Lack of moisture, money raises concerns for fire season

Firefighters respond to a wildfire along Stockton Hill Road north of Kingman in June 2012. (JC AMBERLYN/Miner)

Firefighters respond to a wildfire along Stockton Hill Road north of Kingman in June 2012. (JC AMBERLYN/Miner)

KINGMAN - The National Interagency Fire Center predicts the 2015 fire season will be normal in northwestern Arizona, but local fire officials are preparing for a potentially serious one as temperatures warm.

Not surprisingly, the cause for their collective concern has as much to do with dollars as drought.

And while the overall risk of wildfires this year might be normal in the remote areas of Arizona, the risk rises exponentially when wildfire breaks out in and near population centers where lives and property are more likely to be in the danger zone.

"We had significant moisture," said Patrick Moore, chief of the Northern Arizona Consolidated Fire District. "But we as well have to deal with cuts to revenue because of the recession."

Fewer firefighters and less equipment means there are fewer people available to put down the all-too-common brushfires that blaze up every spring and summer.

Unlike wildfires outside of populated areas, which are most commonly sparked by lightning strikes, brushfires closer to home are normally acts of carelessness or criminality.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of fuel-heavy open spaces throughout the Kingman area. Fires started at any one of them could reach homes or businesses if not quickly knocked down. While Mother Nature and neglectful human acts provide the potential for fire, people who fail to maintain their properties by cutting down weeds, clearing debris from their rain gutters and watering their trees make their homes unnecessarily vulnerable - along with the homes of their neighbors living in close proximity.

"Our job becomes more difficult without help from the community," said Moore. "Create a defensible space around your property, keep your weeds under control. Our call volume is going up every year and people have to help us help them."

Moore said Northern Arizona Consolidated crews have responded to nearly a dozen brushfires already in 2015. They've been relatively small so far, but warmer temperatures will increase the risk of a significant fire.

While individual departments might feel the effects of smaller budgets, they have joined together to provide mutual aid in the event of a big fire.

They all believe the odds of such a blaze are better than even.

"This year may be one of the worst we have seen in a while as far as wildfires are concerned," said Keith Eaton, assistant chief of the Kingman Fire Department. "Heavy grass and weed fuels are abundant throughout the Kingman area. The relative lack of moisture and high winds create a very hazardous situation if fire breaks out."

Golden Valley Fire Chief Tom O'Donohue said his department has placed an increased emphasis on wildfire training the past two years. The result was the formation of a wildland mobilization team that can fight fires anywhere inside and outside of Arizona.

The Golden Valley Fire District is in the same financial straits as Northern Arizona Consolidated and KFD, and they, too, are learning how to do more with less.

"With financial resources being stretched, the (Golden Valley Fire District) board of directors has been supportive in the goal to increase our presence (in mobilized wildland firefighting efforts) while at the same time never depleting our local resources or protecting our primary commitment to the citizens of Golden Valley," he said.

The district also purchased a 4X4 fire engine known as a Type-III that was specifically designed to help firefighters battle wildfires. The engine can maneuver over rugged terrain that other fire apparatus can't access.

Also, every Golden Valley firefighter has his red card, which is earned once they are trained to fight wildfires, said O'Donohue.