Arizona Fire Season: In-Depth Guide

Explore details regarding the Arizona fire season from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA). Learn when is it, how long it lasts, risk factors and more.

Published:June 13, 2023
Edited:
April 24, 2024

Table of Contents

    Explore details regarding the Arizona fire season from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA). Learn when is it, how long it lasts, risk factors and more.

    Arizona has a semi-arid climate, with a range of ecosystems and terrain. Megafires are a growing concern in this drought-prone state. Learn about Arizona’s wildfire season and climate risks that may affect future fire conditions in this area, as well as steps that are being taken to reduce fire damage.

    When is Arizona Fire Season?

    Historically, wildfire season in Arizona began in the desert in early April and above the Mogollon Rim in May. Peak fire activity took place in mid- to late June and early July, before monsoon season typically starts.1 However, according to the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Management, there is no longer a fixed Arizona wildfire season; fires can happen year-round.2

    Risk Factors for Wildfires in Arizona

    Drought

    Arizona is a water-scarce state, and periods of drought increase the risk of major wildfire events. Precipitation averages range from less than 4 inches in the southwest deserts to 40 inches in Arizona’s mountains.3 These mountains accumulate water during winter in the form of snowpack. As snowmelt releases water during the spring and summer, it helps reduce the risk of significant wildfire events.

    Temperatures in Arizona have been rising over the past hundred years, with increasing average temperatures and extreme heat projected to continue with climate change.3 Higher temperatures may raise the snow line (the average lowest elevation where snow falls), reduce snowpack levels, decrease runoff, or cause earlier snowmelt.4

    Weather

    The summer monsoon season is essential for Arizona’s water resources. Monsoon precipitation levels vary from year to year, with heavy rain falling from late June/early July to mid-September.5 The North American Monsoon delivers over half of Arizona’s annual precipitation, supporting agriculture and native forests and plants in the state.3 The rains help keep fires from spreading quickly, as wet soil and fuels take longer to heat up.1 However, monsoons also bring outflow winds and dry lightning, which are additional fire hazards.6

    Unlike many areas of the U.S., there has not been an increasing trend in extreme rains in Arizona; instead, there is a risk of decreasing spring precipitation.3 Droughts, irregular rainfall, and rising temperatures will increase the risk of extreme fire activity. This was shown in 2020, when Arizona saw its driest monsoon season ever, had a record number of days with temperatures above 110 degrees, and experienced its harshest wildfire season in nearly a decade, with nearly 1 million acres burned over.1

    Fuel

    When explosive vegetation growth from heavy rainfall precedes periods of long, dry, hot weather, fire conditions become dangerous. Large fires can emerge from fine fuels: leaves, pinecones, and small trees and branches.1 These lighter fuels, also called “10-hour fuels,” dry out rapidly in drought conditions.4 Grasses in Arizona spend months soaking up moisture and grow quickly during the spring, but can dry out within an hour. Dry grasses and fine fuels ignite easily into wildfires and can burn with tremendous energy.

    Human Activity

    In Arizona, over 80% of wildfires are started by humans. Wildfires can ignite and spread because of sparks from welding and other industrial equipment, campfires, and improperly maintained vehicles. To reduce wildfire risk, Arizona residents should follow fire restrictions, monitor any fire until it is completely out, dampen the surrounding area before welding or using equipment that could spark, regularly service vehicles and ensure there are no dangling tow chains, and avoid driving/parking in tall, dry grass. Smokers should responsibly dispose of matches, lighters, and cigarette butts. It is also important to keep fire extinguishing tools accessible.2

    Saguaro cacti and brush stand in front of hillsides outlined in fire & smoky skies. Black triangles cover the left and right of the image.
    Managing fuels with regular, prescribed burning is an effective way to reduce the risk of large, highly destructive fires.

    How Wildfire Season in Arizona is Changing

    A century and a half of logging, railroad developments, cattle and sheep ranching, and rising population in Arizona have affected how humans interact with local ecosystems. Severe fire suppression starting in the 1960s has led to intense, infrequent fires, which is not healthy for Arizona’s Ponderosa pine forests.4

    Extreme wildfire seasons also lead to more flash floods in Arizona. During forest fires, the heated soil gains a wax-like, hydrophobic coating that keeps water from being absorbed. Vegetation will slow down and help absorb water, but burned, barren landscapes that have been cleared by wildfires become major flood risk areas.7

    Recent Arizona Wildfires

    As extreme temperatures and drought conditions increase throughout the southwest, megafires are growing more common in Arizona. Before 2000, major fires in Arizona would burn between 20,000 and 50,000 acres. Current large fires burn 200,000 – 500,000 acres.7 The biggest fire in Arizona’s history was the Wallow Fire, which started in 2011 from an improperly doused campfire. It burned 538,049 acres of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and spread into New Mexico before it was contained.8 Below is a list of recent major wildfires in Arizona.

