Public lands in Arizona and perhaps the Western U.S. appear to be facing the most extreme year for wildland fire in more than a decade. The month of May was a record year for fire occurrence in Arizona. From May 1 to May 31, Arizona experienced 527 wildfires burning 81,536 acres.  As of today, Arizona has already experienced 941 wildfires this year burning 169,069 acres, of which 896 (95 percent) of those fires were human cased. In 2019, from January 1 to June 1, we had 689 fires burning only 47,000 acres of state, federal and tribal lands. 

“Arizona is experiencing a heavy grass and shrub fuel loading in our desert country that we haven’t seen since 2005, when we last had heavy fire occurrence in the desert regions of the state,” according to Bureau of Land Management Arizona State Director Ray Suazo. “2020 is shaping up to another extreme year for wildland fire in Arizona.” 

Eighty-Five percent, or 742 of this year’s wildfires were human-caused. It’s going to take all of us, federal and state land management agencies and the public alike, to keep this treasure of public lands beautiful, productive and safe from the impacts of catastrophic wildfire.

According to Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management Director, David Tenney, “the spike in the number of fires is greatly concerning. Upon ignition, fires are moving fast and spreading rapidly creating a dangerous situation for the public and our firefighters. Those dangers become amplified when fighting fires while following physical distancing guidelines.”

Much of Arizona is under fire restrictions. It is essential that everyone stay alert and do their part to prevent wildfires. Most wildfires in Arizona are human-caused, usually by campfires, sparks from equipment, vehicles parked on dry desert grass, vehicles with dragging chains or metal causing sparks, discarded cigarettes, shooting, and arson.

Preventing wildfires protects communities, firefighters, and emergency responders from exposure to smoke and disease, and greatly reduces the risk of injury or death. You can help to prevent wildfires by following all fire restrictions in effect across Arizona, which restrict campfires, equipment that can cause sparks and recreational target shooting. Ensure your vehicles and equipment are mechanically sound; check wires, fluids, tire inflation, brake condition, and secure chains or other metal that may drag. Do not drive or park over dry grass or brush.

Recently, a few dry lightning events combined with some windy days have increased fire activity significantly in Arizona and we are expecting this pattern to continue over the next several weeks.  These events combined with the already high occurrence of human caused fires throughout the state are exhausting firefighting resources.  We need everyone to enjoy the outdoors responsibly and help out our firefighters by preventing unneeded exposure to fighting wildfires.  One less wildfire to respond to is one less fire exposing our firefighters to potential dangers of battling these fires.

Arizona in many ways is defined by our access to the outdoors — it is an ingrained part of our culture, our way of life, and many Arizonans make their livings on the land. Thousands of residents and visitors responsibly enjoy our amazing parks, trails, forests, refuges, wildlife areas, historic sites, wilderness areas, rivers, lakes and reservoirs every year; ranchers, miners, utility workers and others depend on the land and outdoors for their livelihood. The ability for Arizonans to spend time outside enjoying or working on public lands has been incredibly important to public health while facing COVID-19.

As managers of many of Arizona’s outdoor recreation areas, we encourage Arizonans to continue enjoying all the spectacular landscapes our state offers, while adhering to physical distancing guidelines provided by the Arizona Department of Health Services  and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And please also do so with an eye toward fire safety. Be aware that fighting wildland fires is even more challenging while taking COVID-19 precautions.

In addition to being safe with fire, there are other considerations these days. Be prepared to pack out everything you pack in and practice Leave No Trace principles— garbage pick-up and sanitation supplies are limited in many areas. We have been seeing unprecedented use of public lands in Arizona and unfortunately an increase in litter as a result. It is a top priority for USDA Forest Service Southwestern Regional Forester Sandy Watts to help provide a safe and sanitary place for people to recreate in the forests of Arizona. She also stresses that, “increased use and limited services mean more trash and human waste, it’s up to all of us to do our part to keep these public spaces clean.”

As public land opportunities and visitor services are reopening across the state, we encourage people to seek respite on their public lands. Please help us to maintain the beauty of these natural places by recreating responsibly. For available recreation opportunities and to view current guidelines and restrictions, the Arizona Office of Tourism offers information from state and federal land management agencies at Responsible Recreation Arizona.

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