Around Arizona: Wildfire Update

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Arizona’s Wildfire season is expected to start early because of a dry winter. Wildfire reporter Jim Cross of KTAR radio will give us an update.

Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," concerns that the state's wildfire season is starting earlier than usual. A new report criticizes the governor's moratorium on new state regulations. And Phoenix art museum director Jim Ballinger talks about his decision to retire. Those stories next, on "Arizona Horizon."

Narrator: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight. Members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The Arizona court of appeals today ruled that Republican lawmakers do have the constitutional standing to challenge last year's expansion of Medicaid. The lawmakers argued that the expansion required a two-thirds majority vote due to the plan's assessment on hospitals. The legislature wound up passing the plan with a simple majority. The governor says she considers today's ruling procedural and not focused on the merits of the case. She says she'll go to the state Supreme Court if necessary to protect Medicaid expansion as it now stand.

Ted Simons: A dry winter is leading to an early start to the wildfire season in Arizona. For more on what we can expect is KATR reporter Jim cross who has covered wildfires in Arizona for many, many years. In fact I remember talking to you up there at the rodeo fire on the scene up there which was 2002 ?

Jim Cross: July of 2002.

Ted Simons: Since then we've had bigger fires, and we've had deadlier fires for sure. Are we just -- Is this expected now every year?

Ted Simons: Well, since 2002, we've had nine of the state's largest fires, top largest fire on record just since 2002. Rodeo fire was the second, they seem to be getting more dangerous every year, last year it was the deadliest year with the Yarnell hotshots dying up there, but they seem to be getting more dangerous every passing year.

Ted Simons: What are we seeing about ?

Jim Cross: We're early. About a month early right now. The conditions are what they should be in mid may. We have five of the six national forests under fire restrictions, Coronado in southeastern Arizona will probably be within a matter of days. Much of the state lands are under fire restrictions, BLM by the end of the week. Some of the conditions I'm hearing about the high country, they're comparing this with 2002. Based on this. Some of the fire commanders are telling me the downed lumber, they're doing core samples on is dryer than stuff you'd find at a home depot or Lowe's. That wood has more moisture right now than they're seeing on the ground.

Ted Simons: What have we seen so far in terms of fire? Flagstaff, Sierra Vista, how big have those fires been?

Jim Cross: The one by Flagstaff was 175 acres. They got in there pretty quick and knocked it out. Five or -acre near Sierra Vista last weekend, lightning caused. The one that was a concern was a 200-acre brown fire, they sent a type one team down there, the same team that handled the Yarnell fire last year that knocked that fire out, they sent that team down for a -acre fire. So they're hitting them early and hard.

Ted Simons: What kind of resources are out there? I ask because as bad as things are here, they're worse in California. And they are expecting major fires over there. With that kind of attention to California, what's happening over here?

Jim Cross: Right now we're in good shape. We have plenty of manpower, we can always tap into more manpower nationally. They have plenty much air tankers. California, we're in the bull's eye, Arizona is. And we're going to be for weeks. But California is in such horrific shape right now, it's almost inevitable they're going to go up and we're going to see very large fires in California this spring and summer.

Ted Simons: As far as Arizona is concerned, are we more concerned about the high country, are we more concerned about lowlands, desert, grasses, what's the major concern?

Jim Cross: I think they're concerned about everything. The timber, we had one-third of the snowpack, approximately, we should have had. We've had two rainstorms in the valley, and around southern Arizona since mid December. And just enough to grow more stuff that's now drying out and is going to burn. The timber has been in bad shape for days. The forests are going into restrictions, this one is going to be on people in spring and summer, at least until the monsoon.

Ted Simons: It seems in the past if you had a good winter rainy season to a certain degree, it seemed like would you worry a little bit more about the grasslands and desert areas because they would grow things you wouldn't ordinarily grow, dry out quicker, boom, there you go. If it's dryer than usual, it seems like you would be concerned more with the high country because they're not getting the snowpack, and as we talked earlier, the weather has changed. It's different than it had been in the past.

Jim Cross: I have never seen a winter -- If you can call it a winter, like this. We went from fall to spring. We had very little winter, very little snowpack, very little rain. We're approaching 100 degrees this time of year, the windstorm today, today was problem it will worst fire danger all year with all the wind. Still is.

Ted Simons: That's the nature -- April and may are always the high wind months, and you got June and July with high temperatures. Then you hope the monsoon gets here quickly, but the monsoon is a problem itself because of the lightning strikes.

Jim Cross: And they say the El Nino is building up, the warming of the Pacific Ocean waters which could bring us a strong winter with a lot of rain and snow. But some of the weather guys are telling me that that El Nino build-up is starting to maybe pull some steam out of what would have been, you know, at least a moderate monsoon. So we'll see what happens.

Ted Simons: As far as the firefighting community is concerned, the mood after last year, what are you sensing out there, and have any procedural changes been put in place due to the Yarnell hill tragedy?

Jim Cross: They're hesitant to tell us what took place as far as changes. There are many lawsuits remaining out there. But they are going to try GPS tracking systems on some of the firefighters they would carry, they're going to test those out. Them and the forest service. We're seeing already that they're hitting fires very hard, very early on, IE. the brown fire in Sierra Vista. When I heard a type one team was going down there, was that was a surprise. That is the best of the best teams. They hammered that fire, knocked it out.

Ted Simons: As far as the mood overall, I imagine the attention to detail, a little more pronounced? Though it's always there, but would I imagine there's an extra emphasis this go-round.

Jim Cross: Certainly. You can't go through a tragedy like they did and not have changes. Certainly the way they do things, and the way they emotionally fight fires.

Ted Simons: All right. We'll see how it goes. What you're saying is it's going to be pretty rough and pretty early.

Jim Cross: We're really set up for a bad fire season. It's as bad as I've seen in Arizona.

Ted Simons: It's always a pleasure. Good to see you. Thanks for joining us.

Jim Cross: Thanks, Ted.

Jim Cross:Reporter, KTAR Radio;

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