In Oracle tinderbox, fire boss sleeps "with one eye open"
ORACLE — Fire Chief Larry Southard runs a department with eight full-time firefighters in a small community with a big problem.
His department has to snuff out fires quickly, and he knows that, one day, one will get away, burning through the oak and manzanita forest that swallows half the 1,700 homes in his 33-square-mile district.
“We have a lot of fires. We just always manage to get them out when they’re little.”
Southard says his department responds to about 30 brush fires each year, most in the two months preceding the summer’s monsoon rains.
There have been three already this year. “That’s highly unusual,” he says.
Still, most days in Oracle are peaceful, like the one he is having this beautiful Tuesday morning.
A call comes in to respond to a man with a headache. “That’s new,” he says.
He says he’s never had a headache in his life. “I wouldn’t know what it feels like.”
He does have sleepless nights though — and this year, they are beginning early.
“We’re used to sleeping with one eye open during fire season,” says Southard, who originally came to this community on the north slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains to run a heating-and-cooling business.
He joined the Fire Department 15 years ago. Back then, before 15 years of intermittent drought in the Southwest, he used to tell residents to clear brush and weeds and trim up trees within 30 feet of their homes. Now he tells them 200 feet.
When he first joined the department, the Oracle Hill Fire hadn’t burned 24,000 acres dangerously close to homes here in 2002. The Bullock Fire, that same year, hadn’t burned 30,563 acres of Coronado National Forest, which borders his fire district. The 2003 Aspen Fire hadn’t burned through 84,750 acres and destroyed 333 homes and businesses in Summerhaven atop Mount Lemmon, just 25 miles up a rocky road from Oracle.
No major fires have erupted since then, but no major relief from the drying heat and lack of precipitation has occurred either.
This year, winter disappeared.
Oracle is a little higher, a little cooler and a little wetter than Tucson, its landscape dominated by beargrass savannas, and oak and manzanita forest. It usually snows a few times a year.
There was a “dusting” of snow in November. There was no snow and no rain in January. Feb. 1 brought a quarter inch of rain, but since then it’s been dry and the temperatures, like those in Tucson, have been 10 or so degrees above normal for weeks at a time.
State fire officials alerted Southard in January that fuel-moisture readings, which track the dryness of vegetation, had reached levels they normally reach in June. “We’re getting into fire season three months early,” Southard says.
Boots and a breathing mask
Rachel Opinsky is ready.
She keeps a box full of essentials in case she has to “shelter in place” during a fire. It contains things like goggles, cotton clothing, boots and a breathing mask.
She has cages for her dogs and a bag of important papers close to the front door should she be told to flee via a “reverse 911” notification system. She knows two evacuation routes from her home.
Like many arrivals from elsewhere, Opinsky wasn’t fully aware of Oracle’s fire danger when she moved here eight years ago.
She had retired from teaching in Tempe. Her husband, Michael, was still working and was away when the water main burst on their rural property. The water company said it would take three hours to respond.
She called the Fire Department and got Southard. “Do you do this sort of thing?”
Southard came out with a crew, found the buried turnoff valve a quarter mile from Opinsky’s home and turned it off. Then the crew dug through the mud to uncover the damaged pipe.
Opinsky went to the fire station soon after that and asked how she could help.
Southard suggested getting involved in Firewise, a national program coordinated in Arizona by the state forester.
Mike is now a volunteer firefighter and she is co-chair of the Oracle Firewise Board, which runs a brush dump with a nominal $3 fee for residents who clear their own property. The 12-member board evaluates homes for their ability to survive a fire, promotes fire defense and snares grants to cut and thin vegetation on private land.
Thick and dry
On Tuesday, as Opinsky and Southard watch, a 16-man crew of inmates from the state prison at Florence swarms a 4-acre property that borders the Coronado National Forest south of town.
The crews use chain saws to take out the dead oaks and much of the live manzanita growing thick alongside them. They grind trees and shrubs into a deep mulch that they spread to keep the beargrass from growing so easily.
The brush here was so thick, Southard says, that the homeowner, who moved in six months ago, didn’t know he had a wire fence surrounding his property.
The fence is now visible. Beyond is a thick curtain of oak, manzanita and chaparral that the neighbor hasn’t cleared.
Thinning and pruning is a job fire used to do, says Tina Acosta, administration chief for the Fire Department.
Before the ranchers moved in, before the U.S. Forest Service started stamping out fires, before homes were built in the oak forest, this area would burn periodically.
Now it has grown thick, and it is dangerously dry.
JD Ottman, crew boss from the Arizona Forestry Division, grabs a handful of desiccated beargrass, which grows knee-high on the property, and crumbles it into dust.
Ottman says this particular inmate crew helped fight the Yarnell Hill Fire last year, the one that killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. “The vegetation in Oracle is the same stuff. It’s identical,” he says.
