It was a far-different forest a century ago, a forest that looked more like a park.
"One hundred years ago we didn't have a pine forest like we see today," Chris Jones, University of Arizona extension agent, said. "We had 15, 20, 40 pine trees per acre. Now we've got 150 (to) 450."
That reality makes today's forest a dangerous place, especially if you live in it. The Rodeo-Chediski Fire brought this point dramatically home to the Rim country last summer, eventually consuming 468,638 acres and ravaging 467 homes -- including 200 in Heber-Overgaard.
Jones, who is assigned to Gila County, blames our current situation on a combination of factors, beginning in the early 1900s "when they decided fire was bad." At the time, cattle grazing was considered an effective tool for controlling the grasses that allowed fires to spread rapidly.
But when a drought that wiped out 1.5 million cattle in the 1920s was followed by a wet cycle, the ponderosa forests sprang up. Fast forward to our present situation, where a forest choked with overgrowth presents a constant fire danger to Rim country residents.
"It was the use, disuse and abuse of our forest and our grazing that brought us to this point, and it's going to be the knowledge that we have that will help to thin our forests back to a healthy point," Jones said.
Given the current situation, Jones is advocating forest stewardship.
"The term ‘stewardship' means caring for the land, being a caretaker, so being a steward means you would have a knowledge of what a healthy forest is and help it to be in that condition," Jones said. "The goal ... is to build our houses and landscape around them so that ground fires (rather than crown fires) can occur on our properties."
While Jones plans to offer a series of seminars on the subject at Gila Community College, here are some things he recommends that you can do right now to protect our forest, as well as your home and family.
Starve a fire
Armies of firefighters can't prevent fire from burning southwestern forests, but we can help control them by controlling the fuels it needs. The key lies in ensuring that fire travels on the ground, where firefighters can combat it, rather than in tree crowns, where they cannot. You can do this by controlling fuels on your property in three different zones.
Around your house
• Replace your roof and siding with fire-resistant materials. Embers from a distant fire can ignite flammable wood shingles. Ask the town or county building department for more information.
• Remove flammable materials from around your house. Remove pine needles and other flammable materials from your roof and gutters. Ensure that branches don't hang over the roof or grow under eaves. Rake fallen leaves and pine needles away from your home's foundation, creating a 2-foot wide perimeter down to bare mineral soil. Move firewood and propane tanks well away from your house. Make sure that wood fences, walkways and decks don't allow fire to spread to your house.
- Have tools and water ready for fire. Maintain an outdoor water supply with a hose and nozzle that can deliver water to all parts of your house and yard. Store fire-fighting tools (rakes, hoes, axes, shovels) in an accessible place.
Within 100 feet of your home
- Create a defensible zone around buildings. Ensure that fire cannot spread within 100 feet of your house or other buildings. In this zone, mow dry grasses and weeds; prune branches of taller trees to a height of 6-10 feet; remove dead limbs, fallen leaves, and other dry fuels; keep plants watered; and maintain open space between tree crowns.
- Clear pine needles, leaves and branches. Dispose of heavy accumulations of pine needles, fallen leaves, and other flammable materials.
- Allow good access. Maintain a wide, uncluttered driveway with sufficient vertical and horizontal clearance to allow fire engines to enter and to turn around. Post your house number so it is visible from the street.
Beyond 100 feet from your house
- Remove "ladder fuels" to reduce crown fire danger. At distances over 100 feet from the house, you can lower the danger of crown fire without losing the forest's natural qualities. Do so by removing small trees and dead, dangling branches that could carry fire from the ground into the tree canopy. Be sure to remove thinned materials promptly.
- Protect big, old trees. Large pines provide important wildlife habitat, increase property values, and look great. The same actions that can protect your house will help to protect old trees: rake pine needles and woody debris at least two feet away from their trunks, and trim nearby small trees and shrubs that could carry fire into their crowns.
- Think clumps. You can leave some clumps of dense trees and shrubs standing for visual screening or for wildlife habitat, as long as they're separated from your house and from one another by defensible open space.
- Think openings. Openings with grasses and other low vegetation are important for many wildlife species, and can help stop a fire.
- Think wildlife habitat. Living trees with dead branches are particularly important for birds such as woodpeckers and bluebirds; so are scattered patches of denser vegetation.
- Clear out piles of downed logs and branches. Remove heavy accumulations of downed brush and logs. If you or firefighters burn piles to get rid of this material, make sure they are far enough from remaining trees to avoid scorching live crowns.
- Consider prescribed burning. Prescribed burns can help reduce dangerous fuel accumulations and stimulate grass and wildflower growth. Check with your fire department. Some conduct prescribed burns on private land.
You can help increase fire resistance -- and provide good wildlife habitat -- through smart landscaping.
Fire-safe landscaping can include varied wildlife habitats and low-water-use plants that conserve precious water supplies.
- Mow grass and wildflowers low around shrubs, trees and buildings. This can interrupt a fire's fuel ladder.
- Plants nearest your home should be widely-spaced and low-growing. Consider low, native ground covers.
- Keep plants immediately around your house well-watered and well-maintained.
- Don't plant in large masses that can intensify fire. Use small, irregular clusters of plants.
- Use decorative rock, gravel and stepping stones for landscaping and paths. They can break up ground fuels.
- Use mulch to conserve water and inhibit weed growth. Rock mulch, cinders, or gravel can maintain soil moisture without increasing fire danger.
- Use native plants that tolerate local conditions.
- Choose fire-resistant plants. Many native southwestern plants resist fire. Some have succulent leaves that store moisture and don't burn readily.
- Use deciduous plants for privacy and wildlife habitat. Many deciduous trees have low resin content, are less flammable than evergreens, and attract birds and mammals.
- Leave extra space on slopes. Fire travels more quickly up slopes than on flat ground, so make sure tall, woody plants or groupings on slopes are spaced widely.
- Create rock piles rather than brush piles. Try providing cover for wildlife with rocks rather than with piled dead brush.
- Control invasive species. Such non-native plants as Dalmatian, toadflax, cheatgrass, and spotted knapweed threaten natural forest diversity. Some of these species readily carry fire.
(Source: Ecological Restoration Institute, Northern Arizona University)