Woodbury, Bush and Telegraph: The names of those fires will be branded on the memories of Globe-Miami residents for a long time to come. They burned nearly a half-million acres from the Pinals to the Superstitions and left a swath of scorched desert — and millions of dollars in property damage – in their wake.
As wildfire season turns into a year-round affair, and fires become hotter and more catastrophic, funding and education are becoming ever more important to fire management and public safety in our national forests and the communities that share their spaces in the arid Southwest.
Last year, conditions in the region generated a literal firestorm as the Telegraph Fire swept across more than 180,000 acres of the Tonto National Forest. An aftermath of Biblical-level flooding followed when heavy monsoons carried water thick with mud and debris down washes and streambeds and into buildings throughout the Copper Corridor.
The threat of wildfire is increasing after 20 years of extreme drought and as the result of outdated forest management practices. Local jurisdictions are adapting as quickly as possible.
“For three consecutive years, we’ve had large, catastrophic fires in our forests right in the same area,” says Barry Johnson, Fire Management Officer for the Tonto National Forest Globe Ranger District. “Gila County and Pinal County have been hit hard. So has the Tonto Basin and Roosevelt. It’s been rough.”
Johnson has been fighting wildland fires for 20 years with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service. He has worked his way up the ranks and currently is in charge of coordinating fire resources from his office in Globe.
Johnson says much of what his team of firefighters and “cooperators” do flies under the radar, because most of the fires his people respond to are put out long before they’re big enough for us to remember their names.
In 2021, while images of the Telegraph Fire beamed out to television screens across the country, a total of 113 fires burned in Tonto NF. Combined, they charred more than 191,000 acres. The Telegraph was responsible for 180,757 of those burned acres. The remaining 112 fires were dispatched without any loss of life or serious injury to either firefighters or members of the public.
“I think the general public sees wildland firefighting forces as having more power than we really do,” Johnson says. “We try to smash fires when they’re small, as fast as we can with our resources but sometimes these things move faster than we can react or get people into. It’s a very challenging time, given the current state of everything.”
When small fires grow large enough to overwhelm local resources, state and federal agencies come to the rescue. They provide equipment and personnel in a coordinated response, with a goal of protecting human life first and foremost. Secondarily, they work to protect property in the wildland urban interface (WUI), where people and nature come together.
During the Telegraph Fire, the US Forest Service was joined by six other federal agencies, including BLM, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the San Carlos Apache Tribe – although the tribe had problems of its own with the Mescal Fire, which burned more than 72,000 acres southeast of Globe.
Gila County contributed equipment and personnel, including the Sheriff’s Department, and the State of Arizona provided services through the Department of Corrections and Department of Transportation, among others. Additionally, local fire departments from Winslow to Mohave to Tubac offered their support in a multi-agency effort that spanned weeks last summer.
“With any fire that’s getting of size, you’re working with all your cooperators,” Johnson says. “Those relationships are very important to maintain and strengthen. Without us all cooperating together, we fail.”
To become a firefighter, a candidate must receive training for five certificates and must be physically fit enough to run three miles in 45 minutes carrying a 45-pound pack. And that’s the “bare minimum,” according to Johnson, who conducts an entry-level wildland firefighting class every fall at the Gila Pueblo campus of Eastern Arizona College.
“Individuals are expected to perform at a higher level than that, typically, but that is the baseline entry-level test,” he says. “Then it’s a continued education. I still go to classes to continue to improve my career as well. So you’re basically always a student of fire.”
The Globe Ranger District has a permanent, year-round force of about 20 personnel. During what’s traditionally known as wildfire season, an additional 20 are brought on, for a total of 40 in the crew.
The heart of the crew is a group called the Globe Hotshots, an elite team of firefighters specially trained to survive in the most savage of conditions. Half of that group can be called to fires in a different part of the country at a moment’s notice.
Hotshot crews originated in Southern California in the late 1940s; the concept quickly expanded throughout the western United States.
Staffing shortages have been the bane of firefighting organizations – particularly in the past two decades, while wildfires have increased exponentially – but new sources of funding from state and federal governments could help out in the near future.
The INVEST in America Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF), the Biden Administration’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, devotes $3.4 billion to fighting fires nationwide. It provides funding for Department of Interior and Forest Service initiatives such as mechanical thinning, controlled burns, the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program and other firefighting resources.
The BIF also includes base salary increases for federal wildland firefighters “where it is difficult to recruit or retain a federal wildland firefighter.”
At the state level, Gov. Doug Ducey recently signed the Arizona Healthy Forest Initiative, providing $24.5 million for fuel reduction operations and to help fund an inmate wildfire training program that employs low-risk inmates on wildfire prevention projects.
For Johnson, that means he can hire more hotshots and start to work on clearing out the accumulated underbrush that fuels modern wildfires.
He says he’ll be able to recruit five temporary crew members to full time and increase the number of hotshots from 11 to 16.
Additionally, Johnson plans to hire two new fuels specialists to get a fuels program up and running, as well as an assistant fire management officer and a fuels technician.
“We’re increasing the full-time workforce as well as implementing more fuels projects,” he says, adding that the inmate crews are an integral and dependable workforce to tap into. “The Department of Corrections has had crews that assist us for many years. They’re a huge help.”
Another tranche of money is coming from Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, who recently received $12.8 million in disaster relief funds from the US Department of Agriculture for wildfire and flood relief relating to several recent wildfire disasters.
