Inmate Crews Help With Fuels Reduction

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The Pine Strawberry Fire Department is using a record $214,000 in grant money to carry out a four-pronged fuels reduction program.

Included is a private property program that uses 20-person inmate fire crews and an education program featuring Billy Brushwacker, a new mascot the department hopes will one day be as recognizable as Smokey Bear.

"There's actually four wildland-related projects going on at the same time," Pine Strawberry Fire Chief Bill Dekker said. "The grants we received are for more than in the whole history of the fire department combined."

Dekker, who replaced Paul Coe as chief 11 months ago, was a fire chief in Idaho for 13 years before moving to the Rim country. Captain Mike Brandt, a 15-year veteran with the department, is overseeing the projects, which also include an interactive CD video presentation that will be mailed to all taxpayers in the district within two weeks.

"A lot of people are absentee homeowners, weekenders that live in other areas and don't have the same problems we have up here, so we felt the need to educate as to what our conditions are and what the solutions can be," Dekker said. "With some help from the Gila County Assessor's Office, no matter where in the U.S. these property owners live they're getting one of these CDs."

The CD, which features dramatic video footage of the Willow Fire, explains the importance of fuels reduction and provides helpful information on how to go about treating your own property. Information on each of the area's fire departments is also included.

"It goes through the different resources, how to reduce the fuels, what are the critical fuels that need to be reduced," Brandt said. "It goes through the history. It goes through the science and how it relates to wildlife."

Help also is available to Pine and Strawberry homeowners through another phase of the program.

"We got a $127,000 (Healthy Forests Initiative) grant and the fire district is matching it in funds and in-kind services for fuel reduction projects," Dekker said.

The impetus for seeking the grant was an assessment of the survivability of Pine and Strawberry by one of the incident management teams fighting the Willow Fire last summer.

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The Pine Strawberry Fire Department created Billy Brushwacker to teach children the importance of fuels reduction. The new mascot will be introduced statewide July 1. Officials hope he will one day rival Smokey Bear in name recognition.

"They gave us less than a 20 percent chance of surviving a catastrophic wildfire," Brandt said. "So we got together and started looking at some options and we found this."

"We first hired our own five-man crews to go in with chain saws and chippers and such and work with property owners and help fire wise their properties," Dekker said. "But then we discovered that we could use inmate wildland fire crews when they're available and stretch our grant out so much farther, so we've entered into a cooperative agreement with the Arizona Department of Lands."

The crews are made up of low-risk inmates who pose no threat to residents.

The inmate crews are working out so well that the district is looking into setting up a permanent camp for them so they don't have to travel back and forth from Globe every day.

All homeowners are eligible for fuels reduction assistance from the crews. Call the department at (928) 476-4272 for more information or to sign up.

"We are identifying priority areas and we'll be working those areas first that are closest to the fuel break (around Pine and Strawberry) that the Forest Service has provided to help them widen their fuel break and expand the safety net," Dekker said.

Billy Brushwacker, another aspect of the educational program, is funded by a $71,000 prevention and safety grant from Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We're building a character who will relay the message to the young about fuels reduction and what it really is," Brandt said. "We've chosen the goat because goats are more and more a tool in fuels reduction."

A Billy costume is being built and is scheduled to debut July 1.

The fourth and final phase of the program will utilize a $13,000 grant from the Department of Lands to refurbish and upgrade one of the department's rapid-attack type-six fire trucks.

"It's really pretty exciting to work shoulder-to-shoulder with people like this," Gary Roberts, fire information officer for the Payson Ranger District, said. "These guys are really progressive and things are really coalescing."

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