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Cluster of wildfires in Sonoran Desert prompt fire patrols

PHOENIX — Dangerous wildfire conditions exist across Arizona’s Sonoran Desert because abundant dried grasses stemming from heavy winter rain have made some areas especially susceptible to fast-moving blazes, state fire officials said.

The Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management ordered patrols around the communities of Wittmann and Wickenburg northwest of Phoenix after three desert blazes last month were found to be caused by people.

One was started by someone burning debris, one by a barbecue and one by welding.

“As we continue to heat up, those grasses are going to continue to cure and dry out. If we don’t get moisture … all of that is just going to act like kindling,” said Tiffany Davila, a spokeswoman for the state firefighting agency.

Residents who previously might have used a garden hose to extinguish a fire can be overwhelmed by flames quickly spreading through grasses, officials said.

A fire outlook issued by the National Weather Service’s Flagstaff office projects a normal fire season for most of northern Arizona and above normal fire threats at lower elevations.

The state is deploying a fire engine to northwestern Maricopa County over the weekend to watch for flames and educate residents about the elevated fire danger.

Officials recommend that people clear 10 to 15 feet around barbecues, burn barrels, outdoor appliances, and areas used for welding and cutting. They also suggest people keep a hose ready if they’re using a flame outside and don’t leave outdoor cooking and trash burns unattended.

And advisory by the state firefighting agency says fires in the Sonoran Desert generally don’t spread far because dry shrubs are separated by dirt across the dusty ground. But the wet winter sprouted grasses that are now providing fuel.

“The Sonoran Desert is a vegetative community that is not adapted to fire,” the advisory says. “The plant members of the community do not need fire to survive and some are very susceptible to long-term damage from fire.”

Davila said the advisory was issued for the area where the three fires were clustered, but similar conditions are present throughout the desert.

“The overgrowth in vegetation, the wildflowers that everybody was admiring at one point now are all dried out and fuel for a fire,” Davila said.

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Associated Press writer Bob Christie contributed.

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