Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

May 25, 2005


Host: Michael Grant

Arizona Desert Wildland & Urban Interface


  • The fire danger in our state's forest wildland-urban interface areas is high. What communities and individuals can do to prepare.
Guests:
  • Bob Khan - Phoenix Fire Assistant Chief
  • Bob Hansen - Chief, Rural/Metro Fire Department


View Transcript
>> Michael Grant:
Tonight on "Horizon," current brush fire conditions in Arizona's desert wildland areas, coupled with the homes and businesses there, could converge into a perfect storm of wildfires this season. And the fire danger in our state's forest wildland-urban interface areas is also high. What communities and individuals can do to prepare. We continue our series on fire, next on "Horizon."

>> Announcer:
"Horizon" is made possible by the friends of channel 8, members who provide financial support to this Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

>> Michael Grant:
Good evening, I'm Michael Grant, welcome to "Horizon."
Valley areas that border preserve land or open space are particularly vulnerable to fire. Many homeowners have thinned fuel in areas around their homes in hopes of staving off potential brush fires. But the fire fuel conditions and the new home growth in the urban wildland areas is challenging communities to be aggressive in preparing for the current fire season. Merry Lucero reports.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Mile after mile of desert on the outskirts of town is being covered with homes. Historically, Arizona's big fires have been in our state's forested areas. Are these areas of the valley at risk of wildfire this summer?

>> Wyatt Oden:
Yes, because it's still considered a wildland-urban interface even though you don't have the heavier fuels that you would have in a forest. We don't have as much as the lower grass fuels and taller weeds in the last couple of years because we didn't have the rainfall to produce that and now we do, which now it's carrying it up into the heavier fuels, which is considered the trees that we have, the Palo Verde's and mesquites.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Fire fuel is especially thick in this unincorporated county area north of Cave Creek. Dry brush fills washes and covers acre upon acre of land, poised to carry flames up into the trees.

>> Wyatt Oden:
Everybody thinks of the desert as not many trees but we have a lot of Palo Verde, a lot of mesquite trees in here that can throw off good flame lengths up to about 50 feet in the air.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
New construction continues daily, vulnerable to fire.

>> Wyatt Oden:
If it's just wood frame, yeah that, house is more prone to either start and vice versa. When that house -- if that house would catch on fire by accidental cause, it's more prone to throw more heat and more flames off versus a house that's completed and it would burn a lot quicker, too.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Access to homes can be an issue on the many unpaved roads crisscrossing desert wildland areas.

>> Wyatt Oden:
That's a big problem is getting our trucks into the area on that limited road access that you expect. We do have type six brush trucks that are equipped to get in and off the road, but the only problem is, they -- once you get into the interface with the structures, you need enough water and a bigger truck in there to help handle and cover those areas, too, as well.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Dry grass and trees growing right up to houses, many on preserves, increases the fire risk, unless homeowners take on the thorny task of clearing the brush.

>> Oden Wyatt:
But if they have a good barrier between the preserve and the structure on the house, which most of them usually do, it's usually about at least a hundred foot barrier before it hits the preserve area, so as long as they got their yard kind of cleaned up, either got gravel around it and stuff and get that 30 to 50 foot defensible space around their home.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Fire official's work to educate homeowners about creating defensible space. A wall around the house offers more fire protection. Also important. Trimming tree limbs and spacing trees.

>> Wyatt Oden:
You want your trees in a broken setting around your house too, as well, and not all clumped together, and that will help make the home more survivable.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Fire danger areas don't stop at jurisdictional lines.

>> Wyatt Oden:
Phoenix has got some them up in like the Ahwatukee area where it borders into South Mountain park and that area. Peoria has got an urban interface problem where they've inherited up towards Lake Pleasant area now since they've annexed all of that area.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
A consortium of valley fire departments is prepared to respond to wildland incidents wherever they may ignite.

>> Wyatt Oden:
All of the valley fire departments have joined together. We do drills. We do meetings of the central Arizona Wildland Response Team, established three years ago now.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Fire experts and homeowners are bracing for what could be one of the worst brush fire seasons ever.

>> Michael Grant:
Joining me now with more on our valley's urban interface area fire conditions, Phoenix fire assistant chief Bob Kahn. And bob Hansen, chief of the Rural/Metro Fire Department. guys, good to see you.

>> Bob Hansen:
Good afternoon.

>> Michael Grant:
Hey, Bob, let me jump out of sequence here. That whole defensible space thing, I noticed on the video there, the homeowner raking away the excess, but of course, he was still leaving grass, is just raking away -- that's better than nothing, but do you also have to get out there with a lawn mower and chop down the stuff that's growing?

>> Bob Khan:
Well, it can lead to flame spread, but you know, what I saw there and I thought Merry captured a really good house with defensible space that wouldn't be problematic for us to defend. Anything more than six inches, if you have a field of grass like that and it's a windy day could be a problem. What I saw there was enough dirt and separation that it wouldn't be problematic for us, but if it looked like a yard that had dried out and it was six inches high with that much grass, it would present a challenge to keep up with until it got into the taller brush and extended to the home or construction site.

