Between downpours, Monsoon sparks wildfire worries

The Bighorn Fire burning in the Catalina Mountains creeps toward Mount Lemmon
Posted at 5:30 AM, May 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-23 01:40:51-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Monsoon doesn't just mean pounding rain. It can also bring sudden dry lightning and gusty wind — potent ingredients for wildfires.

In some cases, they can be just as big a danger as flash floods.

"Typically during monsoon season is when we start to see a decrease in our fire activity: the precipitation, the somewhat cooler temperatures and that increase in humidity,” said Tiffany Davila, spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. “But if we don't have any of that, then that's just gonna prolong our fire season."

When monsoon storms pop up but don't drop any rain, dry lightning can suddenly spark a fire. That’s what cause the Bighorn Fire to erupt in the Santa Catalinas in June of 2020.

Northwest Fire District firefighter Brian Robinson remembers it clearly. He was part of NFD’s medical response team on the front lines of the fire, which eventually burned nearly 120,000 acres.

"It was a very dry year, kind of at the beginning of the monsoon season,”” Robinson said. “The fire activity was very aggressive. [Firefighters] did what they could. They saved a lot of houses."

According to Davila, most wildfires in Arizona — about 80 percent — are started by people. But during monsoon, dry lightning becomes a much bigger risk—especially during dry monsoon years.

"Last year, for instance, we had that abundance of moisture. So it really put a stop to our fire activity very quickly,” Davila said. “The year prior to that… we really didn't have a monsoon season. So we were constantly running from one fire start to another because of all the dry lightning associated with those storms."

Not only is each monsoon year unpredictable; each storm is, too.

"The outflows [air movement] on those things can be really erratic,” Robinson said. “Sixty miles an hour, plus, I've experienced. Blows that fire everywhere, causing spot fires. Containment lines are compromised. And it can be a very bad situation. And you just come back in when things blow over and try to pick up the pieces. And might have to come up with Plan B."

Like everyone else in Southern Arizona, firefighters need to be ready for the weather to change abruptly.

In the past, Robinson has had to call his crews off of fire lines as they were buzzed by lightning strikes.

"For me, it was just a gut feeling,” he recalled. “Knowing what I'm looking for. Listening to weather reports. Those kind of things. And just paying attention to what's around me."

Not all dry lightning fires are a problem, Davila says. In remote areas, they can take out overgrown fuels before burning out on their own.

But people and property can be threatened at any time.

"We definitely got it in our thoughts and we train on it and make sure that we're all on the same page, so when that emergency comes, it's hopefully a smooth transition and we can help where we're needed,” said Robinson.