Room for a firetruck
Homes set amid this vegetation need to have a good buffer of denuded land. They need to be surrounded by thinned forest. They need a turnaround big enough for a firetruck in order to qualify for defense.
Southard figures his town’s homeowners, on their own or with prodding from his department and the Firewise board, have thinned about 10 percent to 15 percent of Oracle’s properties.
Work has focused on this area where the town bumps against the forest and along American Avenue, the community’s evacuation route.
“The Coronado (National Forest) has done a really good job on its side of the fence,” he says, with two big “mastication” projects in the past three years.
Huge, toothy, all-terrain juggernauts have flattened and killed much of the vegetation in swaths along the boundary, leaving only the bigger trees. Now the homeowners have to do their job, he said.
Southard and the Firewise board, with big assists from the U.S. Forest Service and the Arizona state forester, have been chipping away at a project to build a “communitywide firebreak” 18 miles long and one to two chains wide (a chain is 66 feet) on Oracle’s border with forest and state lands.
It won’t stop a fire, but it will tame it, he says.
For now, empty threats
Most Oracle residents cooperate with the thinning programs — especially with the state-managed grants, which require landowners to pay only 10 percent of the costs. An inmate crew costs about $1,500 a day, Acosta says.
There remain some vegetation-choked gaps in the firebreak, usually where absentee landowners haven’t responded to the letters sent out by the fire district. Southard says he is about to send out a second, more strongly worded letter about the availability of the current grant.
The threats are empty. He’s working with two area legislators to give him some authority other than moral to assert.
Under consideration is a law that would give fire districts the right to go onto private land, do the job and bill the property owners who don’t respond to the letters.
Land managers, fire officials and academics are beginning to call for even tougher tactics in this era of mega-fires.
Nobody expects governments to forbid construction of homes on the wildland-urban interface, but other things can be done, such as the beefed-up building codes passed by Pima County for Summerhaven after the Aspen Fire.
“Summerhaven had to burn down before codes were enacted,” Southard says. “I would hate for Oracle to go through that.”
Insurance is another avenue for requiring defensible space. Acosta and Opinsky said some insurers in Oracle have begun inspecting properties for that purpose. The fire district has written letters to insurers on behalf of homeowners who have voluntarily thinned their vegetation.
Yarnell changed the rules
Southard looks at a home’s perimeter being cleared Tuesday and is pleased. The home would have burned in a fire; now it’s defensible. He would park one of his trucks there during a fire and try to defend it from sparks blowing in from the blaze.
Southard says the interagency teams that manage large fires, with the lesson of Yarnell’s 19 deaths fresh in their minds, may be reluctant to allow that. “They may say, ‘Everyone pull out and let the fire burn through.’
“The Yarnell Hill Fire has changed all the rules.”
On Tuesday night, the Oracle Firewise board met and approved a plan to pay the match for the property bordering the one thinned Tuesday, Opinsky says.
She says the owner told her “she just flat-out couldn’t afford it.”
The Firewise board also approved the cost of installing a new flagpole at the Oracle Fire station. It will be used to hoist a red flag on days when the National Weather Service says the combination of heat, low humidity and wind makes it a particularly dangerous day for fires.
Southard could have hoisted it the following day. The weather service issued a warning Wednesday for much of Southern Arizona. The Coronado National Forest warned that all of its Southern Arizona forests are dangerously dry.
Southard hopes the red flag will be yet another reminder to Oracle residents to control activities that could cause fires and to keep an eye out for smoke and report it quickly.
On those windy, dry days, it will be even more important to get to a fire quickly and snuff it. On those nights, Southard will sleep with both eyes open.
Dry conditions deemed scary
Fire hasn’t changed, says fire ecologist Don Falk, but our relationship to the land has.
“Fire used to be the agent that would keep brush down, keep tree density down and burn off the extra growth because there were fewer people and they tended to live a much more rural lifestyle.”
Falk, a professor of natural resources at the University of Arizona, studies the relationship between fire and climate in Arizona, New Mexico and elsewhere. He has led efforts to map vegetation as part of “Firescape” programs in most of the Coronado National Forest’s Sky Island mountain ranges, including the Catalinas.
He talks regularly to the region’s land managers. “Pretty much everyone is saying these are just about the scariest conditions we’ve ever seen for this time of year.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean a destructive fire season. The climate conditions, after 15 years of intermittent drought, create danger, but seasonal meteorological conditions are important, Falk said.
Last year, the area burned in wildfires in Arizona was well below normal, at 104,783 acres.
By contrast, more than a million Arizona acres burned in the record-setting 2011 fire season, with large fires in the Chiricahua (Horseshoe 2 Fire) and Huachuca (Monument Fire) ranges of the Coronado and the record-setting Wallow Fire which burned across 538,049 acres in eastern Arizona and New Mexico.
Fire meteorologists blamed the severity of that season on a weather pattern that kept Arizona and New Mexico on the edge of a storm track that brought persistently high winds and no precipitation.