>> Michael Grant:
Bob Hansen, we're going have to do last names here, sort of a classic good news/bad news story. The good news is it rained this winter and the bad news is it rained this winter.

>> Bob Hansen:
Exactly that. With all of the rain we had it, got the plants, the grass, trees, everything growing, and now with all of the heat that we're having, it's drying it out which brings us back to that same video, like Bob said, scraping that down like it was pretty good, but you have to remember your trees and anything else laying up against your house. You want to trim those bag. Woodpiles that are up against your houses, move those up back away from your homes, too.

>> Michael Grant:
Did you give some time ago, though, to coordinate plan, dread, and anticipate, because the handwriting was on the wall?

>> Bob Hansen:
Yes, we saw it coming. All of the valley departments got together with their wildland crews and started doing training a couple months back. We did training on the East Side, West Side. So all of the valley departments had different scenarios that they did. We were really prepared for the season that was coming. It still came upon us really quick, though, this year.

>> Michael Grant:
Is this the worst one in at least a decade, maybe more?

>> Bob Khan:
Michael, at least a decade. We're looking at our numbers, probably back to '95, and we're saying even back over 20 years. We're in -- in the Phoenix metropolitan area, we're looking at as many as 2000 brush or grass or field fires. We've had a number of camping fires first alarm or greater. It only gets worse from here on out. And with the fuel that we have, with the weather that we have, it's a tinderbox. The Sonoran desert is a beautiful place, but there is a heck of a lot of fuel out there for us this season.

>> Michael Grant:
What are stats to date pickup mentioned 2000, and I think you told me the average for a season is normally 700?

>> Bob Khan:
We had 700 last year. We're probably bumping up against 300 right now. By the time we see the monsoon hit, we'll probably be up to 2000. That can be a small field fire or an alley fire or a campaign fire like we saw in the Salt River. It just depends. We've seen five, ten acres and a couple hundred acres in that urban interface. We've all been busy so far.

>> Bob Hansen:
We've been averaging 6, 8 brush fires a day.

>> Michael Grant:
Are there -- Bob, worst areas at risk? I mean obviously the valley is a big graphical area. I mean, are there areas that are worse off in more peril than others? Or is this pretty much across the board?

>> Bob Hansen:
It's pretty much across the board, but I think what we look at as the fire departments out there is our urban interface, and that's the areas that are abutting up against the desert out there. There is no roads that actually break the fires or things like that, so I would say that what we call the urban interface where the houses meet the desert.

>> Michael Grant:
Any particular areas warehouses or businesses, you know, have done a better job than others in trying to reduce the risk?

>> Bob Khan:
A lot of times that just depends on the business owner or the contractor that's out there. They are responsible for creating that defensible space. Some of them understand the hazards. A lot of times what we find as problematic are the homes in a framing stage where you have the two by fours and two by sixes going up. They are very vulnerable and there is not a lot of care or if you would, consideration to that defensible space, because the homeowner hasn't moved in yet and we're relying on the contractor to take that initiative and they are very busy. Those kind of areas, when you see them, they create a greater hazard for us. Embers can go 700 feet if they get into that dry wood of that home under construction, we simply aren't going to be able to save that structure.

>> Michael Grant:
This is a college bowl question. You can both respond. Is there any time when you look at a fire, let's say structures are not in peril, lives are not in peril, and you just say, we're going let that burn?

>> Bob Hansen:
I would say yes. There are those times, because, number one, we're looking at saving lives. Lives are number one in our business. And if we're going risk a life there for very little, you know, little being the structure there, we're not going to do that. We're going to save the lives and let the structure burn.

>> Bob Khan:
You don't want to put people in harm's way. It's hard to outperform Mother Nature. You can't get in front of that fire. You can't run faster than a wildland fire burns, so what you need to do is choose a place that you feel comfortable in defending an position yourself there. If the structure is part of that scenario, we call it a defensive fire and we're trying to set you up for that fire and not getting hurt. We're going to have plenty of chances to practice that and we need to keep our firefighters as safe as possible.

>> Michael Grant:
We've already covered in a show of a couple of days ago the fact that in the forest, actually fire, it's a natural element. Does it have some of those same elements to it here, again, if you can leave it alone, in terms of, well, you know, the stuff has got to come down sometime, it might as well come down now?

>> Bob Khan:
We saw a little of that on the Salt River where the salt Cedars were burning down there. That thinning actually will help us out because there is no process in place, no really logging or any process that thins that out. So Mother Nature will take over and do it that way. We can't get out there and stay ahead of it, and once that happens, it thins it out and gives us better access for other fires down the road. So it's helpful.

>> Michael Grant:
Bob, you've already mentioned the coordination effort, but there is a central Arizona wildland response team. Give us a few more details on that.

>> Bob Hansen:
Basically that's all of the valley departments that are out there fighting these urban interface fires. They all get together and they have a coordinated training session. They also pool all of their resources. The resources being all of their trucks that they would have, all of the people that they would have, all of the resources that they would have. So if we happen to have a big fire in Phoenix, out in the county areas, some other place here in the valley, we all know what the other departments have that we can pool from and pull those resources.

