Arizona wildfire risk among highest in U.S., study finds
How to determine your home’s wildfire risk
Of the 15 most active wildfire states in the U.S., Arizona sits in about the middle of the pack, according to a wildfire risk report released by CoreLogic Thursday, Sept. 12.
Between 2002 and 2018, the average number of acres burned each year in the state was 317,602, according to the report. That compares to about 1.62 million acres in Alaska, 710,268 in California and 160,322 in Colorado.
The report notes that more than 2.2 million homes in Arizona are considered at risk of being damaged by wildfire. It also estimates that if all of those residences were destroyed by fire, it would cost about $466.46 billion to reconstruct them.
Not every home is at equal risk of being damaged or destroyed, however. Only about 35,000 (less than 2%) are considered at “extreme risk,” according to the report.
To determine a home’s risk level, the report considered four factors related to location: Fuel, fire history, aspect and slope.
Fuel is a term firefighters often use in reference to the type and density of vegetation in an area. The greater the vegetation density, the more devastating a wildfire can become. Certain types of vegetation also burn hotter than others.
An area’s fire history helps identify the environment’s susceptibility to fire ignition.
Aspect is the cardinal direction a slope faces. If a property is located on a southern-facing slope, then it tends to be drier due to longer exposure to sunlight.
Slope is significant because fire moves faster uphill. The steeper the grade, the more easily the fire can preheat vegetation and continue its progression.
PRESCOTT’S WILDFIRE RISKS
In March, the Prescott Fire Department (PFD) completed a community risk assessment.
The report takes into account all risks facing the community, but identifies wildfire as the greatest natural threat.
Within the city limits, there’s about 29,000 acres of land. Of those, about 30% (8,815 acres) are at extreme risk of wildfire, the report states. This means a wildfire in these areas is highly likely, can spread quickly without much warning, can continue burning for a moderate amount of time if not quickly extinguished, and has a high chance of being catastrophic.
Whether or not a fire is deemed catastrophic is dependent on what values it consumes. Taken into consideration are such things as property damage, environmental impact, economic impact and loss of life.
“If we had a catastrophic fire in this area, it could be in the billions of dollars with some level of loss of life,” PFD Chief Dennis Light said.
But compared to places in California that have had some of the deadliest fires in history in recent years, Light believes Prescott is better prepared to prevent something from getting out of hand.
“I think we’ve done a much more robust job in doing some proactive work in the way of fuels reduction and fuels mitigation,” he said.
On top of that — and for some unclear reason — the Prescott National Forest (PNF) is statistically a low-frequency fire forest compared to other forests in the rest of Arizona, said Pete Gordon, PNF’s fuels, fire and aviation staff officer.
“However, I think we have some of the highest risk areas,” Gordon said. “So the history shows that we don’t get a lot of these big fires, but we have to plan for the fact that we could.”
CAFMA WILDFIRE RISKS
The Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority (CAFMA), which provides fire services for Prescott Valley, Chino Valley, Dewey-Humbolt and portions of Williamson Valley, estimates wildfire risks within its jurisdiction based on each community it serves rather than as a whole.
“We tend to focus on helping communities become Firewise, and then we do a lot of work with individual homeowners,” said Andy Smith, assistant fire marshal with CAFMA.
Smith said the wildfire risk level varies significantly even from one neighborhood to the next. “We have grasslands, we have a lot of chaparral areas in the hills, and then we have tall timber communities too,” she said.
In her eyes, those living in any sort of wilderness in the quad-city area need to be ready to leave their homes at a moment’s notice.
“It’s really important that people outside of the heavily populated cities and towns like Prescott and Prescott Valley take a really serious look at their surroundings,” she said. “How do you get out of your neighborhood? The number one priority is an evacuation plan for yourself, your family and your animals. If you’re thinking about it when the fire is coming, then it’s way too late.”
CHECK HOME’S WILDFIRE RISK
A resource local fire agencies often refer to when talking about wildfire risk within the community is called the Arizona Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal (AZ WRAP), which can be found on the Arizona Department of Forest and Fire Management’s website at https://dffm.az.gov/fire/prevention/az-wrap.
The map allows Arizona residents to find their properties and surrounding neighborhoods to determine the level of wildfire risk they face.
“I find that to be a really useful tool,” Smith said. “Before I go out and meet with somebody to talk about their property’s wildfire risk, I’ll put their address in there and print out the report of their neighborhood so they understand that they’re either at high risk or, conversely, that they’re really not in much danger, because people get frightened.”
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