The state of Arizona offers many scenic spots to visit, from the famously steep Grand Canyon to the beautiful red rock buttes of Sedona. Before you go, it's important to be informed about the dangers of wildfires. While wildfires can happen anywhere in the United States with brush or trees, specific regions have special issues based on the type of landscapes found in the area. Much of Arizona is considered a high-hazard fire environment.
In the Southwest portion of the country, six basic types of vegetation are cause for concern during wildfire season: grass and desert scrub, riparian areas, ponderosa pine forests, pinyon-juniper woodlands, mixed conifers, and tall chapparal.
Many people think of Arizona only as a desert. It may surprise you that these national forests in Arizona are high-hazard fire environments: Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Coronado, Kaibab, Prescott, and Tonto.
Metropolitan Centers and Wildfires
It is unlikely that large wildfires will have a significant direct impact on large metropolitan areas like Phoenix and Tucson, but there certainly are indirect impacts of such fires on the major metro areas of Arizona.
Smoke can be hazardous to many people, and it can drift very far during wildfire season. This may cause a decrease in air quality in major Arizona cities. If you have respiratory problems, keep current on any wildfires burning in the region—authorities will generally let the public know when there are advisories for smoky air.
Not only does fighting forest fires have an obvious cost, but wildfires also can affect Arizona tourism during the summer season, resulting in a high economic impact on the metropolitan centers of the state.
Different Vegetation, Different Burn Rates
Because of the diversity of vegetation, the state has many levels of wildfire hazards. While mixed conifers burn slowest at 10 acres an hour, tall chapparal shrubs that populate most of the state can burn up to 3,600 acres per hour, and grass and desert scrub burn up to 3,000 acres an hour.
Other vegetation like in riparian areas can burn up to 1,000 acres, pinyon-juniper woodlands burn up to 500 acres, and old-growth ponderosa pine forests burn up to 150 acres in an hour.
Depending on which part of the state you're visiting, you'll find a mixture of all six of these vegetation types, resulting in high-hazard fire environments. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in east-central Arizona, for instance, features 2 million acres and over 1,000 miles of rivers and streams in an area with an elevated risk for wildfires.
Checking Fire Conditions Before You Travel
To ensure your safety on your next trip to Arizona, especially during wildfire season (usually starting in May), it's important to check local forecasts and informational websites for announcements related to current fire hazards.
The Southwest Coordination Center and National Interagency Fire Center are government-run agencies designed to not only fight fires in emergencies but also keep the general public informed of burn conditions and danger levels.
Emergency bulletins in the Arizona Emergency Information Network can keep you up-to-date regarding wildfires in the state. Additionally, it's essential to understand the latest Arizona fire restrictions and bans so that you don't mistakenly start any wildfires during the high danger season.