2021 Arizona Wildfires: Will DOC Inmates and Monsoon Storms Stop the Scorch?

Lauren Cusimano
Baby, it's dry outside.
For Arizona, the 2020 wildfire season was one of the worst in 10 years.

Precisely 2,520 wildfires burned 978,519 acres of state, federal, and tribal lands according to state totals.

Will 2021's fires be as heinous?

“We do have the potential for an early start to our fire activity with the widespread activity potentially by June,” said Tiffany Davila, public affairs officer for the Department of Forestry and Fire Management. That’s across the Sonoran Desert, which includes metro Phoenix and most of southwest Arizona. So, we’re on track for the same intense fire peak as 2020.

“We see activity throughout the year,” Davila said. In other words, there's no actual fire season, but "activity" peaks once the weather starts warming up at the end of April, beginning of May, and keeps peaking until strong monsoon storms.

The early start is likely for two reasons.

We had a wet winter from 2019 to 2020, creating an influx of grasses, or a "carpet of kindling basically,” as Davila put it. Whatever fine fuels, like grass and brush, didn’t get burned during the 2020 season is still out there.

Then there's this winter, which didn't see much moisture at all. All those unburnt fine fuels have carried over. And La Nina is still lingering, a macro-weather effect that brings warmer temperatures and wicks away moisture. Areas in the Sonoran Desert — the Superstition area, north Scottsdale, and north Phoenix along Interstate 17 — could burn like crazy with Arizona-wide activity soon after.

The fire management agency does fuel mitigation work throughout the year across the state. Workers conducted prescribed burns in January and February. When fire activity grows, everyone is pulled from those projects and put on fire suppression.

This year, there’s a new fuels reduction program the department is happy to have: the Arizona Healthy Forest Initiative, which Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law on March 9. It will enable the department to bring on an additional 700 inmates from the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry to help with fuel reduction throughout the state, meaning they’ll be removing fire-prone vegetation from populated areas. Those additional hands will be brought on and trained over a two-year period. The department will begin hiring overhead and purchasing equipment at the start of the state's fiscal year, July 1.

“That will obviously allow us to cast a bigger safety across the state, get into our higher-risk area, and do more project work throughout the area,” Davila said.

All they have to do is keep it up till peak monsoon season, which is usually the cyclical end to Arizona’s peak wildfire period.

Unless the monsoons don't come, like in 2020.

“Everyone remembers the monsoon of last year was a no-show, colloquially speaking,” said Andrew Deemer a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Phoenix division. “It was a pretty poor performance for the monsoon across the state … so the fire season really didn't end the way that we typically see.”

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This year may see a return of the monsoon. A big return.
Bree Evans/Unsplash
2021’s rainfall projections aren't looking so great either.

“For the most part across the board we're below where we should be this time of year,” Deemer said.

Since we didn't get all that much rain in the winter and spring, we haven't really seen a robust growth of those smaller fuels like grass and dried-out wildflowers, he said. That’s good. But ...

“Then you have to start to wonder, “Well what's that. going to do for the trees?’” he said. “If it's too dry for too long, then our forests become more susceptible because they haven't seen the rainfall.”

But Deemer added that he's cautiously optimistic for 2021’s monsoon season.

“The past two monsoon seasons have been pretty abysmal,” he said. “Statistically, to have another monsoon, as bad as those two were, the odds are quite low.”

Currently, the Climate Prediction Center, which is part of the Weather Service, reports a 40 percent chance of an above-average monsoon season. It seems low, but it's actually good. It doesn’t mean there's a 60 percent chance of it being a below-average monsoon, Deemer said.

“Bottom line is, indications so far are looking on track for a return of the monsoon,” he said. “It's been a few years since we’ve seen it.”

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"We do have fires started by abandoned campfires.”
Roya Ann Miller/Unsplash
So, what can we as Phoenicians do? Davila back at DFFM has a few answers.

The department sees a lot of fire starts on private land, not just state land, usually meaning someone was burning something in their yard, or using a power tool that created sparks in a dry fuel bed, igniting a grass fire. Residential areas that border desert lands around metro Phoenix are the likeliest locations. More than 80 percent of Arizona's wildfires were caused by humans in 2020.

Davila said to check the weather and avoid burning on windy days, have a water source and a shovel nearby,  don’t use any type of tool that may throw sparks — and don’t take your bad habits outside of the Valley.

“People in Phoenix are going up north to recreate,” Davila said. “So, we want to target the people here in this area that are heading outdoors.”

Residents of Flagstaff, Prescott, and other mountain towns know how to be fire safe, Davila said. The DFFM needs to focus on educating Phoenicians how to do a weekend campout safely.

Besides campfires that aren't truly out, or abandoned campfires, many roadside fires are caused by vehicles dragging chains, Davila said. Even a tire blowout can cause a fire once the rim hits the pavement.

“It's very important that people pay attention to what they're doing,” she said.