Citizen Staff Writer
By ERIC SAGARA
Nearly 90 percent of the blazes in Arizona’s largest desert fire season in a decade were caused by people.
With about 225 new fires in Arizona in the past eight days, state and federal fire officials are asking that recreation seekers mind fire restrictions at popular outdoor spots over the July 4 weekend.
Spring rains fueled prolific growth of Arizona’s lowland grasses, and high temperatures are priming them for fire. Recent near-record temperatures only aggravate the situation.
“Basically, the grass is so dried and cured and it’s so hot that you could almost view it as a bed of gasoline laying on the ground, just waiting for a spark,” said Cliff Pearlberg, wildland fire prevention officer for the Arizona State Land Department.
This is the second-worst wildfire season in 13 years, but this year the flames are moving through desert grasses, not heavy timber as they were in the worst year, 2002.
Based on records, firefighters will respond to 26 new fires in Arizona every day this month.
For every fire started by lightning in Arizona this year, nearly eight were caused by humans, according to federal data.
In Coronado National Forest, covering much of the federal land around Tucson such as the Santa Catalina Mountains, the situation is similar. Of its 56 fires this year, 45 were started by humans, according to the Southwest Coordination Center. The center oversees firefighting efforts in Arizona, New Mexico and the western half of Texas.
Humans are blamed for more than half the wildfires in Arizona since 1992, the most recent year for which information is available.
Every one of those fires, which have burned a combined 1.5 million acres – or an area 10 times the size of Tucson – could have been prevented, fire experts say.
Those include the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, which burned more than 460,000 acres across the White Mountains, and the Catalinas’ Bullock and Aspen fires, which burned a combined 120,000 acres in 2002 and 2003, respectively,
In grassy areas, a careless smoker, an unattended campfire, a hot tailpipe, even a trailer’s safety chain dragging on a road – anything that causes a spark – can ignite a fire that can double in size within a half hour. Within six hours, a one-acre fire can grow to 256 acres.
Earlier this week, the lightning-caused Cave Creek Complex fires, nearly 200,000 acres north of Phoenix, were spreading at a rate of two miles an hour, nearly as fast as a human can walk.
Three feet of grass can send flames shooting more than 24 feet into the air and spit embers hundreds of feet.
“Once a grass fire has started in the 110-degree weather expected this week, onlookers may only have time to grab prepackaged possessions and get out of harm’s way,” the state land department’s Pearlberg said. “Grass fires have killed more firefighters than forest fires have.”
Fire engines and crews will patrol popular recreation areas this weekend, looking to stop fires before they rage out of control.
Forest and park law officers also will look for campers and other outdoors enthusiasts violating fire restrictions. Officials emphasize that fireworks are illegal throughout the state unless you have a license.
Pearlberg suggested recreation seekers take precautions outdoors this weekend:
• Be alert for the smell or sight of smoke.
• Know all the ways out of any recreation area you visit.
• Don’t box your vehicle in, and park it so that you can pull out quickly.
The Forest Service has six additional fire engines on loan from other departments around the country now stationed throughout the Coronado forest. A group of elite firefighters is also on standby in Safford.
But officials worry that this year’s fire season won’t end with the lightning-packed storms of the monsoon season.
The lightning-caused blazes so far this fire season already have burned more acres than in any entire fire season since 1992.
Fire officials say resources will be stretched thin as volatile weather systems move into the area, sparking more fires. The problem is too much extremely dry vegetation, said Coronado fire information officer Mary Lee Peterson.
Forecasters predict a late start to the monsoon, the Southwest’s summer rainy season, which on the 30-year average starts July 5, and below-average rainfall. Peterson said that means fire crews could be battling blazes well into August.
Already, Coronado National Forest has had fires near Catalina, Patagonia, Madera Canyon and in the Rincon Mountains. No fires have been reported in Coronado’s Chiricahua National Monument in far southeast Arizona.
Aggressive tactics by firefighters have kept those and other area fires small, said Coronado spokeswoman Gail Aschenbrenner.
“I really think that if we’re successful as we have been on initial attack, we may not get into a large fire situation,” she said. “But it’s also going to depend greatly on how much people are really paying attention to campfires, smoking, parking in the tall grass and things like that, that can ignite these fires, especially in the lower elevations.”
Human-caused Lightning-caused Total
fires acres fires acres fires acres
1992 2,353 33,770 1,603 7,836 3,956 41,606
1993 3,719 117,049 1,016 87,725 4,735 204,774
1994 2,469 40,793 2,110 182,106 4,579 222,899
1995 3,318 119,366 1,526 125,397 4,844 244,763
1996 1,747 89,916 2,033 98,271 3,780 188,187
1997 1,500 8,962 1,302 9,585 2,802 18,547
1998 2,317 43,432 916 7,718 3,233 51,150
1999 1,416 50,605 1,795 31,675 3,211 82,280
2000 1,407 45,657 2,172 37,239 3,579 82,896
2001 1,820 12,762 1,347 17,741 3,167 30,503
2002 1,746 599,383 1,335 30,493 3,081 629,876
2003 1,232 114,624 1,607 74,381 2,839 189,005
2004 1,227 45,966 1,396 176,537 2,623 222,503
2005 1,635 137,930 214 252,074 1,849 390,004
Total 27,906 20,372 1,460,215 1,138,778 48,278 2,598,993
Source: Southwest Coordination Center
• A violation of fire restrictions on federal land could result in a $5,000 fine and up to six months in prison.
