An ambitious fuels reduction program that utilizes goats, inmate crews, and a mascot name Billy Brushwacker is beginning the long process of making Pine and Strawberry safe from wildfire.
"Fuels reduction is the only way we can get out of the situation we are in," Pine Strawberry Fire Department Captain Mike Brandt said. The 15-year veteran who is overseeing the project says it will take five to 10 years to complete.
"It's like eating an elephant one chunk at a time," he said.
The basic concept is to utilize the goats and inmates to initially give individual property owners help clearing their land.
"It's too much for one person to clear this much property at one time, so you come in here, you do it, and then the property owner can maintain it," Brandt said.
Goats eat the elephant
The process begins with an assessment using a standard state form.
"We do assessments hot and heavy all summer long to get the backlog (for winter clearing)," Brandt said. "We put them on a map with the hazard rating they were assessed.
Then the individual properties are prioritized.
"Our first priorities are along the (existing) fuel break and the properties that will make a major impact on other properties, like at the bottom of a hill."
If the site is so choked with growth that the inmate crews can't get in, goats are utilized first.
"If it's too labor intensive to do anything with it, we put goats on it for a week or so," Brandt said.
Temporary fencing is put up around the property and a hundred or so goats are turned loose to do their thing.
"They come in and work up the ground and mush the debris that's already on the ground in with their hooves," Brandt said. "And, of course, they scatter fertilizer too.
"They get inside the brush, they eat it, they knock it down, and when they leave the brush is defoliated. But it's still there, and it's still alive."
Following the goats
The inmate crews take over from there.
"When the crews do come they now have paths to follow and open areas," Brandt said. "They take 25 to 30 percent of the brush out; we leave the root system in to keep the land erosion away."
The inmates who are involved are actually trained firefighters who spend the summertime fighting wildfires.
"They come up from Globe three days a week," Brandt said. "We have an agreement with state land (department) that they'll come on during their off season.
"They work extremely hard and they know what they're doing, Brandt said. "You can turn them loose on a piece of property and they'll get it done."
Dean Winebrenner, a Pine resident whose land was cleared by inmates, says it was a most positive experience.
"These guys have been absolutely fantastic," he said. "They were above and beyond, and I can't say enough about them."
Winebrenner will probably be able to maintain his property now, but for those who can't the goats can come back the following seasons to keep things trimmed.
Saving the soil
"We're trying to guard against land erosion, so we don't just come in and clear cut," Brandt said, surveying a property the inmates were working on in Strawberry. "By leaving the root system intact, it will sprout out again.
"This property will have goats on it for three to seven years, and over that course of time it will slowly transition from brush to grass and brush with spacing in between."
The forest Brandt would like to see one day would feature a combination of pine and Gambol oak.
"We try to leave young pine trees as well as old, so we end up with a good variety forest," he said. "We like the Gambol oaks because of the fact they have a low oil content, they're deciduous, they lose their leaves, they don't burn easily, and they're excellent shade trees."
Grant money fuels program
A 50-50 matching urban interface grant that must be renewed each year funds the program. Other elements of the program include:
"We have a Bobcat, a trailer and a truck and we'll go through two days a week and pick up the brush people clear on their private property," Brandt said. "It's a valuable tool, because people come up on the weekend and work on their property and don't know what to do with what they clear."
Free wood chips are available to residents for landscaping and other applications.
"The chip pile is just south of Ponderosa Market in Pine, and people can come and take all the chips they want," Brandt said. "They're great for horses. They're great for paths. They're great for landscaping."
The program's mascot, funded by a separate FEMA grant, is a goat character created in the spirit of Smokey Bear. A workbook and interactive CD game have been developed, and the program is in use in Mesa and Scottsdale schools as well as in the Rim Country.
Keeping the public involved
"This program needs to be maintained through generations, and the only way is to start with the young," Brandt said.
So far, participation in the property-clearing portion of the project has been excellent. About 250 assessments have been done and a backlog of properties to be treated currently exists.
But Brandt says some people have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
"A lot of people think we're going to come in and clear cut everything, and that's not our intention at all," he said. "Our intention is to make our community a little more fire resistant.
"The forest is sick. If we don't do something, we're going to lose the whole thing, either to insects, disease or fire."
In one sense, time is the worst enemy. Sooner or later, Brandt says, the two communities are going to be hit by a major wildfire.
"If you put Pine-Strawberry on a map, you'll see a fire here, a fire here, a fire here," Brandt said. "It surrounds us and it's just a matter of time."
On the other hand, the longer people have to experience the fear associated with fires like the Willow and the Cave Creek Complex moving toward them, the more ready they are to be pro-active in dealing with the situation.
"People are getting tired of wildfire, and are thinking that packing their bags by the door is not always the best method," Brandt said.
For more information, call (928) 476-4272.