>> Michael Grant:
Because it's a strain, you guys still have cities to protect as well, so it's a real drain on resources.

>> Bob Khan:
Well, some of these fires, we had the last fire burn for about 8 hours. If you are protecting -- if you are going to car collisions, heart attacks and other structure fires, that's a lot of folks to take out of your system and still provide that service. So there needs to be a coordinated effort. We're putting in over 100 firefighters. Those cities that do that need those firefighters protecting them. So we have to juggle those resources around and have a game plan ahead of the fire. So this is helpful to everybody in the fire service.

>> Michael Grant:
Most frequent causes, bob?

>> Bob Hansen:
Carelessness. I would say carelessness. People that are smoking and happen to -- they've been flipping their cigarettes out the car windows forever, but this is not the year to do something like that. They may have gone out in the desert before and gone shooting, just the spark from ricochets, that is another --

>> Michael Grant:
What about the catalytic converter thing. Is that a problem?

>> Bob Hansen:
Those things get hot. If you are in tall grass, those can start a fire.

>> Michael Grant:
Bob Hansen, thank you for joining us, Bob you can, good to see you. Thanks.

>> Michael Grant:
On to some higher elevations. Moisture from the wet winter has lowered fire potential in Arizona's forest areas, but they are not yet out of the woods for fire danger. In one of the state's first forest restoration projects of some 10,000 acres of private, state and federal lands, a forest community south of Flagstaff continues to work to protect more than 2000 homes from catastrophic fire. Merry Lucero reports.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Trees sway in the wind in the Kachina village area south of Flagstaff. Last summer, fire conditions were extreme. The concerns remain strong.

>> Tim Pauport:
Thousands and thousands of acres of forest are running right from Oak Creek Canyon right to our community. So there's a lot of concern about fires making runs up the canyons, coming up pump house wash and impinging right into our communities.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
In areas like Kachina village where homes and businesses back to forest wild lands, the fire danger is on everyone's minds.

>> Doc Smith:
Fire could easily roar through this community, a crown fire, and take out dozens and dozens and dozens of homes, perhaps hundreds of homes, the same with Flagstaff, Williams, Pinetop-Lakeside, Payson, Prescott, all over the state. We have these kinds of communities that are at serious risk from wildfire.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
In this area, community members and public, private and government agencies formed the greater Flagstaff forest partnership after the disastrous 1996 Flagstaff fire season. DOC Smith chairs the board.

>> Doc Smith:
We formed up to try and help the agencies, the fire age seize, the Forest Service and others, in trying to understand public concerns and public perceptions and public ideas about what's to be done with the forest and the fires that could come out of the forest into the communities.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
They hold open monthly meetings to help educate community members about the science of forest health, habitat protection and reducing fire risk by thinning trees.

>> Tim Pauport:
We have a very proactive program going on in our communities where we try to go to every owner of every lot within our community and give them advice on what would make their lot more fire proof and what will help to make their community safer.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
In close collaboration, the Forest Service, dealing with Coconino national forestland.

>> Terri Marceron:
What we determined was the need to treat the community, the areas around the community first, and so part of releasing our contracts and the timing of the effort has been to try and work next to the communities first. That goes the same with pile burning and broadcast burning. So we're treating the communities first and then working south.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Within the 10,000-acre Kachina project are three forest areas to be contracted out for thinning. The Forest Service writes a prescription for the thinning. Southwest forest products of Phoenix has one of those contracts. Dallas Younger is their woods boss.

>> Dallas Younger:
Normally what they'll do is they'll mark it so that you are going to get the tops of your trees far enough away from each other that a topped out fire won't carry across the top of the trees. If you get a fire at the top of one of these trees and you've got tree after tree that the tops touch on it, it's just like a fire running across the forest floor. It's got fuel continuously.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
They are thinning mostly 8-12-inch diameter trees from about 2000 acres. The degree called SLASH will be burned in cooler weather, erosion control, road closures and forest rehabilitation are also part of the contract. The goal, a healthier, more fire-resistant and more beautiful forest for future generations.

>> Michael Grant:
Here with more on our forest urban interface issues, Cliff Pearlberg, State firewise coordinator with the Arizona State Land Department. And Richard Remington, an environmental planning consultant specializing in community fire protection. Gentlemen, good to see you. Cliff, give me some background on the Firewise Program.

>> Cliff Pearlberg:
The firewise communities program is a program that was developed by the national wildfire coordinating group and the national association of state foresters to involve local communities and to bring their input into the process of mitigating or reducing some of the hazards and threats that face these communities from wildfire.

>> Michael Grant:
You were making the comment that Arizona had the first one and it also had like the hundredth one?

>> Cliff Pearlberg:
That's correct. Two milestones, timber ridge, near Prescott, was the first community nationally to be recognized and the community of PALIMINIS, of southeast Arizona, is the 100th community.

>> Michael Grant:
In general, what is it doing to be fire wise?

>> Cliff Pearlberg:
What we look at is managing the vegetation and plants around the homes so that fire will not carry across a property owner's property as readily as otherwise, so that that home might be able to withstand a wildfire without endangering people protecting it.

