Community Unites In Shadow Of Tragedy

Crews recently thinned thickets that had regrown since the Dude Fire around Bonita Creek, now a “Firewise” community.

Crews recently thinned thickets that had regrown since the Dude Fire around Bonita Creek, now a “Firewise” community. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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When the Dude Fire ripped through the homes of Lorna and Bill Glaunsinger and 50 of their neighbors more than 22 years ago, the couple wasn’t sure they could rebuild.

After raging 10 days, the forest fire had claimed the lives of six firefighters and left a moonscape behind.

It took six years, but the couple eventually rebuilt.

Today, Bonita Creek is once again a quiet community of more than four-dozen homes tucked in the woods northeast of Payson.

But a remarkable thing has happened since the Dude Fire: Almost all of those homeowners have made their property “firewise.” Vegetation no longer clogs the yards and brushes up against homes.

Tiny wooden green tree stakes at the foot of driveways throughout the community proudly declare: this home is firewise.

The Glaunsingers made each of those signs and are largely responsible for helping the community do what so many have not.

For four straight years, Lorna knocked on doors and sent letters and e-mails to get her neighbors’ attention.

The buzzing sound of chain saws in the fresh thickets of small trees bears evidence to her persistence.

Only a handful of property owners refused to participate.

While firewise standards offer no guarantee of survival, the Glaunsingers say they’ve stacked the odds in favor of the community.

The four fires that kicked off an early, scary fire season this weekend underscored the single greatest threat to Rim Country. When it comes to wildfire, it’s not a question of “if” but of “when,” say fire officials.

The Glaunsingers hope other communities will follow their lead and remove the brush before a fire claims their homes.

In Bonita Creek, many residents thought that the Dude Fire destroyed so much thick brush that they wouldn’t have to worry about another fire for years.

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After being awarded more than $240,000 in grant money, Bonita Creek residents agreed to pay Tree Pro $138 per acre to have their property cleared to firewise specifications.

“When you have a fire and it comes through you think, ‘Oh I am safe for the next 50 years,’” Bill said.

When the manzanita and grass started to come back, residents welcomed the renewed growth at first. But when a community assessment found the area was badly overgrown once again, community members decided to do something.

Twenty years ago, most residents had never heard of firewise.

When the Glaunsingers bought their property in 1980, the land was so thick, it took them three years to clear it.

When the home was finally built, builders left as many trees as possible.

“When we first bought it, you couldn’t take two steps without hitting a tree,” Bill said.

The woodsy feel was far different from their home in the Valley and the whole reason why they had moved to the area.

When the fire destroyed everything they had worked for, the couple struggled with the decision to rebuild.

“I was like, ‘I am going to beat this thing, we are going to rebuild,’” Lorna said, “and Bill was like, ‘Gee, maybe I am going to look elsewhere’ and he looked elsewhere and said, ‘No, this is it.’”

Many more people left. Only a few residents decided to rebuild.

The Forest Service appeared to have learned its lessons from the fire, which at the time was the largest in Arizona history. Today, wildland firefighters are still brought into the community to see where the six firefighters died.

“I think it is very good because when you are a wildland firefighter and especially when you are a young buck, you are thinking nothing can get me and when you see where the crosses are and where they died, it just sinks in,” Lorna said.

The community was not so quick to change.

People had not cleared land around their homes and had little understanding of firewise codes, Lorna said.

Then several community members decided to do something when the ground coverage became a hazard again.

The Glaunsingers joined a committee that helped draft a community plan to solve the fire issues.

Bonita Creek was officially recognized with a Firewise Communities/USA recognition status and work began to clean up the area five years ago.

The Glaunsingers, retired teachers, got more involved as time went on and four years ago, took a firewise class in property assessments.

Eventually, the community got two grants, totaling more than $240,000, to cover the cost of brush removal.

To get their home firewise approved, a homeowner had to agree to let Lorna review the property, agree to a plan and pay 10 percent, or $138 per acre, to have Tree Pro clear to firewise specifications.

Sounded easy enough, but the couple ran into a lot of resistance.

Many homeowners believed their land was not overgrown and many more thought firewise meant their land would be stripped bare of all vegetation.

Both these ideas are false, Bill said.

Basic guidelines call for clearing most vegetation within 30 to 60 feet of a home. Isolated trees can remain within that 30-foot zone, but only if homeowners clear the brush and trees within 30 feet of that tree.

Secondly, tree crews cut off all the branches up to one-third of the tree’s height to reduce the chance a ground fire will spread up into the treetop.

For additional guidelines, go to www.firewise.org.

Lorna found most homeowners readily signed up once they understood the rules.

Homeowners marked the trees they wanted to keep.

“This has been a three-year process and it has been a struggle,” Lorna said. “Every year you knock on their door again.”

With grant funding nearly gone, the Glaunsingers are happy to report that 90 percent of homes are now firewise.

The community still needs to develop a second escape route and is working with the Forest Service to have the land around the community thinned.

The Forest Service recently approved funding to have the land around the Rim Trail and Washington Park communities thinned.

“The interior of those communities are still very dangerous,” the Glaunsingers said.

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