Most Active Wildfire Season in 2 Decades Has Surprising Main Cause

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When Daisy Mountain Fire Department responded to a brush fire near I-17 and Table Mesa Road earlier this week, it was the 18th in the region this year. Not since the mid- to late-`90s has there been this many brush fires, said DMFD Battalion Chief Dave Jensen.

While detailed records aren’t kept, “this number far exceeds most other years,” said DMFD spokesperson Paul Schickel. And the season is just getting started.

Mother Nature is partly to blame. The wet winter left abundant grass and shrubbery that has since dried out and become perfect wildfire fuel. But the main cause? Humans. And the most-suspected offending activity may surprise you.

Fire Starters

Most of the 18 brush fires in DMFD’s jurisdiction were in the I-17 corridor between Anthem Way and Sunset Point, and most have not been in populated areas, Schickel said. (Though a blaze April 21 scorched 16 acres of the New River Wash within, literally, a stone’s throw of Anthem Parkside homes.)

anthem new river fire smoke
A firefighter dragged a hose to a fire in New River wash near homes in Anthem Parkside’s west side during a blaze April 21. Photo by Robert Roy Britt

“We’re mostly responding to desert recreation areas within a mile or so of the Interstate,” Schickel said. “Since there haven’t been any recent lightning storms, we’re attributing all these instances to human-caused.”

Kids playing with fire are suspected in a few of the blazes, “but the origin of many more of the brush fires is thought to be shooters,” Schickel said. How would that work? A U.S. Forest Service study in 2013 found that when a bullet strikes a hard surface, its kinetic energy is converted to heat energy sufficient enough to start a fire if there is dry material nearby.

The Worst Conditions

Hot, dry weather plays a role in wildfire risk, and the rough, sometimes inaccessible terrain of the area can make firefighting difficult. But the biggest concern is wind, Schickel explained.

“We’ve been fortunate,” he said. “Some of these fires have occurred on breezy days that make controlling it difficult, but so far, none have been on truly blustery days. The wind can drive a fire quickly, making it difficult if not impossible to contain.”

Several of this year’s fires have been first-alarm events, meaning a lot of resources are pulled in, including sometimes air support. Agencies on the scene can include the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management and Bureau of Land Management, and such urban fire districts as Phoenix or Peoria.

Several agencies battled the “Easter Fire” Sunday, April 16 near New River. Photo courtesy Central Arizona Wildland Response Team

What You Can Do

There is no formal system in the region for spotting wildland fires. Firefighters rely on individuals who spot one and call 9-1-1 (the preferred approach). Getting the exact location is crucial.

“It isn’t uncommon for a caller to report an incident at say, I-17 and New River Road, but they hastily read a sign that says New River Road, not seeing it’s 3 miles ahead,” Schickel said. “In those cases we waste a lot of time searching in the wrong area.”

Area fire officials in recent weeks have repeatedly implored residents to be cautious about fire risk. Maricopa County instituted its annual fire ban in parks on May 8, three weeks earlier than normal. DMFD specifically now asks recreational shooters to use a range, such as Ben Avery Shooting Facility, during times of high fire risk.

“We’re a long way from the end of this brush season,” Schickel said, “but based on what we’ve seen so far, it looks like it may be one of the worst in quite a while.”

wildfire safety home prevention


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Robert Roy Britt
NoPho resident Robert Roy Britt has written for In&Out publications since its inception in 2005. Britt began his journalism career in New Jersey newspapers in the early 1990s. He later became a science writer and was editor-in-chief of the online media sites Space.com and Live Science. He has written four novels. Email the author.
Robert Roy Britt on Email

Robert Roy Britt

NoPho resident Robert Roy Britt has written for In&Out publications since its inception in 2005. Britt began his journalism career in New Jersey newspapers in the early 1990s. He later became a science writer and was editor-in-chief of the online media sites Space.com and Live Science. He has written four novels. Email the author.

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