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He's on Fire
Kirk Rowdabaugh takes his job seriously — when you're the man in charge of fighting wildfires in the state of Arizona, there isn't any choice.

By Kelly Kramer

Kirk Rowdabaugh's first day as a Phoenix resident was hot. With the temperature topping out at 122 degrees on June 26, 1990, it was hardly an ideal day to move to the Valley of the Sun from Anchorage, Alaska. But, as luck would have it, Rowdabaugh can handle the heat.

As the state forester for Arizona, he leads the government office responsible for preventing and suppressing wildfires on state and private lands. And even though he spends a fair amount of time in Washington, D.C. — he's chairman of the National Association of State Foresters — Rowdabaugh has ample opportunity to explore Arizona.

"It might sound surprising, since I spend so much of my time trying to prevent fires in our state forests, but I'm really a desert person," Rowdabaugh says. "Most of the year, I'll head south to places like Tubac."

When it comes to his day-to-day job, he's most excited about working with other government agencies.

"I fought my first fire when I was just out of high school. It was over the Fourth of July weekend, and I knew that I wanted to be a firefighter for the Forest Service. Now, what I enjoy most about my job is my association with other interested professionals," he says. "The governor has done an excellent job of bringing together diverse people through the Forest Council. It's much more diverse than what I'd experienced before."

Having spent the first 20 years of his career working with other foresters across the West, he says he's been given an opportunity to share that experience with people who haven't spent the bulk of their lives in the field. Those relationships were particularly important in the wake of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002.

The fire, which burned more than 400,000 acres of managed forest throughout the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and the Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests, merged from two separate fires, both of which were man-made.

"Rodeo-Chediski brought real focus to what many of us in the profession had begun to believe was happening," Rowdabaugh says. "The fire environment has fundamentally changed over the past several decades. Just look at fuels, demographics and climate. Those kinds of challenges are going to remain with Arizona for the foreseeable future, particularly as the state continues to grow."

In addition, he adds, significant climate change has hastened seasonal snowmelts, doubling the length of the fire season.

"The bottom line is that Rodeo-Chediski really increased a lot of people's awareness about wildfires," he says. "The majority of Arizona's fires are started by people. We concentrate a lot on public awareness. Regardless of where people come from, they need to be aware of the environment they're in, the potential for starting a fire and the implications of their activities. We want people to get their heads up, look around, and realize that the fire environment has dramatically changed, and people aren't likely to catch up."

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