Arizona Wildfire Update

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Helen Graham, Deputy Fire Staff Officer for the Tonto National Forest, provides an update on Arizona’s current wildfires and a forecast for the summer fire season.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons.

Ted Simons: Temperatures are up, and the heat is on as wildfires are burning thousands of acres in Arizona. The Gladiator Fire on the Prescott National Forrest has raced through about 3,000 acres near crown king. This as three wildfires are burning on the Tonto national forest. The largest is the Sunflower Fire, 20 miles south of payson. It was reported yesterday morning, it's already consumed more than 3,000 acres. Here with an update and a forecast for the summer wildfire season is Helen Graham, Deputy Fire Staff Officer from Tonto National Forest. Thank you for joining us on "Arizona Horizon." Is that pretty much where we stand right now, have you got new numbers?

Helen Graham: I don't have any new numbers from this morning. The Sunflower Fire was a little over 3,000 acres this morning, and with the Northwest winds we did get acetaminophen crease in acreage. It did take some today.

Ted Simons: From what you're aware of, how much contained so far?

Helen Graham: I don't have any estimate of containment for either fire.

Ted Simons: That's not good.

Helen Graham: Well, you have to start somewhere. We have developed a good anchor point on the sunflower, but we're moving forward from there.

Ted Simons: Where exactly are these fires?

Helen Graham: The Sunflower Fire is 20 miles south of payson. As you head up highway 87 out of Mesa, you're coming down into kitty joe creek area, and there's the sunflower admin site, it's about 15 miles south of the turnoff to the lake Roosevelt.

Ted Simons: 50 miles south. All right.

Helen Graham: So it's off to the west just east and south of the wilderness.

Ted Simons: And as you're traveling up there, you can see that fire.

Helen Graham: You'll see the smoke from the fire, yes.

Ted Simons: You've mentioned the MATAZELS hit not too long ago?

Helen Graham: They were hit in the '90s and early 2000s.

Ted Simons: When an area is hit like that, how -- isn't there a down period as far as fires are concerned?

Helen Graham: Yeah. The winter period, the fall and the winter and early spring is actually the period when we try to do our prescribed burning to reduce the fuel loading on the forest. It's a low period of occurrence for fires for us.

Ted Simons: If an area has been hit hard, that should be immune for a while.

Helen Graham: You're talking about over periods of time. You know, the fire is a natural process. When a fire goes through we have the fine field growth that comes back, we get the brush that comes in, and once have you that field growth, you're ripe for another fire. The intensity will be lower, but you're still ripe for another fire.

Ted Simons: Weather conditions over the winter, how does that play into what's happening right now?

Helen Graham: Very much into what's happening now. We're in a long-term drought. We had below-normal precipitation through the winter and we had higher than normal temperatures. So soil moistures are lower, we did get early winter rains that brought some grass growth, and we had good grass crap last year, so good seed craps. We have plentiful grasses, especially in the uplands outside of the deserts. So grass is a good contributor to the spread of fire. So it leads to fires that spread quickly, quickly can get out of control and are hard to catch.

Ted Simons: What about current weather conditions? Where are these fires headed?

Helen Graham: Well, today we're experiencing weather system that pushed the fire to the southwest. Tomorrow we're getting southeast winds and that will push the fire to the Northwest. So -- and then our typical pattern is out of the southwest. So the fire is getting moved around quite a bit today, yes turn back to our typical pattern, we'll have a larger flaming front to dole with.

Ted Simons: Any power lines threatened?

Helen Graham: The large K.V. line down the 87, it's been tripped once because of the smoke from the fire. So we're monitoring that with APS actively, and they're a partner of ours in managing wildfires, and they're actually on the team. So we'll keep them monitoring that, keep working with them to divert power and keep Phoenix powered up, because of the heat of the summer. But it is threatened. It will be threatened, and we're working to protect it.

Ted Simons: Homes and structures, Gladiator Fire has got folks in crown king worried. What about the ones in Tonto?

Helen Graham: Nearby ranch to the south and west, and there are some forest service structures to the south. But moving into the wilderness there really aren't any structures or developments that are threatened other than trails and trailheads.

Ted Simons: The idea, campground, historic sites as well? Are they pretty much out of the line?

Helen Graham: At this time they are. Mormon flat trailhead is right at the edge of the fire.

Ted Simons: What can be done as far as mitigating wildfires in Arizona? Obviously if you're camping, you've got to watch yourself and understand the ramifications of what you're doing. But what can you done to mitigate and what should be done? As you mentioned, this is nature.

Helen Graham: Right. Folks that are enjoying the national forest need to be careful with any kind of fire. We're preparing to go into fire restrictions, which will limit people's ability to use fire in the forest. We'll be restricting fires to developed campgrounds and the types of campfire rings we provide. Smoking will be prohibited except in developed areas, buildings or cars. And then all the other extreme uses, welding, a lot of our fires -- A lot of our fires year in and year out are caused by vehicle problems. Overheating vehicles, vehicles that are poorly maintained, vehicles that break down and pull to the side of the road and a catalytic converter starts the grass on fire. So we can acrib out a lot of our fires to the traveling public.

Ted Simons: Last question. You look outside right now, we looked outside yesterday and saw a lot of muck in the sky. A lot of smoke. Which -- are we looking at wildfires? If so, which ones.

Helen Graham: You're looking at both of them. As a matter of fact, the first day of the Sunflower Fire bite end of the day I was talking with ADEQ about the impacts of smoke to Phoenix. With the weather patterns, the nighttime winds, even if the Snoqualmie blows out, the weather patterns, the downslope winds will bring it back to Phoenix. That's why we're working with ADEQ to monitor the situation.

Ted Simons: So we're looking at gladiator and sunflower, both those fires.

Helen Graham: Both those fires are impacting the Phoenix basin.

Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us.

Helen Graham: Thank you.

Helen Graham:Deputy Fire Staff Officer, Tonto National Forest;

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