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Devastating fire in Oracle possible

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Posted: Thursday, February 26, 2004 12:00 am | Updated: 7:48 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

In Pat Hardin's backyard, a hummingbird lands, tentatively, on the branches of a scrub oak. The blue outline of the Galiuro Mountains rises to the east, beyond the rooftops scattered among Oracle's wooded hills.

Hardin and her husband Bunky, a retired jet plane mechanic, returned to Oracle from Tucson a dozen years ago because it was his childhood home and a place of refuge and renewal for them both.

"When we moved here it was one of the wettest winters on record," she said. "I was so tickled to be in a heavily wooded area."

Today, she's worried that Oracle will go up in smoke like the mountaintop village of Summerhaven did during the Aspen Fire on Mount Lemmon last summer.

The summer before that, after the Bullock and Oracle Hill fires licked at Oracle's borders, the Hardins began clearing out the dense brush on their land, eventually hauling 27 truckloads to the dump. "It didn't put a dent in it," she said, gesturing across a slope dense with brush and thick stands of dead manzanita, killed by the drought that's gripped the Southwest for the past few years.

She has good reason to worry.

"We're now No. 1," said Oracle Fire Department firefighter Lt. Larry Southard. "We're recognizing how much fuel content Oracle has - dead brush, trees, heavy grasses, all of it is a potential threat for our town."

Oracle's fuels, the chaparral vegetation of the transition zone - grasses, manzanita, oaks, mesquite and bear grass - are identical to the vegetation in the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County, which killed 14 people and destroyed 3,000 homes.

"Manzanita and oak actually burn hotter and faster than pine trees," Southard said.

"Oracle is a high priority," said veteran firefighter John Roads, who's coordinating a fuel thinning project outside of Oracle for the Arizona State Land Department. "We really want to motivate them to do something. Many people can't perceive the danger they're facing. Conditions are there for a devastating fire. The vegetation around Oracle is extremely combustible." Roads, the former fire chief on Mount Lemmon, lost his own home in the Aspen Fire.

"I told them the same thing, but they refused to hear it. They said 'You're trying to scare us,'" he said. "I'm not a fortuneteller. But if you've got air, fuel and a spark, you've got fire. You can't wait to act, you have to act now."

Laura Helfrich, a substitute teacher, and her husband John, a local builder, obtained a county burn permit and have now burned six or seven loads of "slash," or tree trimmings, brush cuttings and thinned out vegetation in small fire pits on their three-acre Oracle property.

"We started cleaning up just to open up the yard, but with the fires the last two seasons, it made me really rethink what we were doing," she said. "We feel we've cleaned up, but we're really only as safe as our neighbors."

Pinal County issues permits for burning brush, tree trimmings and organic material, but residents must check in with the fire department, which will come out and conduct a property survey before any burning takes place. Officials are discouraging three- and six-month permits as a burn ban is likely to go into effect by May.

With more than 100 other residents, Helfrich attended a Feb. 13 meeting organized by the local fire department to alert them to the dangers facing the unincorporated community. "He (Roads) said 'I'm not here to be your friend, I'm here to tell you that it's going to happen, it's going to burn," she recalled.

Hardin went to the meeting too. "They talked like it could take out the whole town. That's really scary," she said.

The meeting generated 39 signatures of local residents interested in starting neighborhood Firewise programs, said Oracle Fire Department dispatcher Nora Kelly, who is coordinating that effort.

"All of Oracle is high risk," she said. "There's so much dead brush and it's so thick you can't walk through it. If you can't see through it, it's not safe."

The Firewise program, started about a decade ago by a consortium of national firefighting agencies, encourages neighbors to pull together and create a 30- to 50-foot defensible space around their homes, remove and thin groundcover, grass, brush and shrubs that act as "ladder" fuels for larger trees, identify access and egress routes, remove woodpiles away from homes and begin to use fire-resistant plants and building and roofing materials.

"A homeowner can make a difference in a very short period of time, but you have to get 100 percent of the community involved," Roads said. "Everybody's got to join in to provide adequate protection. The problem's been here for so many years, it takes a while to overcome and reverse that trend."

Because of overzealous fire management over the past 50 years or more, "we're seeing fires nobody has ever seen before and it's just getting worse," he said. "Mother Nature used to burn things off periodically and cool fires would come through every few years. It's healthy for the land to burn, but right now we have so much fuel it will be devastating.

"The biggest problem I'm seeing is that people want greenery and trees and don't realize what a fuel load that is," he added. "We're not telling people to cut down the oaks, just the undergrowth that will torch off that tree. A crown fire can race across the tops of those oaks just like with pine trees."

Oracle firefighter Southard said, "Just make sure it's not hanging over your roof, that it's not "holding hands" with the other oak trees. If a fire passes from oak to oak, they literally explode and go up all at once with thousands of little dry oak leaves starting fires everywhere."

Fire season typically starts about April 15 and ends about Oct. 15. "But the 2002 fire season started in March," said Bill Hart, a spokesman for the Coronado National Forest Santa Catalina Ranger District. "A lot of us hadn't seen that kind of fire activity that early in the year."

As for Oracle, he said, "You've got severely overgrown brush stands in people's yards, hiding the houses. Even though people like the screening, the problem is that if there's a wildfire, it will be carried right to their doorstep."

In front of Hardin's home, a 20-foot

alligator juniper spreads its graceful canopy skyward. "I told the builder, 'You will not destroy that tree,'" she said. "It's still healthy but it will probably have to go some day. An ember could fly from the top of the tree to the roof." She's already planted a replacement tree, a small pine, farther away from the house.

"When I first moved here, I wasn't concerned about fire. I am now. Instead of planting trees, I'm taking out trees. I had the mentality that it would never happen to me."

Through March, Oracle residents can dump brush and clippings and other slash for free between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the second Saturday of every month at the local landfill (off American Avenue just past Our Way and before the remote entrance for Oracle State Park). Property owners can also obtain a county burn permit 8 a.m. to noon Mondays and Wednesdays from the Oracle Justice Court on Justice Drive in Oracle. To sign up for a Firewise workshop or for other fire information, call the Oracle Fire Department at 896-2980.

On the Net: http://www.firewise.org

Firewise tips

1. Keep a clearing of at least 30 feet around your house for fire fighting equipment

2. Space the trees you plant carefully

3. Remove "ladder fuels." They link the grasses and the tree tops

4. Create "fuelbreak" - driveways, gravel walkways or lawns

5. Maintain your irrigation system regularly

6. Prune tree limbs so the lowest is between 6 to 10 inches from the ground

7. Remove leaf clutter from your roof and yard

8. Mow regularly

9. Remove dead or overhanging branches

10. Store firewood away from your house

11. Refuel garden equipment carefully

12. Maintain garden equipment regularly

13. If you smoke, use your ashtray

14. Store and use flammable liquids properly

15. Dispose of cuttings and debris promptly, according to local regulations

16. Observe local regulations regarding vegetative clearances and fire safety equipment requirements

17. Check your generator and/or hose to be sure it is in good repair

18. Don't keep combustible materials under decks or elevated porches

19. Make trellises of non-flammable metal

20. Have at least two ground-level doors as safety exits

21. Keep at least two means of escape (either a door/window) in each room

22. Mark your driveway and access roads clearly

23. Keep ample turnaround space near your house for fire equipment

24. Prevent sparks from entering your house by covering vents with wire mesh no larger than 1/8 of an inch

25. When possible, use construction materials that are fire-resistant or non-combustible

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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