There has been a total of 18 unattended campfires found on the Black Mesa Ranger District over the last two weekends of March 2018, that according to Liza Simmons, acting Deputy Public Affairs Officer, Apache-Sitgreaves Forest Service in Springerville, AZ. A few of them were caught quickly outside of the fire rings, the others were extinguished before they became a wildfire. The Hank Fire (5 miles west of Heber) cause was a confirmed hot abandoned campfire. The other larger fires, the Hilltop and the Whiskey Fire are still under investigation.
Some firefighters are starting about two weeks earlier than usual this year. Per Simmons, “Most of our permanent firefighters (supervisors such as crew leaders, and engine captains/assistants) are on now. Some of our seasonal fire fighting workforce has started today [April 2] or will start within the next two weeks to a month.” This start date is two weeks to a month earlier than average – it depends on the forest conditions and budget.
According to Chris James, the Black Mesa Ranger, as far as weather and dry conditions, 2018 is tracking closely to 2002 and 2011 (fire seasons of the Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow fires, respectively.) “We have been watching the weather outlook closely for the last 90 days,” James said. A committee of agencies meets weekly to review the scientific evidence in the environment making the determinations for forest safety and whether further restrictions are needed as in declaring a Stage 1 or 2 to help reduce the possibilities of fire.
Following is a description of these restrictions from the Forest Service website:
Fire Restrictions come in different stages and become more prohibitive with each stage. Most forests begin by implementing a Stage I Restriction and if conditions worsen, Stage II is implemented. There is no”Stage III” when conditions worsen further. Instead, a forest closure is usually the next step which means the public is not allowed to enter the boundaries of the national forest due to the danger.
James wants the community to know the actual closure of the forest is a serious decision that involves many facets of government (sometimes all the way up to the governor), and isn’t something that is done quickly or without much consideration. Once a forest is closed, it is closed even to local residents and contractors who may be involved in vegetation treatment projects to reduce forest fire fuels. It also affects the local economies with loss of revenue. “We have done it in the past and may do it again, but it’s not a decision made quickly,” said James.
“At this point in time,” James relayed, “We are staying in front of the fires. The only positive defensive we have is the fuel break. We are able to dig fire breaks or conduct back burns to nearby roads.”
As we go into summer this scenario will become harder for firefighters to maintain as heat increases and moisture decreases. James says the average fire starts in a normal year is around 100. It’s just that this year they are starting earlier.
James went on to say the good news in all this is that the Rodeo-Chediski fire left a large area where potential fire fuels are broken up to the south-southwest of Heber-Overgaard, the normal direction of spring winds. This, coupled with the action of the forest fuels reduction program especially in the forest/urban interfaces helps to lessen the chances of a catastrophic wildfire as in 2002. This fuels reduction work has been going on in Section 31, near Williams Ranch and west of Heber. Plus, all the forest clearing is evident from here to Forest Lakes. In other words, Heber-Overgaard is in much better shape than it was in 2002.
However, fires will still occur – residents and property owners also have the burden of responsibility to reduce fire fuels on their property and follow fire safety protocol. We can help prevent damage to our homes, our neighbors and the community by creating survivable spaces. Clean up junk and debris, trim up trees and surrounding vegetation, landscape with plants other then flammable conifer pines and use of gravel pathways can all help. And know what you can and cannot do when it comes to fire on your property currently and once Fire Restrictions are in place.
For more information, plan on attending the May 5th FireWise event at Tall Timbers Park in Overgaard. There will be lots of information available. In the meantime to learn more on being FireWise visit https://dffm.az.gov/fire/prevention/firewise. For questions or concerns contact the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, Black Mesa Ranger District at (928) 535-7300 or visit the ASNFs website at: www.fs.usda.gov/asnf
Heber-Overgaard has survived one catastrophic wildfire and no one wants to repeat that experience. We appreciate the Forest Service, contractors and hard work of all of the fire fighters! See what you can do to help reduce the risks to them and to your property.