>> Michael Grant:
Okay. Richard, give me an idea of the kinds of community fire planning projects that you and your firm will get involved in.

>> Richard Remington:
You bet. There really has been significant strides in terms of involving local communities and governments and determining not only how to mitigate risk to at-risk communities from catastrophic wildland fire, but in terms of funding, the mitigation measures themselves, starting in 2000 with the funding of the national fire plan and then in 2001, when the healthy forest initiative was introduced, and with the signing of the healthy forest restoration act in 2003. Basically, the national fire plan establishes that national policy on how to address collaboratively with local communities the risk of catastrophic wildland fire.

>> Michael Grant:
And you get into both the prevention aspects as the well if it happens, what do we do at that point aspects? I mean both forward looking and also retro-looking?

>> Richard Remington:
The healthy forest restoration act, title I of the act allows and empowers local communities to determine the wildland-urban interface and the types of treatments in that interface that are needed to reduce wildland fuels to actually provide that element of protection to the community. It ties in with the communities USA Firewise Program and actually describes the types of treatments that the community would allow within the interface, beginning at the very outside wall of a private structure and then moving toward the exterior wood out to the actual wild lands of the forest.

>> Michael Grant:
Cliff, is it this simple, I'm going hire myself a bulldozer and just clear 100 feet around a house?

>> Cliff Pearlberg:
No, one of the goals of the Firewise Program is to achieve the types of measures we need to reduce the risk from wildfire with minimal impact on the environment and the homeowners' property. We're not asking people to create a moonscape on their property. We're not asking them to cut the big trees on their property or all of them. We're not asking them to remove all of the brush from their property. We're asking them to maintain the vegetation so it stays healthy, remove those plants that pose a direct danger by encroaching upon the house itself. I've seen homes where they have built the home around a pine tree, and the pine tree comes up out of the center of the home. There is a huge risk there from wildfire, should you have that. So the Firewise Program is trying to promote behavior that reduces threat, but at the same time maintains the character of the neighborhood.

>> Michael Grant:
How much resistance, though, Richard, is there, because a lot of people say, well, hold it, the whole reason I bought this place was, you know, I wanted to be in a real forest environment and even if I don't hire my bulldozer, it's just not what I had in mind?

>> Richard Remington:
There are, I guess, the whole spectrum of public opinion on what should or should not happen with my private parcels and the size of the private parcels and how that interfaces with federal or adjacent forestlands, for instance. There are some folks who believe that the majority of wildland fire begins at the forest and it should be the Forest Service who actually addresses the wildland fire issue on the forest and leaves the private landowner out of the equation, but actually --

>> Michael Grant:
If nothing else, from the standpoint of watching video of Rodeo-Chediski and other absolutely horrendous fires in the past three or four years?

>> Richard Remington:
It absolutely has changed in more than one way. I guess private landowners certainly have seen firsthand and witnessed firsthand the value of maintaining their property in a firewise or fire safe state. Also fire departments have certainly seen what can happen within a community that's heavily forested or not maintained in terms of spread across the communities or into the wild lands.

>> Michael Grant:
Cliff, obviously, it was a wet winter. Now, that brings as we just discussed a worse -- much worse conditions down here, but, of course, the additional moisture in at least higher elevations reduces the risk. Is there a complacency as a result of that?

>> Cliff Pearlberg:
That's a concern that we have. Basically, the forests in Arizona are fire derived and supported ecosystems. Fire is a natural part of that ecosystem. With the moisture we had at this year at the higher elevations, we'll probably have a shorter fire season at those elevations in the forestlands, areas like Show Low, Flagstaff, Prescott, perhaps. However, they are still going to dry out at some point during the summer. The humidity will drop and wildfire is still a threat in those communities.

>> Michael Grant:
And, Cliff, am I correct that although that was good news for this year, it does increase load for subsequent periods, does it not?

>> Cliff Pearlberg:
That's correct, especially the deserts. What will happen, we will have, of course, going right now a higher than usual incidence of fire in the low elevations. If we get the rain again this coming winter, what we got this year is also a seedbed and seed production will have even more grass next summer. That would apply to the higher elevations also, the annuals are stimulated by the first year's precipitation, and they get even more robust and healthier for the next year's fire season.

>> Michael Grant:
All right. Well, Cliff Pearlberg, we'll certainly be keeping our fingers crossed this summer. Thanks for being here. Richard Remington, our thanks to you as well.

>> Richard Remington:
My pleasure, sir.

>> Michael Grant:
We continue our fire series tomorrow. To see transcripts of "Horizon," related links, and find out about upcoming topics go to our web site, www.azpbs.org.

>> Reporter Mike Sauceda:
Buyer restrictions are already in place for Arizona's desert areas as wildfires are burned thousands of acres of fragile desert, meanwhile our forest areas are in better shape. We'll talk about current fire conditions in our continuing series, Fire, plus an update for planning for the Arizona centennial. That's Thursday on "Horizon."

>> Michael Grant:
On Friday, we'll have the journalists' roundtable edition. Thank you for joining us on a Wednesday evening. I'm Michael Grant. I hope you have a great one, good night.


