Facing down Arizona’s impending wildfire season
As Arizona warily approaches an early summer fire season marked by record-low watershed runoff and tinder-dry forests, the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management is gearing up for what many fear may be a challenging time ahead.
Among its many duties focused on the protection and health of Arizona’s forestlands, the Forestry Department provides public outreach through various platforms including social media, billboard marketing campaigns, public service announcements, and community-wide events – all of it focused on informing Arizonans about the condition of their forests and the need to protect this valuable resource.
Much of that work falls to Tiffany Davila, a public information officer for Forestry and Fire Management. Tiffany has long been a familiar face among Arizona media covering wildfires in Arizona, providing up-to-date information on many of the more serious conflagrations that plague the state at this time of year.
Arizona Water News recently caught up with Tiffany to get her sense of what lies ahead for Arizona’s forests.
Arizona Water News: With the human-caused Rattlesnake Fire southwest of Alpine, the state’s wildfire ‘season’ already seems to be underway. Are we seeing an unusually early start this year for forest fires?
Tiffany Davila: Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a ‘season’ anymore. Wildfire activity picks up every month nowadays. This January and February we had fire activity across southern Arizona and we expect it to get even busier across the entire State as we move into the warmer months.
Last year, the Sawmill Fire started on April 23rd and burned nearly 47,000 acres. This year, the Rattlesnake Fire started even earlier and has already reached 22,000 acres.
Southern Arizona was very active last year. But this year is different. The lack of precipitation over the winter and increasingly warm temperatures means a decrease in fuel moisture. Therefore, the fire outlook predicted is for high wildfire activity across all of Arizona.
AWN: Rangers in the Tonto National Forest reported issuing 300 warnings and citations between April 20 and 22 for violations of Stage II fire restrictions in the forest – violations that include use of wood and charcoal in campfires, smoking outdoors, parking on dry vegetation. Is it tough getting out the message that these are extremely dangerous things to do in the forest at this time of year?
TD: It’s very hard and at times I feel like a broken record repeating the same things: ‘Don’t drag tow chains… put out your campfires completely… create defensible space… don’t burn on windy days…’ I think I even say it in my sleep.
But seriously, if we keep reinforcing and pushing the messaging it will eventually stick with folks. Many times, people become complacent and yes, accidents do happen, but one spark is really all it takes to start a major wildfire and that’s why it’s very important we continue our marketing efforts to push out our prevention messaging year-round.
AWN: On the plus side, cooler weather and lighter winds for several days have appeared to have helped firefighters with the Rattlesnake Fire. On the minus side, forecasters anticipate dry lightning moving into Arizona during the coming weekend. Is it fair to say you have a love-hate relationship with the weather service at this time of the year?
TD: Actually, we have a love-hate relationship with mother nature. Ha! The forecasters are just doing their jobs. We are fortunate that all our forecasters excel at what they do.
The weather service is very good at keeping us briefed on incoming or poor weather conditions during a fire. In a critical fire situation, we can call them for a spot weather report and they will immediately get us the data we need. Spot weather forecasts are very important because they are based off a pinpointed location of a fire and can be customized to that area.
The forecasters help us do our jobs more effectively and safely and we thank them for that.
AWN: Governor Ducey recently announced doubling his request for fire prevention funding this year to $2 million. How does that funding get used?
TD: That funding is specific for the Department of Forestry and Fire Management’s Hazardous Vegetation Removal program. We use that funding to conduct mitigation projects across the state.
We have several ongoing projects, including one in Safford that is targeting the salt cedar along the Gila River Corridor. Salt cedar, or tamarisk, is a highly flammable and invasive plant that can cause a fire to spread fast and burn very hot. Since last fall, DFFM crews have been working to remove the salt cedar and treat it with herbicide to prevent it from growing back.
Another project that was part of our HVR funding was the fuel break project near Mayer. The 270-acre fuel break installation was a multi-year project that essentially created a buffer zone for the town of Mayer. The break was tested after last year’s Goodwin Fire and proved successful in stopping the fire from moving into the town.
HVR funding is essential for our work, and having that additional money, should the Legislature approve, will be critical in allowing us to do more projects in high-risk areas around our state.
AWN: The communications team at Forestry and Fire Management notoriously gets zero rest when a major fire breaks out. Can you tell us what you do to keep Arizonans aware of things during a fire incident?
TD: We just drink a lot of coffee and energy drinks. I think last year, I worked more than 100 hours during the first seven days the Sawmill Fire started. I’m not even sure how that’s possible.
We have multiple ways to get information out to the public, and one of them is using InciWeb, a public website. There, the public can find evacuation or road closure notices, fire size and containment numbers, pictures, maps, and other information they may be looking for or needing.
We also work closely with our county emergency managers, the sheriff departments, the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Red Cross and, of course, our partnering agencies -- the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service -- to make sure we are getting the public the pertinent information they need in a timely manner.
Often, we conduct public meetings or town halls to ensure we are reaching all the residents impacted by a fire. We also use ‘trap lines,’ which are basically informational booths, that we set up throughout impacted communities, like at a convenience store or post office, where residents can get information on fire size, suppression efforts, and assistance services, like the Red Cross.
Every fire is different, so each requires a different approach from a public information standpoint. In the end, our goal is to make sure our residents are safe, and they are getting the information they need to keep them briefed and try to make them at ease during tense situations.
AWN: Your Twitter handle is “asusundevils2000.” Just how big a Sun Devils fan are you?
TD: Let’s just say I bleed maroon and gold. I’m a huge Sun Devil fan! How can I not be? I’m a native Arizonan! I graduated from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and I am a football season ticket holder! My grandparents were season ticket holders for decades and used to take my brother and I to football games and it just became a family tradition. Our whole family supports ASU, not only the football program, but the institution itself! Forks up! Go Devils!