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Officials contend with multiple Southwestern wildfires amid an early start to fire season

Tunnel Fire Snake
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
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A snake curls up underneath a charred chunk of bone near U.S. Highway 89 in the Tunnel Fire burn area on April 26, 2022. The blackened remains of a large animal sat a few yards away amid the burned landscape.

The Tunnel Fire has been burning northeast of Flagstaff for more than a week and has reached nearly 20,000 acres. Hundreds of personnel have steadily increased containment in recent days to about 30%. The massive effort is one of several ongoing concurrently in the Southwest where multiple wildfires are burning during an unusually early time in the region’s fire season. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with Tunnel Fire Information Officer Chris Barth about the logistics of fighting the fire and how its timing may have affected suppression efforts.

UPDATE: As of the evening of Tue, April 26 the cost-to-date of suppressing the Tunnel Fire was $3.17 million.

Ryan Heinsius: This particular fire for northern Arizona started very early in the fire season, April, which is months before we usually see big fires like this go up. Tell me how staffing may have impacted the response. How has that provided or posed a challenge to fire managers considering that a lot of the seasonal workforce only came on just before this fire went up?

Chris Barth: There were, reportedly, I wasn’t here when the fire started, but heard the stories that there were crews, local crews, that were in the middle of some of their training and so they were on and able to respond. This is a bit early as you said, but it was very fortunate that folks were on and able to essentially get some of that seasonal training on the line.

RH: And the Tunnel Fire is hardly the only fire happening in the country right now—the Hermit’s Peak and Calf Creek fires in New Mexico, of course the Crooks Fire down near Prescott. These have all started early in the season. Is there a sense that several fires going on at once has impacted the suppression efforts on any of these fires, but specifically the Tunnel Fire?

CB: I know that we’ve had the right resources, in fact, as we are seeing an increase in containment and the work is being completed on the fire, we’re certainly making an effort to make resources that are no longer needed here available for some of those other fires in the region and across the Southwest. So I know some of that is going to be happening over the next several days. We’re not at the point in the year where there’s fires throughout the country. Some of the other geographic areas are not experiencing a lot of fire activity right now. Certainly, later on in the summer, if we look at past years, you could easily have every incident management team out, every crew out, every whatever out. And I’ve been on fires in the past where it takes a while to get the resources you need, and you make do with what you have. But I wouldn’t say that’s a concern now, again we do have resources here that we need.

RH: These large wildfires are obviously very expensive to fight. Is there any estimate as far as what cost we’re looking at at this point and is that covered by the federal government? Who exactly is footing that bill?

CB: I don’t information on the current cost-to-date. But yeah, as you mentioned, resources, aviation, the crews, there are expenses to responding and suppressing a wildland fire, especially one of this size and whatnot. But yeah, there will be a considerable contribution of expenses that the federal government supplies and supports. But again, this is a multi-agency, all-jurisdiction response in this area where everybody’s coming together and right now focused on getting folks back to their homes, which happened a couple days ago, getting this fire controlled and allowing folks to kind of get back to normal.

RH: Considering that fire professionals and fire managers talk about “fire years” these days and not necessarily fire seasons, going forward, how do we fund fighting these large fires when it’s kind of becoming a year-round effort?

CB: You know, there are core fire seasons in different parts of the country but yes, I can speak to the fact that we really do see year-round fire activity. You know, folks, your audience might be aware that Colorado experienced a pretty significant wildfire New Year’s Eve. I’ve been on fires well into mid-November, so we really are responding to fires year-round. And that requires to have the folks available to do that. There are some efforts I think that are underway to make sure that we have firefighters available more so on those shoulder seasons when we don’t necessarily have on as many of the seasonal workforce. But yeah, we do, we have folks that are responding year-round.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.