High winds and hot weather increase fire risk

Contributed Photo/Courtesy Safford Fire Department: Firefighters are silhouetted through brush and smoke at a call. Seasonal high winds and increasing temperatures are placing Arizona at increased risk for wildfires.

By Eric Burk


Graham County – The Sawmill Fire south of Tucson has expanded to 46,954 acres; more than three times the combined area of Safford, Thatcher and Pima. Firefighters have battled extremely high winds this week and, by Friday afternoon, have contained about 45 percent of the perimeter.

Staff at the Coronado National Forest (CNF) say the fire is human caused and is under investigation. According to the U.S. Border Patrol, an off-duty Border Patrol agent shooting explosive targets recreationally accidentally started the Sawmill Fire, the agency confirmed Thursday.

In an emailed statement, the Border Patrol did not name the agent but said he reported the fire immediately after it began.

 The fire began Sunday at about 11 a.m. near Box Canyon, roughly 10 miles southeast of Green Valley.

Heidi Schewel, spokeswoman for the CNF, said half of all wildfires are human caused. Common behaviors that cause fires include poor campfire safety, careless disposal of cigarette butts and even trucks dragging chains on the road.

“All anyone needs to do is cause a spark,” Schewel said. “What we see a lot of is abandoned campfires.”

Contributed Photo/Courtesy Arizona Department of Transportation: The Sawmill Fire burns along State Route 83 on Tuesday. The forest service says the fire is human caused and they are investigating.

Wildfires can also be caused by burning trash on private property, known as open burning. According to Andrew Atkinson, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) fire prevention specialist, the Gila District has seen fires from private property escape to BLM land. Burns in areas with dry grass or on hot, windy days are especially hazardous. Avoid burning on days that the weather service issues a red flag warning for high fire risk, such as today.

“Be very aware that even a wind that’s five to 10 miles an hour can carry a fire away from folks,” Atkinson warned. “Folks say that they’re always surprised at how quickly a fire gets up and runs away from them before they can really even have a chance to put it out.”

Those responsible for causing a wildfire can be liable for the costs of fighting the fire. Costs may be as high as millions of dollars, paying for aircraft, vehicles, operations centers, and the many personnel involved. If a fire does get out of hand, call 911 immediately. According to Atkinson, rapid response to fires drastically decreases the amount of resources needed. The cost for the Sawmill Fire has already exceeded $1.7 million.

Atkinson said fires should never be left unattended and adequate fire suppression tools should always be nearby. The only fires allowed on BLM lands are campfires in designated pits; to burn on private property, a permit is required from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ).

Timothy Franquist, ADEQ Air quality division director, said in Graham County permits must be acquired in person or by mail from the ADEQ Tucson branch. The permits are free and require that only materials like wood and paper be burned. Plastics, rubber, chemicals and explosives are specifically banned. All burns must be conducted 50 feet away from property lines and buildings, and the permit must be kept on site. The local fire department should also be notified. To get a permit, call ADEQ Tucson at (520) 628-6733.

ADEQ monitors open burns to reduce hazards to health and property from hazards posed by smoke. Franquist warns that burning without a permit can cost $500 in fines. ADEQ investigators rely on complaints from neighbors to report illegal burns. To file a complaint about a dangerous or nuisance burn, visit http://legacy.azdeq.gov/function/compliance/complaint.html or call ADEQ at (602) 771-2300.

The Forest Service no longer talks about a “fire season” since fires occur at any time in the year.

“Since January 2016 to date, we’ve had fires every single month,” Schewel said.

Eric Burk Photo/Gila Valley Central: The sign outside the Safford Ranger District office showed high fire danger on Wednesday.

So far this year, there have been 16 fires in the CNF, including 15 human-caused fires. Typically during monsoon season, the amount of lightning-caused fires increases, balancing out the yearly totals of natural- and human-caused fires.

Schewel advises people to create defensible space around their homes by removing vegetation and other flammable material. Atkinson warns people to keep dead plant debris off their roofs. For more information on making a property fire-defensible, visit http://firewise.org/.