Arizona Wildfire Budgets About the Same as Last Year

Not much may seem recession-proof these days, but budgets for preventing and fighting wildfires nationally and in Arizona have stayed largely the same for the past five years.

That much is good news for firefighting officials in Arizona, where the potential for large wildfires is greater than normal this year.

Nationally, the U.S. Forest Service spent about $2.4 billion last fiscal year on preventing and fighting wildfires, according to Bill Van Bruggen, deputy director of fire and aviation management for the Forest Service. He said the budget this fiscal year is only $2 million more than last year’s, or a 0.08 percent increase.

The allocation for Arizona, New Mexico and a small part of western Texas amounted to $92.1 million last fiscal year, compared to $93.3 million this fiscal year, Van Bruggen said.

He said maintaining healthy budgets dedicated to wildfires allows the Forest Service to protect natural resources and communities.

Meanwhile, fire potential is shifting from New Mexico to Arizona, where there’s an above-average danger of large wildfires in parts of the state south of the Mogollon Rim, including Prescott and the Phoenix area, according to Chuck Maxwell, a meteorologist with the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque, N.M.

So far this year, Arizona has had 15 significant wildfires that have cost a total of $3.4 million to fight. Altogether, they burned about 33,000 acres and destroyed 21 structures, at least three of them homes.

But the season has barely gotten under way, and there will be plenty of dead grass and other fuels to feed a major wildfire. The season will really heat up as May progresses and the temperatures hit triple digits, Maxwell said.

“Those areas that have those fuels — in the next six to eight weeks here they should cure, and we’ll start to see fire activity pick up,” he said.

He said Arizona can expect to get lightning strikes earlier than usual this year and days to weeks ahead of the monsoon. Lightning can be particularly worrisome because it can strike in remote, rugged places that make it more difficult for firefighters.

The monsoon will greatly reduce the potential for wildfires when it arrives in Arizona. It is expected to begin this year either on time or ahead of schedule sometime in mid-July, and meteorologists expect it to be particularly robust, Maxwell said.

Clay Templin, fire chief of the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona, said the season seems pretty similar to last year’s conditions and that he expects to respond to quite a few initial attacks.

Tonto’s budget for fighting and preventing wildfires this fiscal year is $9.4 million, compared to $9 million last fiscal year, Templin said.

He said the forest also got a $3.1 million boost in federal stimulus money after sending in a successful submission.

That money will be spent on removing dead trees and other fuels for wildfires in six different areas around Payson.

“That’s really a pretty big deal,” Templin said. “What we’re doing is thinning these areas that are immediately adjacent to a community, so if we do get a wildfire, there are fuel breaks.”