Wildfires continue to rage in Arizona, leading into another week set to feature hot, dry conditions from the Desert Southwest to California. At the same time as the fires are burning, prompting evacuations, spikes in coronavirus cases are being recorded in several states in the region, including Arizona.
The fifth-largest wildfire in Arizona state history continued to rage Monday morning, swelling to 186,086 acres in size. The so-called Bush Fire northeast of Phoenix had torched an area of land seven times larger than Disney World and thirteen times larger than the island of Manhattan. It was 42% contained, with more than 700 personnel working to fight the flames.
State Route 87 was closed from Payson to Bush Highway, spanning 52 miles of the roadway. Routes 188 and 88 also experienced closures as well. And it was just one of a spattering of blazes dotting the region.
Elsewhere, officials were combating a number of other wildfires amid unfavorable weather conditions, with temperatures heating up into the upper 90s or triple digits for some, with little chance for rain. There’s likely no immediate end in sight to the dry and hot weather, with Arizona’s wildfire season likely to push on through at least mid-July.
California’s fire season is barely getting started.
The communities of Sunflower and Apache Lake remained under evacuation notices, where danger was “imminent and life threatening.” Other communities initially threatened by the Bush Fire were returned to a “set” level on a “ready, set, go” scale, and several thousand residents were permitted to return to their homes. However, they’ve been urged to be ready to evacuate with little or no notice.
The evacuations are more complicated this year due to concerns over the coronavirus, as cases of covid-19 continue to grow in the state. Cases are also on the increase in California.
As of Sunday, Arizona has seen a 133.1 percent jump in the number of hospitalized patients compared to Memorial Day, according to a Washington Post analysis. Arizona had 2,196 new cases listed on Monday and set another record for its highest rolling 7-day average of cases.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, California hit a new single day high in new cases, as officials there take steps to encourage the universal use of masks when out in public.
To the south, the Bighorn Fire – started by lightning – was burning in the Coronado National Forest north of Tucson. The fire had claimed roughly 58,553 acres and was 16% contained. The fire had been 21% contained on Saturday, but firefighting conditions deteriorated.
“Please understand that fires are unpredictable and dangerous and conditions can change rapidly,” wrote the Pima County Sheriff’s Department on Facebook. Areas along the lower Catalina Highway and near lower Mt. Lemmon between Organization Ridge Road and South Willow Canyon were in a “go” status, as were Mt. Bigelow and Summerhaven.
Neighboring Pinal County also had communities under an evacuation notice.
Catalina State Park was closed, as were a number of popular trails, including Romero Canyon, Pima Canyon, and Finger Rock. Authorities described the vegetation in those areas as “tinder dry.”
Firefighters were using infrared drones to gather aerial data on the fire.
June into July marks the peak fire season across Arizona, with hot temperatures, low humidity, and scant rainfall combining to transform any vegetation left on the ground into a powder keg to fuel wildfire growth.
June is the driest month of the year in Phoenix; while July is often the wettest as the monsoon and its associated downpours arrive, relentless hot and dry conditions will continue until that pattern kicks in.
In the meantime, only isolated thunderstorms are expected, many of which won’t even produce rain that can fall to the surface. Much of the rain from so-called “dry thunderstorms” evaporates in the desert air near the ground, which also helps pockets of erratic, gusty winds to descend out of storms. Without any rain to extinguish a fledgling spark, it’s easy for dry thunderstorms and their “hot lightning” to ignite additional wildfires.
The Catalina State Park wasn’t the only popular natural landmark to be impacted by the wildfires. In fact, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon was blocked off to traffic as the Mangum Fire rendered it inaccessible.
The Mangum Fire was at 69,277 acres in size on Monday morning, and was 28% contained.
Elsewhere across the Southwest and Four Corners region, scattered wildfires had broken out from California to New Mexico. The Vics Peak Fire in the San Mateo Mountains of New Mexico had scorched 3,785 acres, while two fires in the Gila National Forest – the Tadpole Fire and the Good Fire – burned 9,200 and 11,300 acres respectively. Additional fires dotted southwestern Colorado.
Even in California, a few wildfires have cropped up. None have been overly large, but all serve as a prelude to what’s likely to be another severe fire season across the Golden State.
Meanwhile, a heat wave is setting in across northern and central California, with temperatures from near Bakersfield all the way up into southern Oregon reaching the upper 90s to triple digits.
Temperatures of 100 to 107 degrees are likely in the San Joaquin Valley beginning Monday and lasting straight through the end of the week, while highs will peak in the 95 to 105 range through the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Heat waves are one of the clearest manifestations of long-term, human-caused global warming, with climate change increasing the likelihood, intensity and duration of extreme heat events.
This trend has been evident in California and other parts of the West during the past several years. In addition, the West is seeing a trend toward larger wildfires as the climate shifts in response to human emissions of greenhouse gases. In addition, decades of forest management practices also influences fire size.
In Arizona, for example, all of the top 10 largest wildfires have occurred since 2002. In California, nine of the top 10 wildfires have occurred since 2003.
In Arizona, the same air mass will contribute to highs flirting with 110 degrees in Phoenix on Wednesday and Thursday, with upper 90s and lower 100s possible even into the foothills. Upper 80s and lower 90s will exacerbate fire weather risks in the Tonto National Forest, and present additional health risks for firefighters working on the ground.
The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is favoring increased odds of an unusually hot and dry summer across the West, and vegetation is already dried out after an early snowmelt.