, public service announcements and outreach events by the Department of Forestry and Fire Management to “amplify wildfire prevention and outreach messaging prior to the state’s critical fire timeframes.” Officials said it’s important to everyone to be involved.

“Residents and visitors need to do their part to prevent wildfires,” Hobbs said. “It is important that we do our part so they can do theirs.”

News Reporter, Phoenix

Martin Dreyfuss expects to graduate in December 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Dreyfuss is a published journalist and poet, with experience in social media, play-by-play, management and content creation. He began working at age 10, when he began building his work ethic and professional experience in restaurants, sales and esports origination management.