Every summer, across Arizona, you hear the same familiar messages. Decades ago, it was the tried and true, "Remember, only you can prevent forest fires," from a deep-voiced and rather large, imposing Smokey Bear. Today the message is just as important and you hear it in many different ways from a variety of sources, from Smokey to Governor Napolitano to public information officers such as me.
Every fire season, prevention teams are hard at work around the state spreading the fire prevention word at community events, to parents, schoolchildren, and anyone else they can visit. Hundreds of TV, radio, Web, and newspaper contacts are made during fire season. Highway message boards around Arizona remind you not to throw that cigarette out or no campfires are allowed, or simply state "Extreme Fire Danger."
And, every year we all wonder, is anyone out there listening? Well, guess what? We in the fire prevention business think there is someone out there and you have been listening. Land managers and wildfire personnel are noticing a change in the numbers of human-caused fires across Arizona and the change is definitely good.
Perhaps it's because the memories of Rodeo-Chediski are ingrained into most of us and the thought of another is just too much. Or perhaps it's knowing that an act of personal carelessness could cost you thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, out of your own pocket, in suppression costs.
For whatever reason, so far this year, human-caused fires number less than 1,000 compared with an average of 2,100 over the past decade. Last year, over the entire fire season, there were less than 1,500 human-caused fires. On top of this, the acreage losses are also decreasing. So far this year, a mere 22,000 acres have burned, compared to an average of around 170,000 acres.
Another excellent example that you are listening is the fact that on BLM-managed public lands in Arizona, the number of human-caused fires so far this year is half of average, with less than 200 total acres burned. This is an amazing downturn, considering the average acreage loss is 12,000 acres.
For all of us involved in wildland fire, whether it's in suppression, management, or prevention -- thank you and keep it up -- let's try and stretch this three-year trend into one that lasts three decades.
-- The author is retired from the USDA-Forest Service after 36 years of service and is currently on fire assignment with the BLM at the state office in Phoenix. He is an Emergency Communications Consultant and is in his 42nd fire season with his current assignment as a Fire Prevention/Public Information Officer.