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After big-blaze years, Arizona has rare ‘typical’ wildfire season so far

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WASHINGTON – Halfway through the year, Arizona has seen a larger number of smaller fires than last year, allowing crews to react quickly, stay safe and keep firefighting costs within budget, officials said.

They are welcoming what is shaping up to be an average wildfire season, following the tragic Yarnell fire that killed 19 firefighters in 2013 and enormous blazes like the 2011 Wallow Fire that burned more than a half-million acres.

Since January, there had been 833 fires that had burned more than 139,000 acres in the state as of earlier this week. That compares to 584 fires by mid-June 2013, that involved about 49,000 acres, according to a spokesman with the Southwest Coordination Center, an interagency incident support website.

“We’re not seeing the large fires we’ve seen in past years,” said Dolores Garcia, fire mitigation specialist with the Bureau of Land Management. “We’re fortunate to have the resources to respond quickly and catch them while they’re small, before becoming newsworthy.”

Catching fires at earlier stages has also allowed the state to save money on firefighting efforts.

Fire suppression in the state has cost about $19 million so far this year, said Jay Ellington, a spokesman for the Southwest Coordination Center. That compares to $229.8 million in fiscal 2011 and $63.7 million for all of fiscal 2013, according to a U.S. Forest Service breakdown of spending by state. Costs for fiscal 2013 have not yet been released.

At the current rate, Garcia said she does not think the state will have to resort to “fire borrowing,” the practice of shifting funds from other programs to cover firefighting costs. Any funds left if the state did not have to fire-borrow would be free to go to states that go over budget this year.

“Our quote-unquote ‘savings’ will end up being used in another state,” she said. “We’ll send hotshot crews and fire engines. We share resources back and forth as the fire season moves on.”

A report this month from the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, criticized the practice of fire borrowing, which causes needed projects to be canceled or deferred as funds are shifted to wildfires.

Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said that means when one region is over budget, it affects the rest of the country.

She also pointed to concerns over the current budgeting system, which is based on a 10-year rolling average: The fiscal 2014 budget was set after looking at what was spent on fire suppression in the preceding 10 years.

“In those 10 years, there will be years when there is below-average activity and some years with higher-than-average fire activity,” Jones said, leading to budget fluctuations that force agencies to transfer money from non-fire programs.

She said the government has busted its firefighting budget seven times since fiscal 2002.

“We’ve had to pull from recreation programs, wildlife programs, roads and trail maintenance,” Jones said. “It’s a difficult way to do business.”

But so far this year, Arizona is doing OK. And the state will return to normal fire potential with monsoon season from July through September, according to a wildfire outlook report by the National Interagency Fire Center.

Garcia said monsoon season could bring an increase in lighting-caused fires: So far, 44 of this year’s more than 800 wildfires have been lightning-related, and the rest caused by human activity.

As the season progresses, Garcia said, BLM is insuring that firefighters are “in the game and not taking things for granted,” by training, double-checking safety mechanisms and working to improve communication between local, state and federal agencies.

She said the bureau also hopes to increase the use of different technologies, to try to predict activity as global weather patterns change, for example. But it will not depend on such technology.

“A model is only a model comprised of statistical figures,” Garcia said.

“Mother Nature can always throw you for a loop,” she said. Fire is part of the ecosystem, so it’s inevitable. Each community needs to make sure it does what it can to be prepared.”