• Violation of fire restrictions on state land could result in misdemeanor or felony charges. If convicted of a felony, a person could face up to seven years in prison.
• Someone who starts a fire, intentionally or not, can be held liable for the firefighting costs and other damages in addition to criminal charges.
- Tucson Citizen
RESTRICTIONS & CLOSURES
National Forest lands
Restrictions: All of Coronado National Forest, Red Rock Ranger District in Coconino NF, Bradshaw ranger districts in Prescott NF, most of Tonto NF except an area northeast of Globe
Closures: Portions of Cave Creek, Mesa and Tonto Basin ranger districts of Tonto NF, and Verde Ranger District east of Interstate 17 in Prescott NF.
National Park Service
Restrictions: Campfire and smoking restrictions in Chiricahua National Monument.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management
Restrictions: Campfire and smoking restrictions within all or portions of various field office jurisdictions. Check with the office in the area you are visiting or working.
Closed: Agua Fria National Monument.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Restrictions: Along Colorado River within Imperial, Cibola, Bill Williams River and Havasu national wildlife refuges.
State of Arizona
Campfire and smoking restrictions statewide on Arizona State Land Department lands and within wildlife areas in southern Arizona managed by the Arizona Game & Fish Department.
ON THE WEB
• For tips on reducing your fire risk, go to this story online at www.tucsoncitizen.com.
• For National Forest information, go to www.fs.fed.us/r3.
(This information did not run with the story)
• Build campfires away from overhanging branches, steep slopes, rotten stumps, logs, dry grass and leaves. Pile extra wood away from the fires.
• Keep plenty of water handy and have a shovel for throwing dirt on the fire if it gets out of control.
• Start with dry twigs and small sticks.
• Add larger sticks as the fire builds up.
• Put the largest pieces of wood on last, pointing them toward the center of the fire, and gradually push them into the flames.
• Keep the campfire small. A good bed of coals or a small fire surrounded by rocks gives plenty of heat. Scrape away litter, dead organic matter and any burnable material within a 10-foot-diameter circle. This will keep a small campfire from spreading.
• Be sure your match is out. Hold it until it is cold. Break it so that you can feel the charred portion before discarding it. Make sure it is cold out. Conserve matches: Carry a candle as a fire starter.
• Never leave a campfire unattended. Even a small breeze could quickly cause the fire to spread.
• Drown the fire with water. Make sure all embers, coals and sticks are wet. Move rocks because there may be burning embers underneath.
• Stir the remains, add more water and stir again. Be sure all burned material has been extinguished and cooled. If you do not have water, use dirt. Mix enough soil or sand with the embers. Continue adding and stirring until all material is cooled.
• Feel all materials with your bare hand. Make sure that no roots are burning. Do not bury your coals; they can smolder, and a fire can break out.
• After using the burning charcoal briquets, “dunk ‘em!” Don’t sprinkle. Soak the coals with lots of water; stir them and soak again. Be sure they are out – cold! Carefully feel the coals with your bare hands to be sure.
• When smoking is permitted outdoors, safe practices require at least a 3-foot clearing around the smoker. Grind out your cigarette, cigar or pipe tobacco in the dirt. Never grind it on a stump or log. It is unsafe to smoke while walking or riding a horse or trail bike. Use your ashtray while in your car.
Lanterns, stoves and heaters
• Cool all lanterns, stoves and heaters before refueling. Place them on the ground in a cleared area and fill them. If fuel spills, move the appliance to a new clearing before lighting it. Recap and store flammable liquid containers in a safe place. Never light lanterns and stoves inside a tent, trailer or camper. If you use a lantern or stove inside a tent or trailer, be sure to have adequate ventilation. Always read and follow instructions provided by the manufacturer.
• If you must burn trash, don’t pile it on the ground. It will not burn completely and will be easily blown around. Local fire officials can recommend a safe receptacle for burning trash. It should be placed in a cleared area, away from overhead branches and wires.
• Never attempt to burn aerosol cans; heated cans will explode. Flying metal from an exploding can might cause an injury. Burning trash scattered by such an explosion has caused the spread of many fires.
• Check local laws on burning. Some communities allow burning only during specified hours.
• Check the weather; don’t burn on dry, windy days.
• Consider the alternatives to burning. Some types of debris – such as leaves, grass and stubble – may be of more value if used for compost. Household items such as plastics, glass, paper and aluminum cans can be recycled or hauled to a landfill.
• All types of equipment and vehicles are required to have spark arresters. Chain saws, portable generators, cross-country vehicles and trail bikes, to name a few, require spark arresters if used in or near grass, brush or a wooded area. To make sure that the spark arrester is functioning properly, check with the dealer or contact your local Forest Service or state forestry office.
Agricultural residue and forest litter
• Be sure you are fully prepared before burning off your field or garden. To control the fire, you will need a source of water, a bucket and a shovel for tossing dirt on the fire.
• If possible, a fire line should be plowed around the area to be burned. Large fields should be separated into small plots for burning one at a time. Be sure to stay with your fire until it is out.
• Before doing any burning in a wooded area, contact your local forester. The forester will weigh all factors, explain them to you and offer technical advice.
Sources: The Arizona Republic, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters