That bumper crop of flowers and grasses from all that rain are going to turn from beautiful to deadly this coming wildfire season.
“The perception is it’s been really wet and the risk isn’t as high,” said Gov. Katie Hobbs during the state’s annual briefing about conditions in the state’s grasslands and forest.
“But all of that green is going to become fuel,” she said. “We need folks to be extra aware and extra cautious.”
And State Forester Thomas Torres said while much of the focus this year is in Southern Arizona, it would be wrong to believe that other areas of the state are not at risk.
“Think the areas around Prescott, Payson, that part of the world,” he said.
The situation, according to the Department of Forestry and Fire Management, varies around the state.
It starts with what the agency believes will be a “potential for large-scale incidents” in Southern and Southeast Arizona as temperatures rise and the abundance of fine fuel and grasses dries up.
In Central Arizona, fire activity is expected to pick up by the end of April to early May “due to fuel loading, including overgrowth of grasses and brush.”
Northern Arizona, the beneficiary of copious snowmelt and denser fuel types should have a more delayed start to fire season. But the agency still believes that fire conditions could exist for fire conditions to exist as early as late May.
At the same time, John Truett, the state fire manager, said there are still vacancies in his agency despite promises last year to increase funding. And that complicates efforts to fight blazes as they occur.
“We’ve heard the message,” responded Hobbs, who took over in January as governor. And she said she is currently in budget talks with the Legislature. But there was no specific commitment for more funds.
The problem goes beyond state employees. Truett said his agency relies heavily on local firefighters.
“They’re really short staffed,” he said.
That was backed by Scott Freitag, chief of the Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority.
Last year, he said, his department had the resources to respond to just half of the requests by the state for aid in fighting wildland and brush fires. And that, Freitag said, was in a year with relatively few major fires.
More to the point, he said the funding situation hasn’t changed. Yet at the same time, Freitag said, the Legislature is considering measures that would further restrict the ability of these districts to raise the money they need in property taxes.
“If we’re not funded, we can’t respond,” he said.
That lack of ability to get local help, said Torres, has a ripple effect.
“If the in-state resources can’t respond, then they try to bring resources in from other states to respond,” he said. And that results in a lag in getting staff and equipment on the ground.
Consider, Torres said, the Telegraph Fire near Superior that eventually burned more than 180,000 acres before being fully contained a month later.
“So they called for resources from out of state,” he said, delaying the ability to effectively fight the fire in its early days.
What goes along with all that, Torres said, is that most fires are caused by humans. And that creates its own hazards.
“People want to be in the woods,” he said. “Especially when it’s very hot down here in the Valley, people want to be in the forested parts of the state.”
At the same time, Torres said, fire is “natural in the state.” But the state may not be prepared for that.
“The locations of our buildings and our infrastructure, that is typically not natural,” he said. “And so we have development and people living and recreating in places where fire is natural.”
And that, Torres said, creates “multiple challenges.”
There are other issues.
One, which is transitory, is the monsoon.
Truett said the National Weather Service has told him that the seasonal rains will be anywhere from normal to below normal. Add to that the possibility that the monsoons — and the moisture they bring to help end the fire season — may not come until late July.
And then there’s the longer-term trend of climate change.
“It’s certainly exacerbating the drought,” Hobbs said.
“We all know that,” she continued. “And I think science tells us that humans do have a role in climate change.”
That is in sharp contrast with her predecessor, Doug Ducey, who during his first year in office in 2015, said he believes climate change is real.
“What I am skeptical about is what human activity has to do with it,” Ducey said at the time.
But Hobbs, while professing her belief in the link between human activity and the climate, sidestepped questions of whether she’s willing to use her position to actually push for changes that would decrease greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’re prepared to do a lot,” she said. “But I’m not prepared to discuss it at this time.”
There are things the state could do.
California, for example, has imposed its own limits on vehicle emissions that are tougher than those required by federal laws. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases, exceeding electricity generation and industrial sources.
Her predecessor made it very clear during his eight years in office he was not interested in pursuing such changes.
Ducey, in a 2019 interview with Capitol Media Services, rejected the idea that Arizona should adopt California-style limits on vehicles emissions that are tougher than those required by federal laws.
“I think you can have a growing economy and an improving environment,” Ducey said at the time. “That’s what we’re having in Arizona versus what California’s having, which is a mass exodus.”