USA – Arizona had one of its worst wildfire seasons in nearly a decade last year, according to state Department of Forestry and Fire Management officials.
They said statistics show 2,520 wildfires burned 978,519 acres of state, federal and tribal lands in 2020. Of those fires, wildland fire investigators said 82% were caused by humans.
In comparison, 1,869 wildfires burned 384,942 acres on all land jurisdictions in 2019 and some 2,000 wildfires burned an estimated 165,000 acres in 2018.
Arizona’s most severe and destructive wildfire seasons came in 2011 with 1,988 fires charring more than 1 million acres.
The year’s largest fires included the Bush Fire, which burned over 193,000 acres in the Tonto National Forest, becoming the state’s fifth-largest fire in recorded history.
The state also weathered the Bighorn Fire, which burned nearly 120,000 acres in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson and took 48 days to contain.
Lack of precipitation meant fire restrictions through November
Authorities said that among the factors for last year’s severe wildfire season was unseasonably warm conditions, a lack of moisture, an overabundance of fuels across Arizona’s central region and within the Sonoran Desert, and increased recreational traffic across the state.
Arizona’s nonexistent monsoon season also exacerbated the problems and pushed fire activity well into the fall with October’s 9,537-acre Horse Fire on the Prescott National Forest.
The lack of precipitation kept fire restrictions in place through November, according to forestry officials.
“The extreme drought conditions, excess ground fuel and inadequate moisture created fast moving, large-scale fires,” John Truett, fire management officer for Arizona’s forestry department, said in a statement.
COVID-19 was a challenge for firefighting efforts
Tiffany Davila, a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, told The Arizona Republic during a phone interview that the organization developed a COVID-19 mitigation plan, altering how it fights wildfires during the pandemic.
“We had to use more aircraft,” Davila said. “And that was just because we wanted to lessen the amount of people on the ground.”
Davila said firefighters underwent routine temperature checks and carefully sanitized theirpersonal protective equipment, but noted that it’s difficult to fight wildfires while remaining socially distanced.
“It’s really hard to fight fires — especially fires like the Bush or the Bighorn — with being socially distant,” Davila said. “We did our best at the camp level — checking in, temperature checks, things like that. Social distancing. But when you’re actually fighting a fire, it’s hard to be socially distant from the person or the crews that you’re fighting that fire with.”
Davila said one firefighter caught COVID-19 back in May and that they were immediately sent home for two weeks, and the department tested all the personnel who had interacted with them.
Davila said the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management plans to continue following its COVID-19 mitigation strategy this summer even if fire personnel have been completely vaccinated.
“Just because we’re vaccinated or the firefighters are vaccinated or the partnering agencies are vaccinated, that doesn’t mean everybody is going to be vaccinated,” Davila said. “It’s like what you hear on the street. Just because you’re vaccinated doesn’t mean you can stop wearing your mask.”
Davila said the protocol will remain in place until the Centers for Disease Control says it’s safe to conduct business normally.
Too early to forecast 2021 wildfire season
As for whether Arizona should expect another devastating wildfire season this year, Davila said it’ll likely take another month to make an accurate estimate.
Davila said the precipitation the state saw over the past couple days helped a little bit to combat the drought, but much more would be needed to improve the outlook for this year’s wildfire season.
“We’re going to need a lot more moisture in the next couple of months to really see an improvement in the vegetation,” Davila said. “Especially across the central region and the Sonora Desert where he had that influx of activity last year.”