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University of Arizona paints dire wildfire situation in state’s future

(U.S. Forest Service Photo)

PHOENIX — The amount of land scorched by wildfires annually in Arizona and across North America will increase in the future, a University of Arizona study predicted.

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences professor Donald Falk, one of the study’s investigators, said seasonal climate change was making fire seasons longer, meaning there was more time for acreage to burn.

“Ultimately, this means that the large fire seasons of recent years are likely to occur more frequently, affecting ecosystems, communities and public safety,” he said.

Last year, more than 10 million acres — 10,026,086, to be exact — caught fire across the United States, including 400,000 in Arizona. It was the second-largest amount of land burned in the United States in a single year, trailing only 2015.

This year could be worse, as the western part of the country has been water-starved all winter.

Only 35 inches of snow had fallen in Flagstaff, well below the average of 80 inches, as of Tuesday. Phoenix was 3.5 inches below average when it came to rainfall.

Falk said the drought conditions could lead to another big fire summer that could be just a preview of what is to come.

“These will be billion-dollar fire years,” he said of what future blazes could be. “We’re just not ready for fire impacts of this kind, including post-fire effects from flooding after fire.”

Nine of Arizona’s ten largest wildfires on record have all burned since 2002.

The largest wildfire in state history was the 2011 Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona, which burned almost 540,000 acres. The 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire — also in eastern Arizona — burned almost 470,000 acres.

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