A past, present and future look at AZ's wildfires

As temperatures rise and climates dry out, wildfires are sparked, consuming forest and brush lands. The destructive power of a wildfire can bring devastating effects to the land and the people living on it, or it can act as a preventer for future wildfires.

Scorched is an ongoing, in-depth project that looks at the charred past of wildfires in Arizona, the outlook for our upcoming season, what preventative steps are taken and much more.

Jump to each section by clicking on the link below

2016 Season Outlook | Wildfires by the Numbers | Firefighter Prevention Efforts | QUIZ: Test your fire knowledge


Wildfires are always a cause for concern in Arizona, but 2016’s outlook predicts an extreme year.


“Compared to the first quarter of last year, 2016 is already shaping up to be a significant year for wildland fire activity,” Arizona State Forester Jeff Whitney said at an April 13 press briefing.

2014 and 2015 were relatively mild wildfire years, according to the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. That fact may seem like a good thing, but with those years’ above average rainfall, that makes for a lot of wildfire fuel.

One of the key factors contributing to the severe prediction is the overgrowth of our state’s forests.

“Our federally-owned forests and woodlands are in desperate need of thinning and restoration work; that fact, coupled with our normal Arizona weather, is a recipe for wildland fire,” according to Whitney.

"We're going to hope for the best and plan for the worst"

This year’s outlook also resulted from the previous years’ rainfall totals and the continued concern of tourists’ mistakes.

“If the hot and dry conditions persist, significant wildland fires will become more likely,” Whitney said.

The fire season for Arizona typically begins in late May, but with the dry, undesirable conditions that February and March brought, the wildfire season may start earlier.

Gov. Doug Ducey during the April 13 briefing stressed the importance of citizens being informed to hopefully prevent man-made wildfires.

“While we can’t do much about mother nature, we can do our part to prevent and mitigate the destructive wildfires on Arizona land,” said Gov. Ducey. “We’re going to hope for the best and plan for the worst.”



One of the best steps to understanding wildfires in the state is to get a grasp on the numbers behind the flames.


The Southwest Coordination Center (SWCC) tallies wildfire statistics, breaking down the total number of fires, total acres burned, and their data distinguishes between human-caused and lightning-caused fires.

Source: Southwest Coordination Center

For this project, ABC15 analyzed data from the past 25 years (1990-2015).

Overall, the total number of wildfires have been on the decline since the mid 1990’s, with a 3,235 net drop between 1995 and 2015.

Between 1990 and today, Arizona saw the biggest wildfire acreage burn in 2011, when 981,189 acres were destroyed (human-caused fires amounted to 92% of these acres).

To put that number in perspective, 2011’s wildfire burn acreage is similar to size of the Valley (approximately 988,184 acres).


Source: Southwest Coordination Center


The other pertinent aspect to these wildfire statistics, besides how many and how large they are, is comparing their causes.

The SWCC divides causes into two categories: “human-caused” and “lightning-caused.”

As seen in the charts, in 2015, 61% of fires were human-caused, while 39% were caused by lightning. The data from each cause (in both fire totals and acreage burned totals) fluctuates so much so, that it is difficult to draw any conclusions.


Wildfire Map

Using data acquired from the United States Geological Survey, ABC15 created a map showing some of the wildfires between 2011 and 2015.

Zoom in and click on each fire on the map below to see more detailed information, including its date and acres burned.


Source: Southwest Coordination Center


This map contains only 316 of the 7,933 fires from the aforementioned time frame (as the geodata from these 316 wildfires were the only fires that were immediately available).

Think about that for a second: every shape on this map only accounts for 4% of the fires between 2011 and 2015.



With an ominous outlook for the upcoming season and statistics that underscore the significance of wildfires in Arizona, ABC15 spoke with a state forester to better understand prevention efforts.

As Northwest District Manager Russ Shumate explained it, a majority of preventative efforts taken by firefighters are considered “mechanical,” in which a team comes in with heavy machinery and thins the overgrown area.

“Wildfires are critical to the Ponderosa Pine ecosystem”

The aim of this process is not to stop a wildfire from occurring, but to prevent any future wildfires from getting out of hand and becoming “catastrophic.”

Interact with Shumate in the 360º video below to gain a better understanding of what firefighters do to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

MOBILE USERS: Click here to experience the wildfire video in 360º view


Courtland Jeffrey | ABC15


In the video, Shumate recognizes three portions of the forest around him:

  • First, a portion which is overgrown and is in need of thinning
  • Second, a portion which saw “catastrophic” burning because it was not thinned out
  • Third, a portion which had presumably been thinned by firefighters

When a forest is properly thinned, a wildfire in that forest would be much easier to contain than one that has become overgrown.

Wildfires are not inherently bad or good occurrences, according to Shumate, they are just a necessary part of the ecosystem.

“Wildfires are critical to the Ponderosa Pine ecosystem,” said Shumate.




Check in on for updates to the Scorched project, as well as up-to-date state wildfire coverage.

Source: Southwest Coordination Center, United States Geological Survey, National Interagency Fire Center. Photo source: Getty Images