By KOLD News 13 Staff| March 22, 2021 at 10:22 PM MST – Updated March 22 at 10:22 PM
TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) – Gov. Doug Ducey and fire officials announced Monday that the upcoming wildfire season is expected to be similar to 2020, which was reported as the second-worst wildfire season in Arizona.
“We have more vegetation on the ground this year that can act as a fuel for wildfires, so we’re already seeing a heightened risk to our communities,” Ducey said in a news conference Monday.
Last year, 2,520 wildfires burned nearly 1 million acres across state, federal and tribal lands and was 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 human-caused, but fire officials say vegetation overgrowth, an ongoing drought and lack of rain during the monsoon season also contributed to the increase in fires.
The Bush Fire became the state’s fifth-largest fire after it burned 193,000 acres in Tonto National Forest.
Department of Forestry Fire Management Officer John Truett said Monday that there is a “very severe potential” for wildland fires and rapid-fire spread across the state this year.
Arizona’s wildfire season started early this year with several fires that burned more than 500 acres, Truett said. This month, the Punkin Fire forced the evacuation of 100 people and also closed a state route, Ducey emphasized.
“It’s going to be very important for the public to do their due diligence and prevention, watching their outdoor activities,” Truett said. “It’s going to be extremely dry. It won’t take much to get ignition source going and get that fired up and spread across the landscape.”https://9d24f16ccb5b3c1af8636e6779da8078.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Recently, weather service and agriculture officials warned of increased wildfires in addition to potential water use cutbacks and damage to wheat crops in California and the Southwest due to an expanding drought.
The spring outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is an expanding drought with a drier than normal April, May and June for a large part of the country from Louisiana to Oregon. Most of Arizona is currently in an extreme to exceptional drought, according to the United States Drought Monitor.
Officials said increased recreational traffic in Arizona and unseasonably warm conditions, lack of moisture and an overabundance of fuels across Arizona’s central region and within the Sonoran Desert, all contributed to last year’s severe wildfire season, which continued well into the fall.
The lack of rain also kept fire restrictions in place through November, fire officials said.
Ducey said Arizonans need to do their part and take common-sense precautions to help prevent fires this year such as making sure trailer chains aren’t dragging, putting out campfires and protecting property by limiting combustible material and vegetation within 100 feet of a house.
Advice for preparing your home for wildfires can be found in English and Spanish on the National Fire Protection Association’s website.
The news conference with fire and state agencies came after Ducey signed the Arizona Healthy Forest Initiative in March to increase the number of people working to prevent fires in the state. The new $24 million multi-agency initiative will train more than 700 Arizona inmates to help prevent wildfires and create partnerships to reduce wildfire fuels.https://9d24f16ccb5b3c1af8636e6779da8078.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
“The Arizona Healthy Forest Initiative not only promotes a healthier and safer Arizona, but it also deeply expands the rehabilitative opportunities, which enhance offender’s post-incarceration successful reentry and transition back into our community,” said Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry Director David Shinn at the conference.
Officials said the new initiative and partnership between the Department of Forestry and the Department of Corrections helps reduce recidivism by providing inmates with job skills for post-sentence employment.
“Cleaning up hazardous debris, they will reduce wildfire risks and create healthier and more fire-resistant forests,” Shinn said.
The state has 43 planned and 47 in-progress wildfire risk reduction projects in place and has completed 181 reduction projects from 2013 to 2020, according to officials. The goal of the new forest initiative is to increase the number of acres receiving treatment from 4,000 to 20,000 acres annually. The projected increase in the number of acres receiving treatment under the initiative is 500%, according to the state.
Shinn said the department has partnered with the state forestry agency for 30 years and acknowledged the five inmate firefighters and Department of Corrections fire crew supervisor who died while fighting the Dude Fire in 1990.
Inmates who are part of the Department’s wildfire crews have also been prioritized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as part of the Phase 1B group, Shinn said. The current program includes about 240 inmates, according to the Department of Forestry. Officials said more than 30 of the inmates have been hired by the state since they were released.
The inmates selected for the program are the lowest-risk offenders in custody, Shinn said.
House Bill 2440 and Senate Bill 1442, introduced by state Rep. Gail Griffin and state Sen. Sine Kerr, will also help support this initiative, Ducey said. SB 1442 will help increase partnerships to reduce wildfire risks on federal lands.
“This partnership will provide critical job skills for over 700 individuals while giving our state’s lands, wildlife and communities the much-needed hazardous vegetation removal to help mitigate the damage and the danger caused by catastrophic wildfires,” said Kerr, the primary sponsor for SB 1442.
Copyright 2021 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.