Fighting Fires in Arizona

Pam Boedeker

The SaddleBrooke Nature Club has been fortunate to have interesting and informative virtual speakers during the Pandemic. Two of those recent speakers were Eric Hiddleston, Tucson district Engine Supervisor, and Aaron Casem, State Fire Prevention and Mitigation Officer.

Both work for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management and have more than 20 years of experience in firefighting.

What causes wildfires in Arizona? Ninety percent are caused by humans. During the COVID-19 crisis, people have been encouraged to get outside and visit our parks, and they have in record numbers. Some are new to this area, and some are new to hiking and camping. Not being familiar with desert conditions may be hazardous to them and our parks.

When vehicles pull off the road, the heat from the underside of the vehicle can be the beginning of a fast-growing fire if the area has dry grass and weeds.

Some fires are gunshot related, so target practice has been the cause of some wildfires.

This year was described as the perfect storm for wildfires. Drought, no monsoon moisture, and an abundance of fuel (Buffelgrass in particular).

Unlike other desert weeds, Buffelgrass burns at an extremely high temperature. Firefighters find it nearly impossible to get ahead of it. Flames can reach over four feet which is considered unsafe for the firefighters on the ground.

The prediction is that until some treatment is found to get rid of Buffelgrass, we will continue to have large wildfires. As long as the drought continues, wildfires will be prevalent—even in some areas that have never experienced wildfires.

Vigilant homeowners can do much to save their property by keeping a fire break around their home. Removal of weeds, particularly Buffelgrass, can be a deterrent to fire and give firefighters time to save buildings. If a rapidly moving wildfire is coming, firefighters will choose to save the properties where they have the best chance to be successful. Those are the areas where mitigation efforts have taken place. Have a fire assessment done on your home. Check your homeowner’s insurance so you know what is covered.

Two local communities which have had extensive community-involved mitigation are Oracle and Summer Haven. The Big Horn Fire proved those efforts worthwhile. No buildings were lost.

Eric Huddleston gave a review of the Big Horn Fire.

The most frequent questions are about the aircraft. Aircraft cannot work without boots on the ground telling them where to make their water-drop. The cost of one drop is $200,000. It only works in specific situations.

Right now the best conditions we can hope for are gentle winter rains which will seep into the ground and help the drought conditions. Rain would also assist the re-growth necessary in the burned areas.

Dec. 14 our speaker will be from the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. She will include the Oracle wildlife tunnel and bridge and migration patterns in her presentation.