Fire, part three of four


  • Current brush fire conditions in Arizona's desert wildland areas, coupled with the homes and businesses there, could converge into a perfect storm of wildfires this season.
Guests:
  • Bob Khan - Phoenix Fire Assistant Chief
  • Bob Hansen - Chief, Rural/Metro Fire Department


View Transcript
>> Michael Grant:
Tonight on "Horizon," current brush fire conditions in Arizona's desert wildland areas, coupled with the homes and businesses there, could converge into a perfect storm of wildfires this season. And the fire danger in our state's forest wildland-urban interface areas is also high. What communities and individuals can do to prepare. We continue our series on fire, next on "Horizon."

>> Announcer:
"Horizon" is made possible by the friends of channel 8, members who provide financial support to this Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

>> Michael Grant:
Good evening, I'm Michael Grant, welcome to "Horizon."
Valley areas that border preserve land or open space are particularly vulnerable to fire. Many homeowners have thinned fuel in areas around their homes in hopes of staving off potential brush fires. But the fire fuel conditions and the new home growth in the urban wildland areas is challenging communities to be aggressive in preparing for the current fire season. Merry Lucero reports.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Mile after mile of desert on the outskirts of town is being covered with homes. Historically, Arizona's big fires have been in our state's forested areas. Are these areas of the valley at risk of wildfire this summer?

>> Wyatt Oden:
Yes, because it's still considered a wildland-urban interface even though you don't have the heavier fuels that you would have in a forest. We don't have as much as the lower grass fuels and taller weeds in the last couple of years because we didn't have the rainfall to produce that and now we do, which now it's carrying it up into the heavier fuels, which is considered the trees that we have, the Palo Verde's and mesquites.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Fire fuel is especially thick in this unincorporated county area north of Cave Creek. Dry brush fills washes and covers acre upon acre of land, poised to carry flames up into the trees.

>> Wyatt Oden:
Everybody thinks of the desert as not many trees but we have a lot of Palo Verde, a lot of mesquite trees in here that can throw off good flame lengths up to about 50 feet in the air.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
New construction continues daily, vulnerable to fire.

>> Wyatt Oden:
If it's just wood frame, yeah that, house is more prone to either start and vice versa. When that house -- if that house would catch on fire by accidental cause, it's more prone to throw more heat and more flames off versus a house that's completed and it would burn a lot quicker, too.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Access to homes can be an issue on the many unpaved roads crisscrossing desert wildland areas.

>> Wyatt Oden:
That's a big problem is getting our trucks into the area on that limited road access that you expect. We do have type six brush trucks that are equipped to get in and off the road, but the only problem is, they -- once you get into the interface with the structures, you need enough water and a bigger truck in there to help handle and cover those areas, too, as well.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Dry grass and trees growing right up to houses, many on preserves, increases the fire risk, unless homeowners take on the thorny task of clearing the brush.

>> Oden Wyatt:
But if they have a good barrier between the preserve and the structure on the house, which most of them usually do, it's usually about at least a hundred foot barrier before it hits the preserve area, so as long as they got their yard kind of cleaned up, either got gravel around it and stuff and get that 30 to 50 foot defensible space around their home.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Fire official's work to educate homeowners about creating defensible space. A wall around the house offers more fire protection. Also important. Trimming tree limbs and spacing trees.

>> Wyatt Oden:
You want your trees in a broken setting around your house too, as well, and not all clumped together, and that will help make the home more survivable.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Fire danger areas don't stop at jurisdictional lines.

>> Wyatt Oden:
Phoenix has got some them up in like the Ahwatukee area where it borders into South Mountain park and that area. Peoria has got an urban interface problem where they've inherited up towards Lake Pleasant area now since they've annexed all of that area.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
A consortium of valley fire departments is prepared to respond to wildland incidents wherever they may ignite.

>> Wyatt Oden:
All of the valley fire departments have joined together. We do drills. We do meetings of the central Arizona Wildland Response Team, established three years ago now.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Fire experts and homeowners are bracing for what could be one of the worst brush fire seasons ever.

>> Michael Grant:
Joining me now with more on our valley's urban interface area fire conditions, Phoenix fire assistant chief Bob Kahn. And bob Hansen, chief of the Rural/Metro Fire Department. guys, good to see you.

>> Bob Hansen:
Good afternoon.

>> Michael Grant:
Hey, Bob, let me jump out of sequence here. That whole defensible space thing, I noticed on the video there, the homeowner raking away the excess, but of course, he was still leaving grass, is just raking away -- that's better than nothing, but do you also have to get out there with a lawn mower and chop down the stuff that's growing?

>> Bob Khan:
Well, it can lead to flame spread, but you know, what I saw there and I thought Merry captured a really good house with defensible space that wouldn't be problematic for us to defend. Anything more than six inches, if you have a field of grass like that and it's a windy day could be a problem. What I saw there was enough dirt and separation that it wouldn't be problematic for us, but if it looked like a yard that had dried out and it was six inches high with that much grass, it would present a challenge to keep up with until it got into the taller brush and extended to the home or construction site.

