Clearing The Tinderbox Around Star Valley

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Knots of scrub oak snap like uncooked pasta underfoot and manzanita grows all around in lumps amid crispy, dry grass. It's the perfect fuel for wildfire to burn hot and fast, and it surrounds Star Valley.

So, said Diamond Star Fire Chief Gary Hatch, it's gotta go.

"Everybody says this is Mother Nature," Hatch said. "No. Mother Nature is going to turn it black. She's doing everything she can to turn it black because it's overgrown."

But with a proposed 82-acre fuel break, Hatch hopes to save homes and lives in the event of a wildfire.

When a wildfire burns, it plays a game of botanical leapfrog, hopping from tree to tree, then to the ground where it torches undergrowth, and back into the trees.

Fuel breaks alleviate this combustible playground while maintaining forest viability.

Workers remove dead, small and flammable plants that steal moisture away from healthy trees, creating enough open space to slow the flames.

Dense areas of dry, dead fuel stoke a blaze's momentum -- without defoliated clearances, firefighters don't stand a chance.

"The fire drops to the ground," Hatch said. "That gives us the most chance we've got to get in there and stop that fire."

Manzanita and scrub oak go first.

"It burns faster than you can run," he said.

Manzanita is a highly flammable shrub that ignites even when it's green.

Heat from fire melts the plant's waxy coating like butter. When fire touches the oily residue, flames, sometimes as loud as a jet engine, explode, searing nearby vegetation.

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Vice Mayor Randy White, County Supervisor Shirley Dawson, council members Chuck Heron, Bill Heath and Mary Kotelnicki, and Town Clear Sarah Luckie receive a $50,000 check from Gila County for the Star Valley fire break.

"Manzanita burns like it has gasoline poured on it," Hatch said.

Workers then thin clusters of vegetation and trees.

"Anything over 8 inches in diameter and breast height, we leave," he added.

The debris is piled in the open margin, and Hatch said, even if a wildfire ignites, the vegetation will burn safely.

The break moves south through areas of the Knolls neighborhood bordering on national forest. There it meets up with Payson's fire clearing.

Star Valley's fuel break will run 6,000 feet, about 1.4 miles, and 300 feet deep along Highway 260, which provides an additional 50 feet of clearance.

Gila County provided $50,000 to kickstart the four-phase project.

But Hatch said the fire department can only do so much. Community involvement is mandatory, and property owners can start by clearing their land.

The process involves removing undergrowth and manzanita, pruning branches and creating 15-foot gaps between trees and homes.

"We try not to have trees touch," Hatch said. "So many people say, ‘You can't save me anyway.' That is not true. If you do what you can do, and we do what we can do, we can usually save the home."

For more information about the fuel break or to schedule an evaluation of your property, contact the Diamond Star Fire Department, (928) 474-3835.

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