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Brewer: Wildfire threat worsened by drought

Gov. Jan Brewer, left, with State Forester Scott Hunt, looks at the new equipment before a news conference, April 2 on the upcoming wildfire season. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Nick Oza)

Gov. Jan Brewer, left, with State Forester Scott Hunt, looks at the new equipment before a news conference, April 2 on the upcoming wildfire season. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Nick Oza)

Gov. Jan Brewer called on Arizona residents on Wednesday to be vigilant about preventing wildfires in the wake of an ongoing drought that has left the state even more vulnerable.

“The wildfire threat is even more intense this year given the continuing drought that has left most of Arizona arid and prone to fire damage,” the governor said. “Everyone in Arizona knows, especially after last year’s tragedy, just how destructive and dangerous wildfires can be.”

Brewer made the remarks during a news conference with forestry officials at the Arizona Division of Emergency Management in conjunction with “Arizona Wildfire Prevention Week.”

There have been nearly 200 wildfires in the state so far this year. According to a March 27 report from the Southwest Coordination Center, there were 187 fires caused by people and two by lightning.

Most of them were preventable, Brewer said.

In Arizona desert areas, fire officials said the bone-dry conditions are more like those typically seen in May. Conditions in some places on the outskirts of the Phoenix area resemble the brush-choked area in western Yavapai County where 19 firefighters perished last year in the Yarnell Hill Fire, officials said.

Much of the state is dealing with record levels of dryness, State Forester Scott Hunt said. Some places have only averaged 50 percent or less of their normal snowpack, he said.

“This is setting the stage for a possibly challenging fire season,” Hunt said.

The highest potential for danger is currently in areas above 3,000 feet in the southeastern part of the state, Hunt said. But it could be easier to control fires in lower areas such as Phoenix and Tucson because there is less grass and brush after such a dry winter.

Brewer said she is confident the state has the necessary resources to respond to wildfires “swiftly and effectively.” She approved Hunt’s wildfire-preparedness request, which includes additional air tankers, surveillance planes and helicopters. She also cited Hunt’s work with more than 40 brush-thinning projects across 10,000 acres of state land.

The governor’s fiscal year 2015 budget plan will appropriate $1.4 million to expedite prevention projects for land considered at a high risk for wildfires.

The additional equipment will enable the Arizona State Forestry Division to begin to strategically place additional wildland firefighting units, Hunt said.

Hunt declined to comment how much last year’s Yarnell Hill Fire shaped preparations because of pending litigation. But he said that, in general, state fire officials are reviewing communication systems and coordination among multiple agencies, including issues such as shared radio frequencies.

“We always strive to do better,” Hunt said. “We are still going to respond to fires and do the best that we can. Safety is our paramount concern. Firefighter and public safety are always going to be our first priority.”

The Yarnell fire destroyed more than 100 homes in an area northwest of Phoenix. All but one of the 20 Hotshots on a Prescott-based firefighting crew died June 30 when flames overtook their position near Yarnell.

Arizona lawmakers are considering a bill that would grant the state immunity from millions of dollars of lawsuits similar to ones filed after the Yarnell fire. The bill would also require the state Land Department to take measures to prevent fires like Yarnell.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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