One Ariz. Chief Sleeps with One Eye Open These Days

Oracle Chief Larry Southard worries about brush fires getting out of control.

Feb. 22--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.

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