Living With The Threat Of Fire



The wildfire season started this week. There was an acre fire near the Whispering Pines area Monday, plus two others during the weekend, one about a tenth of an acre and the other two-tenths of an acre, according to a spokesperson at the Payson District office of the Tonto National Forest. All were the result of campfires abandoned before they were dead.

And fires, in the wild and in home, can happen anywhere at any time. In recent weeks the Rim has seen four house fires. Two caused substantial damage and disrupted lives. Another was fortunately confined to a single room. And one took a life and destroyed a home.


The next time you see smoke boiling up over the Rim, or pouring out of your attic, will you be prepared to evacuate if necessary? Tips for being ready for the 2003 wildfire season can help eliminate panic packing and costly mistakes, such as being underinsured in the event your home and possessions are lost or damaged due to a fire.

All left the victims and the Rim residents who are their neighbors and friends traumatized. Even some of the emergency response personnel, volunteer firefighters were left shaken.

"It scared the hell out of me," Assistant Fire Chief Wally Onizchak, of the Tonto Village Fire District, said of the fire that destroyed a Collins Ranch home and claimed the life of Carol Jean Ball.

Now, think back to last summer, as the Rim blazed with the Rodeo-Chediski, Pack Rat and Five Mile fires, and consider the fear that engulfed several hundred people in the path of those fires.

"The fire risk is greater (now) than during the Rodeo-Chediski Fire," Gila County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ron Christensen said in an interview with the Roundup last month.

Before leaving the Rim country for a new job in Contra Costa County, Calif., former Payson Fire Chief John Ross said at several public meetings, fire officials are expecting this season to be as bad or worse for wildfires than last year.

For months, work has been under way by firefighters, groups of volunteers like the Boy Scouts, and concerned citizens to minimize the risk this year. Many trees diseased and killed by bark beetle infestation and ground fuels have been destroyed on private property. Removal of the same kindling in the National Forest has been slower because of bureaucratic red tape and lawsuits by environmentalists.

So, are you ready? In the months since the Rodeo-Chediski and other fires, have you taken to heart and put into action all the warnings to be prepared in the event of the call for you to evacuate because of a forest fire?

If you haven't and have misplaced the information handed out at the height of the immigration of evacuees to Payson, last month the Arizona Insurance Information Association (AIIA) issued a reminder about how to prepare for the wildfire season.

With the three-day Memorial Day weekend coming up, how about making some emergency preparations before going out to all the big events or that family barbecue?

Protect your family

-- Create a family disaster preparedness plan by identifying escape routes from home, work and neighborhood. Designate an emergency meting place and out-of-state contact person in the event family members become separated from each other.

-- Prepare an emergency evacuation kit. Supply it with drinking water, non-perishable food (enough for all family members and pets), first aid supplies, a portable radio, cell phone, flashlight, extra batteries, clothing, blankets, baby items, prescription medicines, extra eye glasses, cash and copies of important documents, such as insurance policies. If there is time, gather up the portable, irreplaceable family photos and memorabilia to take when evacuated.

With an emergency evacuation kit prepared in advance, when the warning to leave and go to a designated shelter is given, families can focus on turning off the gas and water to the home, collecting pets and their carriers and heed the warning in an organized manner.

-- Make a record, either by video or still photography, of personal belongings and store in a place other than the home for future insurance claims in the event of loss.

The record in hand, it might be worth taking the time to make sure everything is properly insured in the event of a fire, or the water damage that could result when emergency personnel are trying to either save the house of make it less of a target from an oncoming blaze.

"To economically protect yourself from disasters, it's recommended that enough insurance is purchased to rebuild your home and replace your personal belongings," said James Frederikson, executive director of the AIIA, "Unfortunately, many consumers don't know what is covered in their policy until they have to file a claim and at that point, it's too late to purchase the right amount of financial protection."

Protect your home

Create a defensible space around your home and encourage your neighbors to do the same.

This means viewing your yard as a fuel source. Fire will burn only if fuel, like landscaping, woodpiles and decks are present. To create a defensible space, take the following steps within at least 30 feet of a residence, or 50 to 100 feet if the home is in a heavily wooded area:

-- Prune trees and shrubs

-- Branches on taller trees should be a minimum of 10 feet from the ground

-- Remove dead leaves and branches, especially around the roof and any chimneys

-- Mow lawn regularly and dispose promptly of cuttings and debris

-- Clear roof, gutters and eaves of debris

-- Move firewood and storage tanks 50 feet away from the residence

-- Store flammable liquids properly

-- Minimize risk with smart landscaping, such as using native vegetation, spacing trees at least 10 feet apart and do not connect wooden fencing directly to the residence.

Retrofit existing homes, and build new homes and additions, with non-flammable material.

-- Use only non-combustible roofing products

-- Enclose and screen eaves, fascias and sub floor vents with quarter-inch non-combustible screening

-- Install spark arresters on chimneys

-- Enclose decks with fire-resistant materials like stucco, stone or brick. It is not recommended that vinyl siding be used because it can melt

-- Use double-paned or tempered glass for all exterior windows

If a wildfire occurs and there is time, there are additional steps that can be taken to protect a residence:

-- Turn off propane tanks and pilot lights, shut off gas at the meter

-- Close windows, vents, doors, blinds and heavy drapes

-- Move flammable furniture into the center of the home, away from windows and sliding glass doors

-- Turn on a light in each room to increase the visibility of the home in heavy smoke

-- Connect the garden hose to outside taps

-- Place lawn sprinklers on the roof and near aboveground fuel tanks, wet the roof

-- Wet or remove shrubs within 15 feet of the home

-- Have fire tools handy, including a rake, axe, hand or chain saw, bucket and shovel.

Free brush dumping offered

In preparation for the fire season, the Gila County Board of Supervisors has waived fees for brush on the following dates at the Buckhead Mesa Landfill.

The free days are offered to encourage residents to bring greenwaste to the landfill, including grass clippings, trees, tree limbs, pine needles and brush.

Residents are limited to two free trips per day on Sundays, May 25, June 1 and June 8, plus May 24 and 26, Memorial Day Weekend.

The free days do not apply to commercial haulers, according to press release from the Gila County Solid Waste Department.

Church groups and volunteer organizations may apply for a waiver of restrictions by asking the landfill scale house attendant for a form or by calling the Regional Payson Area Project at 468-8694.

Any trash, brush mixed with trash, or commercial haulers will be charged the regular rate at the scalehouse.

In partnership with RPAP and the GCSW Dept., a form is available to apply for a 50 percent refund of landfill fees for the brush removed from residential property to create defensible space for wildfire safety. Contact RPAP at 468-8694 for more information. Keep all scalehouse receipts dated between May 7 and June 7 that are labeled brush and ask the attendant to include your name on the receipts, turn these in to the Solid Waste Department along with the form and certification from RPAP for a refund. If a commercial hauler is clearing your property, ask for an itemized statement and the copy of your landfill receipts.

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