It was Sunday when the fires started close to Flagstaff, Arizona. I didn’t notice until Tuesday, when my friend, who was driving me home, pointed at clouds erupting somewhere in northeast Flagstaff.
“That’s smoke from the fires,” he said.
I asked whether they were prescribed burns. He simply shook his head. Highway 17 was closed up ahead.
So far, more than 700 homes had evacuated. The news indicated that the fire was spreading away from the city, but that may not be for long.
Looking at the ponderosa pine trees outside my window, violently swaying from high speed wind gusts of over 30 miles per hour, was worrisome — dry conditions and strong gusts are known to create conditions where wildfires can persist.
There is another fire, in Prescott, Arizona, less than 100 miles away from where I live.
In the U.S., there are several active wildfires right now — including six in New Mexico, one each in Oklahoma, Texas and Alaska, as well as three in Arizona, data from the National Interagency Fire Center indicated. Over 62,040 acres have burned, with only four fires contained.
At the root of it
There are a variety of factors that contribute to wildfires. Embers are a big reason behind structural damage, as burning ashes can travel up to 7 miles outside a wildfire perimeter, explained Harry Statter, the founder of Frontline Wildfire Defense, which offers solutions to people living in wildfire-prone areas.
Certain plants do have a natural burn cycle. What this means is that a typical tree, like a juniper, depends on fire to restore itself.
“When you couple climate change, that adds increased levels of dehydration, you’ll have more opportunity for those plant communities to burn,” said Statter.
An expanding population is another part of the recipe. National Park Service data suggests that nearly 85% of wildfires in the U.S. are caused by humans. With that said, more than 350,000 people moved to the Mountain West during the pandemic, causing a huge population influx.
Statter estimates his company has helped save roughly $400 million in residential real estate in California. The company offers defense systems, such as accelerated hydration where foam helps combustible material soak in water more quickly, so that it becomes too wet to burn.
Apart from these defense systems, the company also has an app that offers people the ability to monitor and track wildfires, as well as stay prepared.
All in one spot
On Wednesday, the smoke had visibly set in Flagstaff. It was the best time to download the Frontline Wildfire Defense app and see if it does give me everything I need to stay prepared.
The interface first asked for my address and then walked me through everything I could do — check the weather, follow a wildfire, create emergency groups, look through checklists and glance at nearby fires through the map.
“No fires in the area,” the first page said, with the fire danger scale at a yellowish-orange “high.” It also showed me humidity, precipitation and wind speed levels, as well as a wind direction.
On the map, I saw a fire icon. Clicking it revealed data about the fire: It was 16.5 miles away from me, 3 acres had burned and it was uncertain if it was contained.
It would take over 15 minutes by car to get there — it was far. But not far enough. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guide to preparing for a wildfire also states that keeping track of fires near you is crucial.
The National Weather Service’s “Fire weather outlook” page also provides maps of spreading fires and warnings.
I looked over several preparation checklists — everything from setting up a family emergency plan to taking care of pets during an evacuation.
It’s advised to remember the needs of children, pregnant women and individuals with medical conditions like asthma or heart disease, and that early preparation can save you trouble later. As for pets, carry their crate or collar, proof of ownership papers, medication and a photo along with food and water.
Laying out a large map of Flagstaff that I’d gotten from the visitors center, I marked all the possible routes I could take if an evacuation were to take place. Thin sharpie lines trailed over Highway 17 and Highway 89A, both going south, as well as Highway 40, going east toward Albuquerque, New Mexico. The red dots I marked were hotels I could stay at for the night, the likes of a Best Western.
Next, I had to pack my “evacuation go” bag. I stuffed two T-shirts, one sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, canned beans, corn and peas, seven protein bars, a first-aid kit and my passport in a black duffle. It was my first step toward preparedness.