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Wildfire FAQs

What is the difference between a wildfire and a prescribed fire?

Wildfires are unplanned wildland fires (unoccupied land) that can be naturally caused (e.g. lightning strikes) or human caused.

Prescribed fires (Rx) are planned wildland fires conducted by state or federal land managers to help improve the health of the local forests and remove debris/vegetation (fuel) to reduce the risk of a large, uncontrolled and catastrophic wildfire. Prescribed fires do not prevent wildfires, but instead change the behavior of an unplanned fire. Less fuel to burn means there is a lower risk of a severe wildfire.

How are wildfires managed?

Wildfires can either be managed, fully suppressed, or a combination of managed and suppressed. Response depends on many factors, including:

  • Fuel moisture
  • Weather
  • Surrounding landscape
  • Potential risk to life/property

Managed fires are when fire managers decide to let the wildfire burn but identify a perimeter inside which the wildfire will be allowed to burn naturally. Fire crews may conduct burnout operations to keep the fire within the perimeter or guide it around sensitive areas. Suppressed wildfires are when fire mangers decide to extinguish an unwanted fire to prevent additional movement. Often, there is a combination of these two tactics to best address the benefits and risks of the wildfires.

What is the purpose of wildfire management?

Wildfire management can have multiple purposes. For people, it is important to burn excess vegetation to reduce the risk of a large, uncontrolled and catastrophic wildfire impacting health, infrastructure, homes and businesses. This is especially important in areas where there is a high amount of wildfire urban interface, which is the transition between wildland (unoccupied land) and human development. This interface is common across Arizona outside the more urban areas.

For the environment, fires can clean out dead wood and vegetation, creating ideal growth conditions for some vegetation and improving habitat for many species.

Can ADEQ manage a wildfire?

No. Wildfires are managed by state or federal agencies that manage land, such as the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It is up to these agencies to decide how a fire is managed or suppressed, including deciding what burning operations or actions are necessary. ADEQ can provide information, when requested, to assist fire managers with decision making. ADEQ does not have the authority to tell state or federal fire managers to put a wildfire out.

What is ADEQ’s role during a wildfire or a prescribed fire?

During a wildfire, ADEQ supports smoke monitoring efforts if smoke is deemed a risk to public health and upon request by a local agency, such as a county health department. For a prescribed fire, ADEQ issues an approval for the local or federal agency to burn | View >

For both types of fire, ADEQ may also provide smoke forecasts to assist the managing agency with information that will help them decide what actions are needed to manage and/or suppress the fire from day to day.

How does ADEQ monitor smoke impacts to air quality from wildfires or prescribed fires?

ADEQ has established monitors in parts of the state, which measure air quality. ADEQ also has portable monitors that can be deployed upon request of a local, state or federal agency.

  • ADEQ Air Quality Monitors | View >
  • ADEQ Portable Particulate Monitors | View >

Where do you put portable smoke monitors?

ADEQ deploys portable monitors upon request by a local, state or federal agency to track particulate matter in wildfire smoke. The U.S. Forest Service also has portable monitors. ADEQ and the U.S. Forest Service determine if and where monitors are needed based on length of impacts, population centers, monitor availability, requests by local agencies, etc.

  • ADEQ Air Quality Monitors | View >
  • ADEQ Portable Particulate Monitors | View >
  • U.S. Forest Service Monitors | View >

What do smoke monitors tell me?

ADEQ smoke monitors measure particulate matter concentrations in the air and compare those to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Air Quality Index (AQI) | View >

The AQI informs the public about air quality in the area and who may be affected, and provides steps to reduce exposure when pollution levels are unhealthy.

What if there is no monitor to tell me the air quality for my area?

The 5-3-1 rule is a simple method you can use if the AQI from a monitor is not available and you need to find a way to determine the air quality. With this method, you stand with your back to the sun and observe the visibility:

  • Is the visibility about 5 miles? If you can see less than 5 miles, the air quality is unhealthy for young children, adults over age 65, pregnant women, and people with heart and/or lung disease, asthma or other respiratory illness; they should minimize outdoor activity. These people should reschedule outdoor recreational activities to a day with better air quality. It is okay for adults in good health to be out and about but they should periodically check visibility and reduce strenuous outside activities, especially when fires are nearby.
  • Is the visibility just about 3 miles? Young children, adults over age 65, pregnant women, and people with heart and/or lung disease, asthma or other respiratory illness should avoid all outdoor activities, including running errands. These people should stay indoors. Everyone else should try to stay indoors as much as possible. All outdoor recreational activities should be rescheduled to a day with better air quality.
  • Is the visibility about 1 mile? If you can see less than 1 mile that means the air quality is unhealthy for everyone. People should remain indoors and avoid all outdoor activities, including running errands. Unless an evacuation has been issued, stay inside your home or workplace as much as possible.

Regardless of the visibility, if you are feeling as though you are having health effects from smoke, take precautions to avoid exposure to smoke and see your doctor or health professional as needed.

What time of day is smoke from a fire usually the worst?

Early mornings are usually the worst time for wildfire smoke. As temperatures warm during the day, there are stronger winds which disperses smoke. As temperatures cool at night, winds generally calm down and smoke settles to the ground, flowing from higher elevations to lower elevations, much like a water. However, smoke can deviate from this typical pattern depending on weather conditions.

Also, where you are in relation to the fire can determine what you experience. Of course, smoke will be heaviest at the fire and then generally decrease further away from it. But, on elevated terrain during the day and if the fire is active, you could potentially be in the direct path of the smoke plume. At night, as smoke drains into valleys and basins, the smoke will be denser in those areas.

How do I protect my health during a wildfire?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers guidance | View >

Recommended actions include:

  • Use common sense. If it looks smoky outside, it's probably not a good time to mow the lawn, go for a run, or let your children play outdoors.
  • Pay attention to local air quality reports. Stay alert to smoke-related news coverage or health warnings.
  • If you are advised to stay indoors, take steps to keep indoor air as clean as possible. When smoke levels are high, try to avoid using anything that burns, such as wood fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves, and even candles! Don't vacuum, as this stirs up particles already inside your home. And don't smoke! That puts even more pollution in your lungs, and in the lungs of people around you.
  • If you have asthma or other lung disease, make sure you follow your doctor's directions about taking your medicines and following your asthma management plan. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.
  • Run your air conditioner if you have one. Keep the fresh air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent bringing additional smoke inside. If you don't have an air conditioner, staying inside with the windows closed may be dangerous in extremely hot weather. In these cases, seek alternative shelter.
  • If you have heart or lung disease, if you are an older adult, or if you have children, talk with your doctor about whether and when you should leave the area. When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors, even though you may not be able to see them.

Should I use an air filter for the air inside my home or a respirator?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers guidance for air filters | View/Download >

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers guidance for respirators | View/Download >

My air quality sensor is not matching your smoke monitor?

Personal air sensors readily available for purchase by the public are generally not as sensitive to changes in air quality as the monitors deployed by ADEQ or USFS. Also, ADEQ and USFS monitors are installed and maintained following strict guidelines to ensure accuracy of the readings.

What about prescribed burns or wildfires on tribal land?

Tribes are sovereign nations. As a state agency, ADEQ does not have jurisdiction on tribal lands. If requested by tribal leaders, ADEQ will assist with air quality monitoring and provide additional information, as needed or requested. ADEQ will also monitor smoke impacts to communities near tribal land and place monitors, if needed or requested.