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...


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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.

8_98_swi1.jpg
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.

8_98_swi2.jpg
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.

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