A press release from Kelly’s office stated, “This funding will help Arizona recover from some of the largest and most destructive wildfires in recent history.” The statement continued, “Years and months after these fires, communities near Globe, Miami, Flagstaff and Saguaro Lake still face serious public safety risks from post-fire flooding that endangers ranchers, tribal communities and others who utilize and care for our land. I will continue to advocate for more federal resources to help protect Arizona from wildfires.”
Humans cause most fires
Although much of the fire activity in the desert results from lightning strikes during the monsoons, the lion’s share of Arizona wildfires are caused by humans.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, an Idaho-based multi-agency coordination group, of the 1,773 total fires in Arizona in 2021, 1,267 of them were human caused. These fires burned a total of 337,276 acres. Lightning started 506 fires and burned 187,153 acres.
People start fires in a number of ways: chains dragging from towed vehicles, cigarettes carelessly tossed from moving vehicles, vehicles with hot exhausts parking over dried vegetation.
Many are started by fireworks and guns.
“Target practice is a big one for us,” Johnson says. “Especially before we go into restrictions that shut that down. It’s sad and unfortunate.”
Another problem that can threaten property during wildfire season is vegetation around homes in remote areas. To address this, many jurisdictions are working to become Firewise communities.
Firewise provides guidelines for protecting homes and property, particularly those located in WUI areas.
“We want to be able to designate our community as a Firewise community – then you’re able to get additional funding,” says Globe Mayor Al Gameros. “Firewise is basically education to the residents to help them understand what types of fuel they have around their homes, and of what type of mitigation they need to do.”
Gameros spent more than 30 years as a firefighter in Globe after 12 years at Pinto Valley Mine. He was fire chief for 18 years, which gives him a lot of insight into the necessity for collaboration within the community and with other agencies and jurisdictions.
The City of Globe is using some of the extra funds for firefighting to purchase a new Type 3 wildland firefighting engine. And last October, the City received a $15,000 grant from the Tohono O’Odham Nation to obtain wildland personal protective equipment, including helmets, fire shelters and ratchet replacements.
After a fire is put out, the Forestry Department sends in biologists and hydrologists to assess the damage and prepare for the flash flood risks of the monsoon season.
Kelly Mott Lacroix is the Emergency Response Coordinator for Tonto NF and part of the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team tasked with post-fire assessment.
“I go in after the fire is largely contained and help the soils folks assess what’s called soil burn severity – how the fire has impacted the soils,” she says. “Then I use that in hydrologic modeling programs to determine both the flash flood risk, which is those first couple of floods after, as well as the ongoing flood risk after the fire.”
Mott Lacroix often partners with Mary Lata, a long-serving fire biologist who assesses ecological damage after fires and monitors the Tonto NF for invasive species and areas with a high potential for future fires.
Lata says one of her jobs is to let people know that not all fire is bad and that fire is a natural part of the ecology of the desert.
“I’m trying to help the public understand that fire is inevitable in this landscape,” she says. “It’s going to occur, it’s always been here, and we have a ton of different ways of proving that it’s always been here.”
While the primary goal of wildfire suppression in the national forests is to protect life, property and cultural resources, the assessments that are usually done within a week after fire containment are intended to minimize danger to humans afterward and to reduce the possibility of erosion that can damage the land.
The emergency response team usually has to act fast, as prime wildfire season coincides with the monsoons, when flooding is a very real possibility – although last year’s flooding came as something of a surprise after several years of “nonsoons.”
“What’s interesting is last year felt like an outlier to all of us, because we had two years of essentially no monsoons,” Mott Lacroix says. “I went back and looked at the data, and it turns out it was a normal monsoon last year. It felt crazy big, but it was actually more like a return to normal.”
Once the post-fire assessment is complete, the BAER team gets to work clearing channels or mulching to reduce erosion. This work can run into the millions of dollars, given the cost of quality mulch and the area that needs to be covered.
Aside from humans and lightning strikes, another factor in increasingly catastrophic fires is the type of vegetation that fills the deserts in the 21st century.
A proliferation of non-native grasses is contributing to the high-intensity fires that are becoming more common.
Weeping lovegrass, Mediterranean grass, red brome and salt cedar are growing in monocultures that are more susceptible to fire. These are often considered invasive plants, but Mary Lata thinks we need to reconsider how we classify invasive species, since many of them have been around for a century or more.
“What is an invasive species?” she asks. “At what point do we start to call it naturalized?”
Another factor intensifying fires is how dry many areas have become as a decades-long drought continues unabated.
Lata encourages people using outdoor recreation areas to be vigilant, particularly in the summer, when a random spark can become a disaster for thousands of people in the region.
“Parking a hot vehicle in dried grass at the side of the road can and has started many fires, most notably the Bush Fire,” she says. “Campsites are another source when they aren’t put out cold. You can dump a lot of water on a campfire, but the underside of a log or some fuel just below the surface can still be smoldering. Campers should use the back of their hand to feel for heat to be sure their fire is out before they leave a campsite, or leave the fire sitting overnight while they sleep.”
As to Johnson, he’s grateful for the way everyone works together during fire season, whether the task is taking care of small incidents that the public never hears about, or multi-agency weeks-long events. Whether it’s coordinated efforts by Hotshot teams with full air support, communities providing staging areas during a fire siege, or the biologists and work crews cleaning up in the aftermath, he says the sense of camaraderie is a big part of the draw to his calling.
Johnson’s comment points to the silver lining of the more intense fire seasons we’ve been experiencing lately: the way the community has come together to get through the crisis, recover and move forward. These fires will leave a scar on the land and on our memories, but they also leave Globe-Miami stronger and better prepared to face the inevitable crises of the future.
Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.