>> Michael Grant:
Bob Hansen, we're going have to do last names here, sort of a classic good news/bad news story. The good news is it rained this winter and the bad news is it rained this winter.

>> Bob Hansen:
Exactly that. With all of the rain we had it, got the plants, the grass, trees, everything growing, and now with all of the heat that we're having, it's drying it out which brings us back to that same video, like Bob said, scraping that down like it was pretty good, but you have to remember your trees and anything else laying up against your house. You want to trim those bag. Woodpiles that are up against your houses, move those up back away from your homes, too.

>> Michael Grant:
Did you give some time ago, though, to coordinate plan, dread, and anticipate, because the handwriting was on the wall?

>> Bob Hansen:
Yes, we saw it coming. All of the valley departments got together with their wildland crews and started doing training a couple months back. We did training on the East Side, West Side. So all of the valley departments had different scenarios that they did. We were really prepared for the season that was coming. It still came upon us really quick, though, this year.

>> Michael Grant:
Is this the worst one in at least a decade, maybe more?

>> Bob Khan:
Michael, at least a decade. We're looking at our numbers, probably back to '95, and we're saying even back over 20 years. We're in -- in the Phoenix metropolitan area, we're looking at as many as 2000 brush or grass or field fires. We've had a number of camping fires first alarm or greater. It only gets worse from here on out. And with the fuel that we have, with the weather that we have, it's a tinderbox. The Sonoran desert is a beautiful place, but there is a heck of a lot of fuel out there for us this season.

>> Michael Grant:
What are stats to date pickup mentioned 2000, and I think you told me the average for a season is normally 700?

>> Bob Khan:
We had 700 last year. We're probably bumping up against 300 right now. By the time we see the monsoon hit, we'll probably be up to 2000. That can be a small field fire or an alley fire or a campaign fire like we saw in the Salt River. It just depends. We've seen five, ten acres and a couple hundred acres in that urban interface. We've all been busy so far.

>> Bob Hansen:
We've been averaging 6, 8 brush fires a day.

>> Michael Grant:
Are there -- Bob, worst areas at risk? I mean obviously the valley is a big graphical area. I mean, are there areas that are worse off in more peril than others? Or is this pretty much across the board?

>> Bob Hansen:
It's pretty much across the board, but I think what we look at as the fire departments out there is our urban interface, and that's the areas that are abutting up against the desert out there. There is no roads that actually break the fires or things like that, so I would say that what we call the urban interface where the houses meet the desert.

>> Michael Grant:
Any particular areas warehouses or businesses, you know, have done a better job than others in trying to reduce the risk?

>> Bob Khan:
A lot of times that just depends on the business owner or the contractor that's out there. They are responsible for creating that defensible space. Some of them understand the hazards. A lot of times what we find as problematic are the homes in a framing stage where you have the two by fours and two by sixes going up. They are very vulnerable and there is not a lot of care or if you would, consideration to that defensible space, because the homeowner hasn't moved in yet and we're relying on the contractor to take that initiative and they are very busy. Those kind of areas, when you see them, they create a greater hazard for us. Embers can go 700 feet if they get into that dry wood of that home under construction, we simply aren't going to be able to save that structure.

>> Michael Grant:
This is a college bowl question. You can both respond. Is there any time when you look at a fire, let's say structures are not in peril, lives are not in peril, and you just say, we're going let that burn?

>> Bob Hansen:
I would say yes. There are those times, because, number one, we're looking at saving lives. Lives are number one in our business. And if we're going risk a life there for very little, you know, little being the structure there, we're not going to do that. We're going to save the lives and let the structure burn.

>> Bob Khan:
You don't want to put people in harm's way. It's hard to outperform Mother Nature. You can't get in front of that fire. You can't run faster than a wildland fire burns, so what you need to do is choose a place that you feel comfortable in defending an position yourself there. If the structure is part of that scenario, we call it a defensive fire and we're trying to set you up for that fire and not getting hurt. We're going to have plenty of chances to practice that and we need to keep our firefighters as safe as possible.

>> Michael Grant:
We've already covered in a show of a couple of days ago the fact that in the forest, actually fire, it's a natural element. Does it have some of those same elements to it here, again, if you can leave it alone, in terms of, well, you know, the stuff has got to come down sometime, it might as well come down now?

>> Bob Khan:
We saw a little of that on the Salt River where the salt Cedars were burning down there. That thinning actually will help us out because there is no process in place, no really logging or any process that thins that out. So Mother Nature will take over and do it that way. We can't get out there and stay ahead of it, and once that happens, it thins it out and gives us better access for other fires down the road. So it's helpful.

>> Michael Grant:
Bob, you've already mentioned the coordination effort, but there is a central Arizona wildland response team. Give us a few more details on that.

>> Bob Hansen:
Basically that's all of the valley departments that are out there fighting these urban interface fires. They all get together and they have a coordinated training session. They also pool all of their resources. The resources being all of their trucks that they would have, all of the people that they would have, all of the resources that they would have. So if we happen to have a big fire in Phoenix, out in the county areas, some other place here in the valley, we all know what the other departments have that we can pool from and pull those resources.

