Wildfires threaten more Prescott homes

By Åsa Björklund
Staff Writer

Wildfire season is approaching in the Prescott area. Chino Valley and Prescott Valley have already experienced several grass-fires. Though the late snowfall this year may delay the fire season in the mountains, individuals should start taking precautions to protect their homes.

Typically, the season starts in mid-May and goes on until the summer rains in July, although lighting often ignites wildfires throughout the monsoon.

More homes than ever are threatened because people have built into forested lands.

“We worry about everything that is south of town,” said Todd Rhines, fuels management supervisor at Prescott city’s Wildland Division. Since southwest winds prevail in the area, “Any fire that starts south or southwest of town has the potential to push its way right into town where there are more homes.”

Fires caused by humans increased dramatically in 2010 in the Prescott National Forest. Likely suspects include smokers or people neglecting to put out their campfires properly. Arsonists are also guilty, as in the 2002 case of the Indian Fire, whose devastating effects are still clearly visible near White Spar road.

“[Arsonists] are everywhere. Those are the ones we have to watch out for,” said Rhines.

Recently, the sale of fireworks was legalized in Arizona, which preoccupies Rhines and his colleague Ted Ralston. They fear that careless people might ignore the prohibition of firework use in forests.

It is difficult to estimate the prospects of the season because of the drought that has prevailed since the early 1990s. Rhines recalled how the moisture level in the Prescott basin averaged 23 inches a year when he moved to town in 1978. “That average now is down to 17. That is a big, big difference,” he said.

The Wildland Division surveys the accumulated moisture of area forests to determine the more susceptible fire zones, but this process is not comprehensive. “[They] get an idea of moisture contents, but not a good overall look at every single place.” A forecast will also only provide limited predictions for the fire season.

Beyond predicting the prevalence of fires for an upcoming season, firefighters maintain a cautionary guard. “It doesn’t matter how severe the season will be. Any fire can be potentially disastrous,” said Peter Gordon, forest fire staff officer at the Prescott National Forest Office.

Firefighters face not only physical challenges, but also psychological. Watching acres of pristine forest disappear into the flames can be agonizing, especially when knowing that people’s homes and lives are also at stake.
“The main part that you really don’t like to see is homes burning in those forest fires, and that seems to be happening more and more every year because people build into wildland or the urban interface,” said Rhines with a sigh. “Sometimes you have enough time to get people out. Other times, the fire is just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.

He paused, looking troubled by memories, then emphasized, “If we could get every single person to realize how critical [defensible space] is so that the firefighters can get in there to fight the fire, rather than having to run to try to protect the homes … we’d all be a lot better off.”

What is defensible space?

Defensible space is the required space between a structure and the wildland area that, under normal conditions, creates a sufficient buffer to slow or halt the spread of wildfire to a structure. It protects the home from igniting due to direct flame or radiant heat. Defensible space is essential for structure survivability during wildfire conditions.

Zone One of defensible space extends 30 feet away from buildings, structures, decks, etc.

• Remove all dead or dying vegetation.

• Trim tree canopies regularly to keep their branches at a minimum of 10 feet away from structures and other trees.

• Remove leaf litter (dry leaves, pine needles, etc.) from yard, roof and rain gutters.

• Relocate woodpiles or other combustible materials into Zone Two.

• Remove combustible material and vegetation from around and under decks.

• Remove or prune vegetation near windows.

• Remove “ladder fuels” (low-level vegetation that allows the fire to spread from the ground to the tree canopy). Create a separation between low-level vegetation and tree branches. This can be done by reducing the height of low-level vegetation and/or trimming low tree branches.

Zone Two of defensible space extends 30 to 100 feet away from buildings, structures and decks. You can minimize the chance of fire spreading from plant to plant by removing dead material and thinning vegetation. The minimum spacing between vegetation is three times the dimension of the plant.

• Remove “ladder fuels.”

• Cut or mow annual grass down to a maximum height of four inches.

• Trim tree canopies regularly to keep their branches a minimum of 10 feet from other trees.

Source: “Ready, Set, Go! Your Personal Wildfire Action Plan.” Published by the International Fire Chiefs Association. For further information, download the brochure at: http://www.cityofprescott.net/_d/readysetgoplan.pdf.

For $100, the Wildland Division will assess your property and share how to create a defensible space around your house. Contact them at: (928) 777-1730.

This article appeared in the May 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.
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