Numerous wildfires are burning throughout Arizona, made worse by low humidity and strong winds. Jeff Whitney, director of the Arizona State Forestry Division, will bring us up to date.
Ted Simons: Firefighters are taking on 19-wildfires across Arizona, the largest is the lizard fire burning more than 15-thousand acres in the south-eastern part of the state. The fires have caused evacuations and restrictions and it's still fairly early in the wildfire season. Joining us now is Jeff Whitney, director of the Arizona state forestry division. Welcome back to Arizona "horizon." what is the situation? 19 sounds like an awful lot.
Jeff Whitney: It is. We have had a lot of fire activity this year. We have had over 850 wildfires and burned over 150,000 acres. The lizard fire is on the decline. The firefighting effort down there has been hugely successful and they held to about 15,000 acres. We have other fires of concern that are larger and have been with us for maybe anywhere from seven to on the boundary fire up northwest of flagstaff and the highline fire inside the footprint of the dude fire that burned in 1990. We have a couple fires we are watching closely that are giving us a lot of concern.
Ted Simons: We have a couple pictures of the lizard fire. Where is this is, how did it get started?
Jeff Whitney: The lizard fire was a combination of two fires. Lightning fires just south of i-10 through Texas canyon. The two fires grew together and burned south along the eastern edge of the mountain range there in cocheese and pierce sun side were the units of concerned.
Ted Simons: Human caused?
Jeff Whitney: Lightning. Dry lightning in the middle of June somewhat rare.
Ted Simons: Where is the boundary fire? How big? How did that one get started?
Jeff Whitney: The boundary fire was another lightning cause fire and it is 17 miles northwest of Flagstaff inside the footprint of another fire we had a decade ago, the pumpkin fire. Initially, it started by lightning and was intended to be a managed fire to clean up the down fuel that was residual from the pumpkin fire. Things dried out and they went into a full suppression mode on that.
Ted Simons: We had a lot of rain in the winter and spring and correct me if I am wrong that usually seems to mean more lower level fires as opposed to higher elevation fires. Is that true?
Jeff Whitney: That is true. We briefed the mayor in mid-April and that is what I shared with the governor and felt sort of smart until the last couple weeks. They said we will have an average fire season which in reality we have having a quote unquote average fire season but it didn't alleviate the threat. We have had a number of large wind driven fires in southern Arizona this year.
Ted Simons: The rain gets the grass and brushes and desert and no rain dries out the high country.
Jeff Whitney: Absolutely.
Ted Simons: As far as the temperatures, 120 degrees in phoenix next week. It seems every year, correct me if I am wrong, once you get over 110-115 range things seem to pop up all over the state.
Jeff Whitney: That is very true. Through the spring, things are typically moist. We had 160% average precipitation this year which helped us, but it has dried out because the winds in the spring time dry out the vegetation. Over the spring, fields continue to dry and you get increased temperatures and it really exacerbates things because you are reducing the relative humidity primarily.
Ted Simons: Once the monsoon starts which is a saving brace for the most part but starts with that dry lightning.
Jeff Whitney: Unfortunately, it is true.
Ted Simons: Those are probably the most difficult but still, again, I have heard up to 90% of these forest wildfires, whatever you want to call them, are man-caused.
Jeff Whitney: Lightning is an unplanned event and we have to expect it to occur anywhere. We would hope that, you know, we can increase our effectiveness in terms of prevention and try to get folks to be a lot more aware.
Jeff Whitney: So many people are going to the high country to play it off and all different aspects lead to the fire.
Ted Simons: Trailers?
Jeff Whitney: Careless match, trailer chains, somebody may be welding in the yard of a ranch, saggy power lines. When the load increases in the demand for the valley there is a load associated with the increase load on the power lines and with the heat they stretch and sag. When they get closer to the ground and make contact with the vegetation it will ark off the power lines and create fires.
Ted Simons: Even a flat tire. Riding on the rim could send off sparks all over the place.
Jeff Whitney: As a matter of fact, I was down with the lizard fire and out with in the district and we responded to a wildfire and there was a vehicle headed to Mexico with a lot of commerce in the back of the truck, a bunch of bikes stacked up, and it went down the road half a mile on the rim and there was about 300 yards of fire along the roads edge and the vehicle was sitting there on the rim. So it happens.
Ted Simons: That is amazing. Did the person every figure out what was going on?
Jeff Whitney: I don't know. We didn't contact them. They wanted it to be equipped when we arrived.
Ted Simons: You still think normal wildfire season?
Jeff Whitney: You know, we will have to see what the next few weeks bring. If we have an early onset for the monsoon we will be out of it sooner. But clearly the high temperatures next week, with the fires we have currently on the ground, any potential new starts will create a lot of concern on our part.
Ted Simons: As far as the biggest concern that you can see, what areas of the state? High country? Mid country? Low country? Central? What are you seeing?
Jeff Whitney: I would say any elevation in the state is vulnerable to a potentially large fire at this point.
Ted Simons: Just watch yourself out and we will see what gives. Great information and good to have you here. Thank you so much for joining us here.
Jeff Whitney: It is a pleasure. Thank you.
Jeff Whitney: Director, AZ State Forestry Division