    Crooks Fire (2022)
    Start Date: 4/18/2022
    Location: Yavapai County
    Acres Burned: 9,402
    Cause: Unknown
    Tunnel Fire (2022)
    Start Date: 4/17/2022
    Location: Coconino County
    Acres Burned: 19,088
    Cause: Unknown
    Tiger Fire (2021)
    Start Date: 6/30/2021
    Location: Yavapai County
    Acres Burned: 16,278
    Cause: Lightning
    Telegraph Fire (2021)
    Start Date: 6/4/2021
    Location: Pinal County
    Acres Burned: 180,747
    Cause: Human (under investigation)
    Griffin Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 8/17/2020
    Location: Gila County
    Acres Burned: 61,821
    Cause: Lightning
    Bush Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 6/13/2020
    Location: Maricopa and Gila Counties
    Acres Burned: 193,455
    Cause: Human (under investigation)
    Mangum Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 6/8/2020
    Location: Coconino County
    Acres Burned: 71,450
    Cause: Unknown
    Bighorn Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 6/5/2020
    Location: Pima County
    Acres Burned: 119,541
    Cause: Lightning
    Basin Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 5/10/2020
    Location: Mohave County
    Acres Burned: 38,804
    Cause: Lightning
    Woodbury Fire (2019)
    Start Date: 6/8/2019
    Location: Pinal, Maricopa, and Gila Counties
    Acres Burned: 123,875
    Cause: Human
    Goodwin Fire (2017)
    Start Date: 6/24/2017
    Location: Yavapai County
    Acres Burned: 28,516
    Cause: Unknown
    Sawmill Fire (2017)9
    Start Date: 4/23/2017
    Location: Pima County
    Acres Burned: 46,911
    Cause: Human (explosion at gender reveal party)

    Historical Arizona Wildfire Trends

    Most of Arizona’s forests are made up of Ponderosa pines, which adapted to low-severity, frequent fires about 45 million years ago.7 A recent study of over 4,000 ancient trees throughout Arizona and New Mexico found that the typical climate-fire pattern from 1500 to 1900 had a few years of above-average rainfall, followed by a drought year that could fuel significant fire. In areas that had Native American fire management practices, however, large fires were greatly reduced, and this climate-fire pattern was broken.10

    Many Native American tribes in the Southwestern United States practiced controlled burns at regular intervals to clear potential wildfire fuels and encourage new plant growth. In January 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a plan for half a billion dollars to go towards wildfire risk mitigation in 11 western states, including Arizona. Funding is planned to support forest thinning and prescribed burns, wildfire protection plans within communities, and residential fireproofing strategies.11

    Arizona Wildfire Resources

    Utilize WFCA’s Fire Map to search for the status of an active wildfire in Arizona. Users can zoom in and select each individual fire to get instant access to the latest published information.

    Sources

    1. AZ Mirror, “Years of raging Arizona wildfires bring focus onto climate change, drought.” Accessed June 1, 2023.
    2. Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, “Arizona Fire Information.” Accessed May 30, 2023.
    3. NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, “State Climate Summaries 2022: Arizona.” Accessed May 31, 2023.
    4. AZ Central, “Arizona’s 2023 wildfire season looks much improved compared to past years.” Accessed May 30, 2023.
    5. NOAA National Weather Service, “Northern Arizona Monsoon Season.” Accessed June 6, 2023.
    6. NOAA National Weather Service, “Yarnell Fire June 28-July 10, 2013.” Accessed June 6, 2023.
    7. Arizona Luminaria, “‘No end to fire season.’ Arizona’s new normal means it’s fire season in February … but there’s hope.” Accessed May 30, 2023.
    8. AZ Central, “Five years after Wallow Fire, rebirth and regrowth.” Accessed May 30, 2023.
    9. CNN, “Officials release video from gender reveal party that ignited a 47,000-acre wildfire.” Accessed June 1, 2023.
    10. Science Daily, “For 400 years, Indigenous tribes buffered climate’s impact on wildfires in the American Southwest.” Accessed May 31, 2023.
    11. The Beacon, “$490 million to reduce wildfire risk.” Accessed May 31, 2023.

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