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The blaze next door: Firefighters prep for increased activity in Arizona

PHOENIX – Weeks ago, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey warned of what was ahead after a wet winter created a carpet of brush, grass and weeds across the desert. He told Arizonans to avoid becoming complacent with anything that could ignite a fire.

John Truett with Arizona Forestry and Fire Management looked at all that growth across the lower desert areas in the Valley and elsewhere and saw the worst conditions for fire in more than a decade.

He compared it to 2005 when the Cave Creek Complex burned almost a quarter of a million acres after being touched off by lightning near Carefree.

Firefighter Brent Fenton is with Daisy Mountain Fire, a department that covers Anthem, Black Canyon City, Desert Hills and New River.

The department’s territory spans about 200 square miles, larger than Denver or Las Vegas and about four times the size of San Francisco.

“I see a lot of dead brush and vegetation. Honestly, that’s been due to burn for years,” Fenton, who is also a paramedic, said.

“These fires can just take off. Usually the fire season starts in late May and early June, but we’ve seen a lot of fires this year,” he said.

“We’re going to see more fire activity around the Valley and the state. The big threats are tossed cigarette butts, chains dragging from vehicles and people pulling off of roadways into grassy areas and the hot muffler starts fires.”

The state has already had fires threatening enough that the big DC-10 firefighting aircraft has flown several missions, earlier than usual.

Fires near Crown King and Wittman were not huge in size but threatened homes to the point that fire commanders weren’t taking any chances.

Fenton is emphatic about homeowners cleaning up their property.

Homeowners should clear a defensible space at a minimum of 30 feet and 100 feet, if they have that sizable property.

“They need to clear grass, debris, weeds, brush – what we call ladder fuels, which carry fire upward into treetops and rooftops and sometimes into homes,” Fenton said.

One rule of thumb when it comes to weeds, he said, was the height of the weed produces a flame length about four times the height of the weed when it burns.

For instance, a 4-foot weed would create 16-foot flame length.

“It doesn’t have to be fire touching directly on your home. It creates a lot of radiant heat like a campfire,” Fenton said.

The Daisy Mountain firefighter said giving crews the defensible space makes it easier to save homes and lives.

“When we go into these neighborhoods, our priority is life safety,” Fenton said.

“We’re going to risk a lot to save a lot (but) we’re not going to risk anything to save what’s already lost.”

Fenton added, “If we come through an area and see debris right up against the house, hopefully the homeowner isn’t there or we’re going to get them out of there, but if nobody is home and the fire is (closing in on the home), then we have to make a triage assessment and possibly write that home off and protect other homes.”

Nine of Arizona’s largest 10 fires on record have burned since 2002.

The largest fire in state history, 2011’s Wallow Fire, burned almost 540,000 acres.

The Rodeo-Chediski Fire, the state’s second-largest fire, burned through almost 470,000 acres near Show Low in 2002.

In 2013, the Prescott Fire Department lost 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots, who were killed fighting the 8,400-acre Yarnell Hill Fire.

By acreage, it wasn’t a large fire, but it was by far the deadliest wildfire in Arizona history.

The upcoming Memorial Day holiday weekend is always considered a benchmark for fire season.

Thousands of people will head out for camping which boosts the fire concerns.

The heavy monsoon rainfall isn’t expected until early July, even though June 15 is the official start of monsoon season.

“Fire truly is a living, breathing thing,” Fenton said.

“It can create its own weather, its own wind. It eats everything in its path.”

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