The New Normal: Year-Round Fire Season

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The 303 Fire in North Phoenix as it raced north from the Loop 303 to just west of the Dove Valley Road exit at I-17 on June 22, 2017. Photos by Robert Roy Britt

Once upon a time, fire season in Arizona typically started with hot, dry weather in May and ended with monsoon rains in July. No more―thanks to the combustible combination of perennially dry vegetation and a burgeoning population.

“There’s no fire season anymore,” said Tiffany Davila, a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. “Fire season is year-round.”

Through July 1, Daisy Mountain Fire & Medical, which routinely battles brush fires all around the North Valley and up I-17 to Sunset Point, had responded to three times as many compared to last year by this time. Among them: one in Anthem, one a short stone’s throw from Arroyo Norte homes, and one July 3 that shut down I-17 and forced the temporary evacuation of several New River homes.

On June 24, 2019, a fire started near Arroyo Norte and hopped Circle Mountain Road, seen here looking west toward I-17.

Multiple fire bans are in effect as of July 2:

  • DMFM banned outdoor fires in its district if intended for human warmth or recreation, including in wood-burning chimeneas and pits. 
  • Maricopa County’s annual ban of all fires in county parks is in place. Exceptions: Gas/propane grills in designated ramada areas. Ditto for Phoenix parks and preserves.
  • Stage I fire restrictions are in effect for all state land in Maricopa county. Exceptions: Liquid petroleum or LPG-fueled flames that can be turned off, and only if used in areas clear of flammable material.

The I-17 corridor from North Phoenix up into the mountains is a particular hotspot for brush fires, for two primary reasons, Davila says: More people are moving into what her agency calls the “wildlife urban interface” with its tinder-dry brush, and the increasing population just isn’t fire wise.

“We are seeing fires every month of the year now,” Davila told In&Out.

Clearing Brush

The corridor has been targeted for fire prevention by the state, with an ongoing brush-removal campaign along roadways and in other high-risk areas, by the forestry department, ADOT and other agencies. “We work year-round, but obviously we aren’t going to be able to get at it all,” Davila says—especially because they’re busier than ever fighting fires.

It doesn’t seem to matter if we’re deep in drought or have a wet winter, like this past one.

“With the moisture comes increase in vegetation,” Davila said. “Now were seeing an influx of grasses that haven’t had an impact the past couple years. In a year with lack of moisture, we have the vegetation just drying out, and it’s a prime kindling source for fires. It’s a double-edged sword.”

Brent Fenton, spokesperson for Daisy Mountain Fire & Medical, agrees fire season is year-round, but he says fires in cooler or wetter weather tend to be smaller.

Until the rains come this summer, the risk is “extreme.” Fenton said. Heavy rains from fall to spring promoted tall grass and thick underbrush, he said. “When you have a combination of heavy, thick, dead and dry fuel, mixed with prime weather conditions, you have a recipe for potential disaster.”

Laying Blame

Officials don’t always determine causes, but they know the fires are almost always human-caused. 

Three teens playing with fireworks near Happy Valley Road on June 18 started a brush fire that injured two firefighters, threatened homes in the area, and burned more than 20 acres up a mountainside.

On June 24, a fire began in or near a small horse property east of I-17 near an RV sales lot, threatening Arroyo Norte homes, hopped Circle Mountain Road and raced north toward New River. It was likely triggered by a faulty APS transformer, Fenton said.

But drivers and target shooters are the more common culprits, local and state experts say. All it takes is a single spark, Fenton points out.

“Every year that there is not a fire, increases the danger,” he said. “Some of these areas have not burned in as many as 20 years, some even longer.”

Daisy Mountain Fire cooperates with the Phoenix Fire Department and others around the Valley, to send necessary resources to any fire in the region. The new Phoenix Fire Station at I-17 and Jomax Road, slated to open soon [See Page 21], will help battle brush fires, said Phoenix Fire Capt. Rob McDade. Station 55 won’t have a wildland crew, but “we are all firefighters capable of fighting brush fires,” McDade said.

Only You
The top brush-fire triggers:

  • Driving in tall grass
  • Discarding cigarettes
  • Dragging chains
  • Target shooting

SOURCE: DMFM; AZ Forestry Dept.

Preventing Brush Fires 

Many homes in North Phoenix, from Tramonto through Sonoran Foothills to Norterra, back up to the Phoenix Sonoran Desert Preserve. Those residents “may remove dry shrubs, brush and grasses, and trim dead branches from trees within the 10-foot strip of preserve bordering their property,” according to the City of Phoenix.

For more information about removing vegetation within the preserve, call 602-495-5458 or e-mail [email protected].

Otherwise, Section 404 of the 1972 Federal Clean Water act governs just about all activity in any U.S. waterway, including intermittent streams—like the mostly dry washes that wind through neighborhoods from Anthem to Norterra. Specifically, it prevents disturbing the natural landscape.

Anthem’s 404 washes are governed by restrictive covenants administered typically by the Anthem Community Council with Army Corps enforcement oversight. “The covenants allow the ACC to create defensible space, trim or remove brush as preventative measures, and to create fire breaks with the support and guidance of fire officials,” said ACC spokesperson

Kristi Northcutt.

BrightView, ACC’s landscaper, has cleared a 3-foot-wide zone behind walls and view fences and along trails in the past. 

“Starting this year, however, the landscaper is clearing a 5-foot-wide barrier,” Northcutt said. “More than 5 linear miles of brush is typically cleared each year; but in 2019 the company has proactively cleared 12 linear miles.”

Anthem Parkside residents concerned about brush encroaching on their property can call the Parks & Facilities Department at 623-879-3028.

Do This

Clear a 30-foot or wider defensible space around your home, fire officials advise. If that’s impractical, at least…

  • Keep gutters clean
  • Remove all yard debris
  • Trim trees hanging over your fence or near your house

“It only takes one ember to land in the wrong spot, with the right conditions, to cause a structure to burn,” said Brent Fenton, Daisy Mountain Fire & Medical spokesperson.

Related: 46 Wildfires in AZ from July 4-7

A four-engine jet swooped over Tramonto, crossed I-17 and dropped retardant on the 303 fire in 2017.
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 and Live Science. He has written four novels. .

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 and Live Science. He has written four novels. .

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