Arizona Faces Wildfires and Evacuations as COVID-19 Cases Rise

Arizona has spread out firefighters’ camp sites and relied more on aircraft to fight fires amid the pandemic

The Bighorn Fire burns through the western side of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Oro Valley, Arizona
The Bighorn Fire burns through the western side of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Oro Valley, Arizona on June 14. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Several wildfires are burning across Arizona, including the fifth-largest fire in the state’s history, called the Bush Fire. At the same time, the state is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, complicating the movement of firefighters and evacuees.

The Bush Fire began on June 14 when a burning car pulled off of a highway in the Tonto National Forest, meteorologist Matthew Cappucci and Andrew Freedman reported for the Washington Post last week. Since then, it has spread over 186,086 acres, which is more than twice the size of Washington, D.C. By Monday morning, more than 700 firefighting personnel had the blaze about 42 percent contained, Cappucci and Freedman reported in another article for the Washington Post that day. June is historically the driest month of the year in Arizona, so the firefighters are unlikely to get help from Mother Nature until monsoon season begins in mid-July.

"Unfortunately, [Arizona is] probably a preview of what's coming to the surrounding states over the coming weeks and months, because of this emerging drought across much of the West and the projections for a warmer than average summer just about everywhere, which is happening pretty often these days with climate change," UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain, who also works with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, tells Drew Kann at CNN.

No structures have been damaged by the fires so far, but several communities, or about 1,600 people, have been ordered to evacuate, Bryan Pietsch reported for the New York Times last week. The wildfires and evacuations come as Arizona is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases, including a 29 percent increase in hospitalizations compared to a week ago, according to NBC’s Noah Higgins-Dunn.

Officials in Arizona advised evacuees to “avoid close contact with those who are sick” and “practice public health recommendations when relocating,” according to the New York Times.

Arizona’s stay-at-home order expired on May 15 and the state has since allowed gyms, spas, swimming pools and movie theaters to reopen with health precautions, Andrew Oxford reported for Arizona Republic in May. Since recognizing the surge in COVID-19 cases, Arizona governor last week issued an enhanced action plan that includes sharing more information about social distancing and allowing local governments to require that people wear face masks to reduce transmission of the coronavirus.

Firefighters combatting the fire have also had to take social distancing into account, CNN reports. The Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management has dispatched extra crews, spread out camp sites and relied more on aircraft to dump water on fires.

"It can be difficult at times to be socially distant while fighting fire, especially when there can be hundreds, maybe even a thousand firefighters assigned to any incident,” spokesperson for the Department of Forestry and Fire Management Tiffany Davila tells CNN. “But we are working in the safest possible way to make sure our crews remain healthy and our communities and residents remain protected.”

As of Monday, the Sunflower and Apache Lake communities remain under evacuation notices because the danger from wildfires is “imminent and life threatening,” per the Washington Post. Several other communities are at the “set” level of a “ready, set, go,” evacuation scale. Several thousand people have been allowed to return home as the fires are contained, but they have been asked to be ready to evacuate again if necessary.

In addition to the Bush Fire, which is northeast of Phoenix, the Bighorn Fire, which was started by lightning, has burned over 58,000 acres. The Mangum Fire, on the northern rim of the Grand Canyon, covered more than 69,000 acres as of Monday morning. The wildfires have already burned more than three times as much land as was burned during the same timeframe last year, CNN reports.

The fires in Arizona “all serve as a prelude to what’s likely to be another severe fire season across [California], which is just getting started,” according to the Washington Post. While Arizona’s fires are usually stopped by monsoon season, California’s fire season often lasts through the fall.

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