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State prepares aviation resources for intense fire season

Maverick Fire
Posted at 4:50 PM, May 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-10 22:46:40-04

The number of wildfires burning in Arizona year after year is increasing and, according to experts, those fires are burning hotter and consuming more acreage.

Less than two weeks into May, firefighters are fighting three major fires across the state, leading some to wonder if the state is equipped with enough resources on the ground and in the air to fight them all.

"Conditions are very dry across the state," said Tiffany Davila, public affairs officer for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

"We are in exceptional, extreme drought across most of state," she said, which makes for ideal conditions for a wildfire to start and then quickly spread.

While officials have said the wildfire season typically doesn't begin until late June, some warned in March that due to a drier-than-typical winter, Arizona could be in for a busy wildfire season.

"We’re kind of a month ahead of schedule," said Dolores Garcia, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management. That means helicopters and air tankers -- a staple resource to fight wildfires -- may already be in short supply.

"You can never have enough," said Garcia. " We would always like to have more, but we try to work and utilize the resources we have available to us as effectively as possible."

"It’s just a game of chess," said Davila, with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. "Where is this resource going to go next?"

Over the weekend, officials redirected helicopters from the Maverick Fire, which is burning east of Bartlett Lake in the Tonto National Forest, to the more threatening Tussock Fire, which prompted evacuations near Crown King, a town northwest of Black Canyon City.

"We are always looking at maneuvering our resources based on where we are seeing the fire activity and conditions in need," said Garcia.

Even though helicopters and massive air tankers are valuable resources when fighting fires, sometimes they are at the mercy of the fire's heat and strength.

"At the highest point of the day, even aviation resources were having difficulty with poor visibility and just how hot that fire area was," said Garcia, referring to the Tussock Fire. Due to the fire's intensity, some planes were temporarily grounded.

While there is a finite number of tankers and helicopters, most of the time, Arizona is able to fight its own fires with the resources it has.

"We have [four] air tanker bases located around the state," said Garcia. "Mesa, Sierra Vista, Winslow, and Prescott, and most of our dispatch centers are inter-agency. So, they know how many aviation resources they have in their back pocket at any moment."

When more resources are needed, Arizona looks to its neighbors.

"We go to New Mexico, to Utah, to California," said Garcia.

"When is the last time we had to do that? Every year. Every year we move resources," she said.

And to add another hurdle to the fight, drones have become an increasing issue in recent years, sometimes forcing in-the-air firefighting operations to immediately stop.

"If we have to ground an aircraft, even for an hour or two, to get that drone out of the airspace, that fire could spread, threaten communities, force evacuations. So, no fire video is worth any of that," said Davila.