The fire season in the state of Arizona is reaching its height, but many residents are unknowingly at risk of unanticipated conflagrations due to the unclear nature of the state’s automated warning system. Arizona is expecting a series of strong winds, with gusts expected to exceed 35 miles per hour in the Tuscon area. This has increased the fire danger significantly, as any fires that do occur will likely grow quickly and unpredictably, driven by the strong winds. While this particular danger is fleeting, with the storm system not expected to linger in the area, federal fire officials have stated that the fire season has begun particularly early this year. This early start to the fire season has led to fire restrictions by the Arizona State Forestry Division and other governmental agencies, approximately two weeks earlier than normal.
The importance of these fire bans has been emphasized by the presence of a number of new fires in Arizona, with three major fires being reported in the areas surrounding Williams, Forest Lakes and the Alpine Ranger District. Approximately 60 percent of forest fires at this point in the season are estimated to be caused directly by human activities, such as discarded cigarette butts or sparks from tow chains, and this year is no exception. Furthermore, in addition to these new fires, a number of serious fires continue to rage across the state. The Cameron fire in the Alpine Ranger district of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests has spread to the point where it currently covers more than 300 acres.
These new fires in northern Arizona and the severe and extreme drought warnings issued for much of the state emphasize the severity of the situation. However, many residents of Arizona assume that they are protected from the risk of unanticipated fires by an automated warning system, an assumption that is largely unfounded. Only about thirty percent of the counties in Arizona have an automatic evacuation warning system for out of control fires, and outside of Maricopa County only about five percent of the population is covered by this system. These automated warning systems allow the governmental agents to map danger zones, leaving the actual calling to a robo-dialler, an innovation which has been hailed as a huge step forward in crisis management technology. However, the problem with these automated evacuation systems lies in the manner in which they are applied to the population of Arizona.
The major problem surrounding Arizona’s automated evacuation system is the fact that many residents do not understand how the subscription process works. In Arizona, only landlines are enrolled in the database, meaning that people without landlines, or those with landlines they often ignore, are at risk without even knowing it. It is possible to enroll one’s e-mail account or cellphone number into the database, but most residents are unaware that this is required. Due to this lack of communication, there are only about 99 thousand registered numbers in a population of 2 million people located outside Arizona’s most heavily populated county. This means that a huge portion of the population faces the risk of fire without any advanced warning from governmental authorities, and these unanticipated fires pose a grave danger for the safety of these Arizona residents. The only way to ameliorate this situation is for residents of Arizona to register their numbers with authorities, something that can be accomplished on the county websites, and that would likely limit the tragic loss of life caused by fires every year.
By Nicholas Grabe