>> Michael Grant:
Because it's a strain, you guys still have cities to protect as well, so it's a real drain on resources.

>> Bob Khan:
Well, some of these fires, we had the last fire burn for about 8 hours. If you are protecting -- if you are going to car collisions, heart attacks and other structure fires, that's a lot of folks to take out of your system and still provide that service. So there needs to be a coordinated effort. We're putting in over 100 firefighters. Those cities that do that need those firefighters protecting them. So we have to juggle those resources around and have a game plan ahead of the fire. So this is helpful to everybody in the fire service.

>> Michael Grant:
Most frequent causes, bob?

>> Bob Hansen:
Carelessness. I would say carelessness. People that are smoking and happen to -- they've been flipping their cigarettes out the car windows forever, but this is not the year to do something like that. They may have gone out in the desert before and gone shooting, just the spark from ricochets, that is another --

>> Michael Grant:
What about the catalytic converter thing. Is that a problem?

>> Bob Hansen:
Those things get hot. If you are in tall grass, those can start a fire.

>> Michael Grant:
Bob Hansen, thank you for joining us, Bob you can, good to see you. Thanks.

>> Michael Grant:
On to some higher elevations. Moisture from the wet winter has lowered fire potential in Arizona's forest areas, but they are not yet out of the woods for fire danger. In one of the state's first forest restoration projects of some 10,000 acres of private, state and federal lands, a forest community south of Flagstaff continues to work to protect more than 2000 homes from catastrophic fire. Merry Lucero reports.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Trees sway in the wind in the Kachina village area south of Flagstaff. Last summer, fire conditions were extreme. The concerns remain strong.

>> Tim Pauport:
Thousands and thousands of acres of forest are running right from Oak Creek Canyon right to our community. So there's a lot of concern about fires making runs up the canyons, coming up pump house wash and impinging right into our communities.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
In areas like Kachina village where homes and businesses back to forest wild lands, the fire danger is on everyone's minds.

>> Doc Smith:
Fire could easily roar through this community, a crown fire, and take out dozens and dozens and dozens of homes, perhaps hundreds of homes, the same with Flagstaff, Williams, Pinetop-Lakeside, Payson, Prescott, all over the state. We have these kinds of communities that are at serious risk from wildfire.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
In this area, community members and public, private and government agencies formed the greater Flagstaff forest partnership after the disastrous 1996 Flagstaff fire season. DOC Smith chairs the board.

>> Doc Smith:
We formed up to try and help the agencies, the fire age seize, the Forest Service and others, in trying to understand public concerns and public perceptions and public ideas about what's to be done with the forest and the fires that could come out of the forest into the communities.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
They hold open monthly meetings to help educate community members about the science of forest health, habitat protection and reducing fire risk by thinning trees.

>> Tim Pauport:
We have a very proactive program going on in our communities where we try to go to every owner of every lot within our community and give them advice on what would make their lot more fire proof and what will help to make their community safer.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
In close collaboration, the Forest Service, dealing with Coconino national forestland.

>> Terri Marceron:
What we determined was the need to treat the community, the areas around the community first, and so part of releasing our contracts and the timing of the effort has been to try and work next to the communities first. That goes the same with pile burning and broadcast burning. So we're treating the communities first and then working south.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
Within the 10,000-acre Kachina project are three forest areas to be contracted out for thinning. The Forest Service writes a prescription for the thinning. Southwest forest products of Phoenix has one of those contracts. Dallas Younger is their woods boss.

>> Dallas Younger:
Normally what they'll do is they'll mark it so that you are going to get the tops of your trees far enough away from each other that a topped out fire won't carry across the top of the trees. If you get a fire at the top of one of these trees and you've got tree after tree that the tops touch on it, it's just like a fire running across the forest floor. It's got fuel continuously.

>> Reporter Merry Lucero:
They are thinning mostly 8-12-inch diameter trees from about 2000 acres. The degree called SLASH will be burned in cooler weather, erosion control, road closures and forest rehabilitation are also part of the contract. The goal, a healthier, more fire-resistant and more beautiful forest for future generations.

>> Michael Grant:
Here with more on our forest urban interface issues, Cliff Pearlberg, State firewise coordinator with the Arizona State Land Department. And Richard Remington, an environmental planning consultant specializing in community fire protection. Gentlemen, good to see you. Cliff, give me some background on the Firewise Program.

>> Cliff Pearlberg:
The firewise communities program is a program that was developed by the national wildfire coordinating group and the national association of state foresters to involve local communities and to bring their input into the process of mitigating or reducing some of the hazards and threats that face these communities from wildfire.

>> Michael Grant:
You were making the comment that Arizona had the first one and it also had like the hundredth one?

>> Cliff Pearlberg:
That's correct. Two milestones, timber ridge, near Prescott, was the first community nationally to be recognized and the community of PALIMINIS, of southeast Arizona, is the 100th community.

>> Michael Grant:
In general, what is it doing to be fire wise?

>> Cliff Pearlberg:
What we look at is managing the vegetation and plants around the homes so that fire will not carry across a property owner's property as readily as otherwise, so that that home might be able to withstand a wildfire without endangering people protecting it.

