Q&A: Why is Arizona’s Wildfire So Tough to Contain?

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Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Theresa Mendoza walks on a ridgetop as the Wallow Fire burns in the background. The raging forest fire in eastern Arizona has scorched an area the size of capital city Phoenix, threatening thousands of residents and emptying towns as the flames advance

Jeff Piechura is Chairman at Arizona Fire Service Institute and Fire Chief at Northwest Fire District in Tucson, AZ. NewsFeed spoke with him about the Wallow forest fire blazing through eastern Arizona and why it’s so challenging to contain.

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What makes the Wallow Fire so serious?

In the Wallow fire, it’s all in nature’s hand. The areas in Arizona are drought-stricken, so the forests are drought-stressed. Combine that with a lot of grass that has not been matted down due to high winds over the winter. We have a built-up fuels issue: fuels being the vegetation that is available to burn. It’s dense fuels, dense vegetation, it’s a continuous bed of fuel which means there’s not very many breaks in the fuel to take advantage of. High winds and low moisture in the fuel mean that when you combine all this and the fire is burning hot, it produces a lot of embers. They’ve got these embers landing almost three miles away from the fire-front itself. If embers are hot, they will 100 percent start new fires, so we have spot fires to contend with from anywhere from a few dozen yards away from the main body of fire to miles away from the fire.

Where do containment efforts stand right now and what challenges do you anticipate going forward?

This year, a lot of fire services have noticed a very windy spring. These cold fronts that are pushing through north of us have created a lot of wind this year. What moisture was in the trees or vegetation has been sapped out by the winds just evaporating it. When you get a fire in this brush or forest, it just runs, and it goes until the wind stops. Containment are efforts are spotty. We’ve had limited successes in some areas, but with the winds, some of those successes have been threatened or lost. Until the wind slows down, the humidities rise and the fuels change from very dense forest to smaller, lighter fuels (some local fire departments have reduced the fuel loads in areas of the forest), the fire’s going to keep on running.

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Are there any factors aiding in efforts to contain the Wallow fire?

We’re actually blessed right now in Arizona because we seem to be the hot spot for the nation. To the north of us, areas that generally start burning now are wet. So we’re fortunate that the resources coming in are plentiful. It’s just a matter of waiting for Mother Nature to slow down so we can keep going and take advantage of some areas, weather and fuel.

What has the public response been like?

From all the information we’re receiving from the evacuation centers, law enforcement agencies and fire teams, the public have been very supportive. Obviously there’s a lot of pushback associated with a person being asked to walk away from their property, but they understand what nature can do to communities and there has not been very much hesitation at all in conforming to requests for evacuation.

How do you feel about your accomplishments thus far?

So far, so good. We’ll knock on wood and hope for the best, and pray for the rain so that we just come out of this with minor injuries and no lives lost.

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