Heavy monsoon rains last year coupled with light snowpack this winter will combine to make for a more dangerous fire season this year, state Forester Scott Hunt predicted Wednesday.
Hunt said there is a “bumper crop of grass,” particularly in southeast and northwest Arizona.
“If a fire does ignite, there won't be much to stop it other than firefighters or major barriers out there,” he said. Hunt said there is a high potential for fire at higher elevations.
“We have large accumulations of fuels and near-record levels of dryness,” Hunt said.
“The logs that are laying on the ground right now are typically dryer than kiln-dried lumber you'd buy at your home center,” he continued. “Things are dry.”
But Hunt also said there was less precipitation than normal in the lower deserts, and that, he said, means fewer grasses to catch on fire, particularly in the major metropolitan areas.
Even at that, though, his agency is saying the fire danger is at least moderate all along the Santa Cruz River right through Tucson.
Hunt sidestepped various questions about what changes, if any, his agency is making in how it fight fires in the wake of last year's Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy where 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed when the site where they were was overrun by flames.
In December the state Industrial Commission voted to impose the maximum permissible $559,000 penalty on the state Forestry Division. The most egregious violation was the finding that firefighters were put in “overly hazardous positions to protect property that was unprotectable” under the current conditions. Marshall Krotenberg, the lead investigator for the commission's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, said the strategies used by the Foresty Division “prioritized protection of nondefensible structures and pastureland over firefighter safety.”
Hunt said he would not answer specific questions about any of that because of both the pending lawsuits by survivors as well as his agency's effort to overturn the Industrial Commission findings and fines.
“We are reviewing all our safety aspects,” he said. “We're continuing to train with our firefighters, looking at lessons learned.”
Asked about the finding that his agency had firefighters defending things like vacant homes, Hunt would say only that “our first priority is firefighter and public safety, and that's always going to be our first priority.”
Hunt did say, though, that he expects when there is an initial report of a fire that there will “heavier responses” than in the past.
Among the other findings by the Industrial Commission about the Yarnell Hill Fire was there was a failure to properly plan how to battle the blaze, especially after initial efforts at suppression failed.
Hunt also said he is looking at the question of interagency communications as well as evaluating the use of GPS tracking units for firefighters. There was evidence presented that command personnel lost track of exactly where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were located.
Gov. Jan Brewer, who was briefed Wednesday about the fire dangers, said she is convinced the state is prepared “to ensure we don't have any huge tragedies or fires get out of reach or out of control,” but she said the public needs to play a role in preventing fires in the first place given the drought conditions.
“They have to take on some responsibility,” Brewer said. “They have to realize that they have to be careful.”