Wildfires burned 75,000 acres in Arizona, but experts had predicted more

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Conrad Romero

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Wildfires burned 75,000 acres in Arizona, but experts had predicted more

PHOENIX – Wildfires have burned through about 75,000 acres in Arizona already this year. But experts say those numbers aren't as bad in comparison to last year. At this time last year, large fires had burned about 130,000 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Agencies Southwest Coordination Center. The agency considers “large” fires anything that has burned more than 1,000 acres. Wildfire experts had predicted a widespread fire season this year because of the lack of rain. “This was the sixth-driest fall and winter season on record, and that is making things tough,” said Brady Smith, spokesman for the Coconino National Forest. There have been 824 wildfires in Arizona this year, according to the coordination center. Those fires destroyed 74,786 acres, and 98 percent were human-caused. However, Smith said officials took proactive measures this year by closing parts of national forests early. “Human fires have dropped because of the closures,” he said. “But every year, we do have people that violate the closure orders.” Sneaking into a closed forest can cost you: Fines can reach $5,000 for an individual and it requires a mandatory appearance in front of a federal court judge. The Tinder Fire that broke out in April near Payson burned 16,300 acres of Coconino National Forest. Officials said it was caused by an illegal campfire that had been abandoned. Although fires are commonly started by unattended campfires, burning debris on windy days and hot coals from barbecue grills, even a spark can cause disaster. Officials said a semi-truck dragging a trailer created the sparks that ignited Fire 377 in Apache Sitgreaves National Forest in early June. The sparks started numerous brush fires along a 24- mile stretch of State Route 377. The fire eventually burned 4,500 acres and took firefighters the better part of a week to contain. Arizona’s monsoon season officially starts Friday, according to the National Weather Service. The season often brings much-needed moisture. And although this season is starting out dry, officials predict some moisture later this month, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Even with moisture, lightning is still a big concern for us,” Smith said. Every year, lightning is the second-leading cause of wildfires in Arizona, and the dry winter has made conditions perfect for brush to be ignited naturally. The Tank Fire, which is still burning near Clints Well, was caused by lightning, according to the Incident Information Center. Firefighters have halted its progress, but a pre-evacuation notice was still in effect Thursday night for those living a few miles north of Clints Well. The Arizona Department of Transportation has asked motorists to check underneath their vehicles to make sure nothing drags and to monitor low tire pressure, which could create sparks from exposed wheel rims. ADOT spokeswoman Caroline Carpenter said there were no state highway closures Thursday afternoon, but things could change in a hurry. ADOT has real-time updates on highway closures on its Traveler Information site. If your headed into national parks and forests, park rangers are enforcing Stage 2 fire restrictions, which prohibit such activities as campfires, smoking outside an enclosed vehicle and shooting firearms. This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal. Connect with us on Facebook.