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AZ is already facing more wildfires than usual this year. How crews are using their resources

It’s officially wildfire season and it’s not looking good for our state so far. A wet winter led to a lot more greenery around Arizona, which is now drying out and becoming kindle for wildfires. 

The Show's next guest says there are already more fires burning across the state than usual this year. John Truett is the state fire manager at the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management and he sat down with The Show to talk more about wildfire season.

Full conversation

LAUREN GILGER: Good morning John.

JOHN TRUETT: Good morning.

GILGER: So more fires than usual already this season, tell us what that looks like. How bad is it?

TRUETT: Yeah, we've had above average in our, our, our fires this year already. It's just due to the, the continuous grass crop that you mentioned earlier from the previous winters and then some of the, the previous monsoon seasons we've had. So we have that continuous grass crop. We've had those wind events come through and so that just leads to the combination of accelerated fire spread and, the, the fire is growing larger and, and more resistant to, to suppression, over the last month.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. How does that kind of greenery, the grass that dries out change the way the fire behaves. Like, does it make it easier for them to jump across roads, trails, things that usually stop a fire?

TRUETT: Yeah. Usually in a normal year, you know, the grasses won't grow across the, the, what we call two track roads. But now it's a continuous field bed across the road beds across any other the washes, things like that, that normally don't have a continuous. So what we would rely on is basically, we call them natural barriers, but those are not there this year because of the grass crop.

GILGER: So, we've heard a lot about the Wildcat Fire burning northeast of Phoenix near Cave Creek. Tell us where this stands now. It's not too far from, from where people live.

TRUETT: No, it's not. And it's out on the Tonto National Forest outside of Cape Creek. They've got a real good handle on it. The firefight that was on, a few nights ago, the firefighters took advantage of a, of an easterly wind and basically made a good stand and, and burned it out. And, basically that, that fire is not spreading any longer. It's in a, you know, more of a mop-up stage now.

GILGER: Yeah, that one like so many it sounds like was, was human caused. Are there fire restrictions in place now across the state? Are there, you know, things we all can do to try to, you know, as Smokey the Bear says, prevent forest fires, right.

TRUETT: Yeah. And, and we are currently gonna be going into fire restrictions, with the U.S. Forest Service on the Tonto and a few of the counties that, that notice will come out today and we'll go into a Stage 1 restrictions and support all of our other agencies that are gonna be doing that.  And but yeah, it's, it's getting to that point where these fires are gonna start carrying through the night. And so we ne we need that, that, that, that restriction out there. We need the public to recognize the restrictions. We just be cautious out there. A lot of our fires this year all been human caused so far and it's just a, you know, it's just set up right now that, that, you know, that even if they have an accidental start, it's just beyond their control to put it out.

GILGER: It spreads that fast. I want to ask you about firefighters. I know there's an ongoing shortage of firefighters. Just fewer people who seem to want to do the job. What's it look like here in Arizona?

TRUETT: Yes. It's, it's very competitive. But we are, you know, the municipals, they're even running short and the, the Federals, they're, they're, you run a little bit short on their seasonals. And here on the Arizona state, we have basically, we have all of our positions filled, but our issue is truly not having enough, full time positions available to staff adequately. And then, that was kind of a, you know, we're a very small department and we rely heavily on our, we call our cooperators, the other fire departments and districts to provide that, that initial attack. And then we provide the oversight and the mid-management of those, those resources.

GILGER: Relying on volunteer firefighting groups around the state, that kind of thing. 

TRUETT: Yeah, them and the professional paid and volunteers are, are an essential tool or resource that we have and that's who we rely on to, to respond to our fires along with our federal partners. 

GILGER: Yeah, tell us about how that affects your work. Like if you're kind of trying to pull together enough people to fight any given fire at any given time, especially if you're expecting a bad season. Do you have to prioritize?

TRUETT: Yeah, we, you know, once we get to that point, we have multiple starts throughout the state, we have to come up with a strategic outlook on starting to prioritize the fires, you know, which, which fires are gonna are more, more have the more potential to, to threaten values at risk because, you know, obviously would be our Number 1 priorities. Fires out with that, that will not you know, provide any threat to values at risk, those fall off to a lower priority and then we'll we'll staff those as we can.

GILGER: As you can. Let me ask you lastly, John about the forecast for this monsoon season, it's expected to be, it sounds like at least at this point maybe a dry one. How does this play into what you're expecting? How you plan, how you prep for this season?

TRUETT: Yeah, we are gonna, we are looking at a later onset of the monsoons and an earlier departure. So what that does for us is you know, it's, it's now it has to be, you know, making sure our resources are available and then what, what it does when the monsoons, you know, finally come or end, they're not going to be what we call a season-ending event. So then the rest of the western states start to, they start their fire seasons in, in July and August. So now we're in competition with all the Western states for the national resources. So we just got to be you know, more vigilant on making sure we have our local resources ready and staffed. And then how do we how do we assign those folks when they are requested to go out of state. You know, we do have a what we call a drawdown where once we reach that drawdown, we will not be able to aid any of our Western states with our resources.

GILGER: Yeah. All right. Hope for rain. John Truett is the state fire manager at the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, joining us to talk about the wildfire season so far. John, thank you.

TRUETT: Well, thank you.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.