>> Michael Grant:
Okay. Richard, give me an idea of the kinds of community fire planning projects that you and your firm will get involved in.

>> Richard Remington:
You bet. There really has been significant strides in terms of involving local communities and governments and determining not only how to mitigate risk to at-risk communities from catastrophic wildland fire, but in terms of funding, the mitigation measures themselves, starting in 2000 with the funding of the national fire plan and then in 2001, when the healthy forest initiative was introduced, and with the signing of the healthy forest restoration act in 2003. Basically, the national fire plan establishes that national policy on how to address collaboratively with local communities the risk of catastrophic wildland fire.

>> Michael Grant:
And you get into both the prevention aspects as the well if it happens, what do we do at that point aspects? I mean both forward looking and also retro-looking?

>> Richard Remington:
The healthy forest restoration act, title I of the act allows and empowers local communities to determine the wildland-urban interface and the types of treatments in that interface that are needed to reduce wildland fuels to actually provide that element of protection to the community. It ties in with the communities USA Firewise Program and actually describes the types of treatments that the community would allow within the interface, beginning at the very outside wall of a private structure and then moving toward the exterior wood out to the actual wild lands of the forest.

>> Michael Grant:
Cliff, is it this simple, I'm going hire myself a bulldozer and just clear 100 feet around a house?

>> Cliff Pearlberg:
No, one of the goals of the Firewise Program is to achieve the types of measures we need to reduce the risk from wildfire with minimal impact on the environment and the homeowners' property. We're not asking people to create a moonscape on their property. We're not asking them to cut the big trees on their property or all of them. We're not asking them to remove all of the brush from their property. We're asking them to maintain the vegetation so it stays healthy, remove those plants that pose a direct danger by encroaching upon the house itself. I've seen homes where they have built the home around a pine tree, and the pine tree comes up out of the center of the home. There is a huge risk there from wildfire, should you have that. So the Firewise Program is trying to promote behavior that reduces threat, but at the same time maintains the character of the neighborhood.

>> Michael Grant:
How much resistance, though, Richard, is there, because a lot of people say, well, hold it, the whole reason I bought this place was, you know, I wanted to be in a real forest environment and even if I don't hire my bulldozer, it's just not what I had in mind?

>> Richard Remington:
There are, I guess, the whole spectrum of public opinion on what should or should not happen with my private parcels and the size of the private parcels and how that interfaces with federal or adjacent forestlands, for instance. There are some folks who believe that the majority of wildland fire begins at the forest and it should be the Forest Service who actually addresses the wildland fire issue on the forest and leaves the private landowner out of the equation, but actually --

>> Michael Grant:
If nothing else, from the standpoint of watching video of Rodeo-Chediski and other absolutely horrendous fires in the past three or four years?

>> Richard Remington:
It absolutely has changed in more than one way. I guess private landowners certainly have seen firsthand and witnessed firsthand the value of maintaining their property in a firewise or fire safe state. Also fire departments have certainly seen what can happen within a community that's heavily forested or not maintained in terms of spread across the communities or into the wild lands.

>> Michael Grant:
Cliff, obviously, it was a wet winter. Now, that brings as we just discussed a worse -- much worse conditions down here, but, of course, the additional moisture in at least higher elevations reduces the risk. Is there a complacency as a result of that?

>> Cliff Pearlberg:
That's a concern that we have. Basically, the forests in Arizona are fire derived and supported ecosystems. Fire is a natural part of that ecosystem. With the moisture we had at this year at the higher elevations, we'll probably have a shorter fire season at those elevations in the forestlands, areas like Show Low, Flagstaff, Prescott, perhaps. However, they are still going to dry out at some point during the summer. The humidity will drop and wildfire is still a threat in those communities.

>> Michael Grant:
And, Cliff, am I correct that although that was good news for this year, it does increase load for subsequent periods, does it not?

>> Cliff Pearlberg:
That's correct, especially the deserts. What will happen, we will have, of course, going right now a higher than usual incidence of fire in the low elevations. If we get the rain again this coming winter, what we got this year is also a seedbed and seed production will have even more grass next summer. That would apply to the higher elevations also, the annuals are stimulated by the first year's precipitation, and they get even more robust and healthier for the next year's fire season.

>> Michael Grant:
All right. Well, Cliff Pearlberg, we'll certainly be keeping our fingers crossed this summer. Thanks for being here. Richard Remington, our thanks to you as well.

>> Richard Remington:
My pleasure, sir.

>> Michael Grant:
We continue our fire series tomorrow. To see transcripts of "Horizon," related links, and find out about upcoming topics go to our web site, www.azpbs.org.

>> Reporter Mike Sauceda:
Buyer restrictions are already in place for Arizona's desert areas as wildfires are burned thousands of acres of fragile desert, meanwhile our forest areas are in better shape. We'll talk about current fire conditions in our continuing series, Fire, plus an update for planning for the Arizona centennial. That's Thursday on "Horizon."

>> Michael Grant:
On Friday, we'll have the journalists' roundtable edition. Thank you for joining us on a Wednesday evening. I'm Michael Grant. I hope you have a great one, good night.



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