Flagstaff FD Proactive On Wildland Fire Threat

Flagstaff, AZ, a modest-sized city 80 miles south of the Grand Canyon and 120 miles north of Phoenix, is situated within the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world. Wildfires and structural wildland interzone (SWI) fires are common and can occur at any time of the year. The area around Flagstaff experiences about 600 fire ignitions annually. Within the city itself, about 100 wildfire ignitions occur each year. Due to the highly combustible nature of the ponderosa pine forest and the severe SWI conditions in and around Flagstaff, any fire ignition is a potential for disaster.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
As a part of the fuels management plan, an Americorps crew reduces dense forest fuels from around structures. The slash piles are then put through a chipper for use on the owner's property.

In 1996, the Flagstaff area was subjected to a long and intense fire siege. Large fires, some within the city limits, were burning; many structures were threatened.

It was two weeks prior to the start of the 1996 fire season when the city hired a new fire chief from Hayward, CA, named Mike Bradley. Coming from California, Bradley was keenly aware of and trained in wildfire and SWI fire suppression and prevention. He realized there was a need for a "fuels management initiative" and an expanded wildland fire suppression training program for the Flagstaff Fire Department.

The 1996 wildfire season resulted in both program and staffing changes when the Flagstaff City Council authorized funding for a "fuels management officer" (FMO) position within the fire department. Fuels management is defined as a program to modify the fuels (grasses, brush, trees and forest), the amounts of fuels, and their arrangements relative to distances to structures so that when a fire ignites it can be "managed."

Why "fuels management"? Here are some of the factors that can influence wildfires:

  • Topography. Certain features, such as canyons and slopes, can accelerate fire spread. Through wise land use (management) and planning, structures can be placed and/or constructed to withstand fires.
  • Weather. Winds influence fires more than anything else. But weather is beyond our control.
  • Ignitions. About 50% of fires in the Flagstaff area are caused by lightning. The remainder are human-caused fires.
  • Fuels. This is the one factor that we CAN influence, where our efforts CAN have a profound positive effect. Modification of naturally occurring fuels will not prevent fires, but will reduce their intensity and severity, allowing suppression forces to gain the upper-hand in a timely and efficient manner.

In late 1996, the fuels management plan program became operational when the Flagstaff Fire Department "treated" a small area within the city. Excessive trees were removed, limbs and treetops were piled and burned through a carefully controlled prescribed fire.

Fire Management Officer

In late 1997, after a nationwide search, Paul Summerfelt was hired as the first fuels management officer for the Flagstaff Fire Department. The FMO works within the fire prevention division under the direction of the fire marshal.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
The Flagstaff, AZ, home of Earle and Betty Hoyt is surrounded by dense ponderosa forest. The forest was thinned, making this SWI location a much safer place in the event of a wildfire ignition. With the Hoyts are, from left, Fuels Management Officer Paul Summerfelt, Fire Captain Jim Doskocil, Firefighter Brian Parker and Engineer Mike Kohlbeck of Flagstaff Fire Department Engine Company 4.

Summerfelt graduated from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff with a degree in forest management. While in college, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service on a wildfire crew during the summer fire season. He also worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs on a helicopter fire crew.

Summerfelt has also held fire and forest management positions in New Mexico, Kentucky, Arkansas and Colorado. While in Colorado, he was a crew boss for a Type II handcrew, served as chair of the Colorado Wildlife Education & Awareness Task Force, as coordinator of the Upper Arkansas Wildlife Council and was the IC for the 1996 and 1997 Colorado Wildfire Academies. His additional wildfire qualifications include a Type II IC, division supervisor, plans chief, training specialist, fire behavior analyst, fireline explosives blaster-in-charge, and prescribed fire ignition specialist and burn boss I.

As the Flagstaff Fire Department's FMO, Summerfelt is responsible for coordination and management of wildlife suppression, prescribed fire program, public education, hazard assessment and mitigation both within the city and with adjacent cooperating agencies.

A big portion of Summerfelt's overall fire/fuels management plan is to work closely with the public and the landowners. The plan involved fuel reduction of 100,000 acres of forest in and around the city over a lengthy period of time. This is a huge project that will take years to complete.

"A lot of people picked up on the fact that we have these large fires and how destructive they can be," Summerfelt said. "We are seeing more and more of these fires on a national basis, across the country. We're seeing more destructive wildfires because of the fuel conditions...so that's what we're attempting to modify. We are never going to stop the fires, the ignitions. They will happen. But, what we can take action against is the impact and intensity of those fires."

He continued, "Tree pruning, thinning, removal of or reduction of fuels in terms of dead or downed trees and dead treetops...I think that the only way to successfully deal with these destructive fires is through fuels management. We need to deal with it well ahead of time."

Part of his "strategic plan" is to focus in on five areas: public education, land-use planning, response training, hazard mitigation and outreach (meeting people and establishing trusts and relationships).

He also offers "Five Lessons of Interface Wildfires":

  1. Wildfires occur in all seasons of the year in the West.
  2. Wildfires occur in all sizes and do not need to be large to be destructive.
  3. Wildfires burn in all types of fuels, i.e., grass, brush and trees.
  4. Wildfires can burn with incredible speed. Initial efforts of emergency crews often focus on evacuation and life safety rather than on fire suppression.
  5. There are never enough resources to protect every structure. Hard decisions will be required and made (structure triage) as to which structures, if any, will be protected.

In addition to the fuels management program, the Flagstaff Fire Department is engaged in a program of cross-training and cross-equipping its firefighters. All members have received basic wildland fire training. All officers, many engineers and some firefighters have received additional training and are qualified at the single resources boss level. All chief fire officers are receiving advanced training to become qualified as division supervisors.

All personnel respond to wildfires in complete wildland turnouts - Nomex pants/shirts, fire shelters, helmets, goggles, gloves, leather boots, etc.

The Flagstaff Fire Department has taken a proactive response to a very real wildland and SWI fire challenge. The department and the city are planning NOW for a healthy and a fire safe forest environment. Summerfelt will help to achieve those goals.

For additional information contact FMO Paul Summerfelt by mail at Flagstaff Fire Department, 211 W. Aspen Ave., Flagstaff, AZ 86001; by telephone at 520-779-7688 ext. 283; or e-mail at coffire@aol.com Attn: Paul Summerfelt.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with extensive experience and training in wildland and SWI protection. Questions and comments may be sent to him via e-mail at dfcwins@idt.net