The workshop was sponsored by the park’s fire division and was attended by about 30 residents, who heard presentations on how fire policies have evolved over time, the role of prescribed fire in the ecosystem, principles of firewise landscaping, steps other communities have taken toward fire safety and how the park’s evacuation plan operates.
“We want people to feel empowered and to actively participate in creating defensible space around their homes,” said park fire information officer Donna Nemeth. “I know people are frustrated with the limitations (of living in a National Park) but every little bit helps. It’s a community effort.”
Resident Mike Schmidt raised the issue that many residents face.
“The problem we fight is that we live in the park,” he said. “None of us owns our residence. We’re drastically limited in what we can do. Fire has been suppressed here for 100 years and we’re sitting on a keg of dynamite ready to explode.”
“It is changing,” Nemeth responded. “We did a risk assessment on the north and south rims and identified a lot of hazards. We need to enhance our defensible space.”
The Firewise message reflects a shifting philosophy of fire management and responsibility for building safe communities.
“We make the choice to go live in the woods,” said speaker Steve Campbell of the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension in Navajo in Navajo County. “We need to take responsibility for that.”
He characterized northern Arizona’s forests as “a wreck and a mess” due to a century of fire suppression, forestry policies developed during the exceptionally rainy years between 1916 and 1925 and continued opposition to logging and other strategies to thin forest fuels.
“Logging has a bad connotation,” Campbell admitted, pointing to efforts some 20 years ago in which companies “cherry-picked the larger trees” and left behind the smaller timber that creates a greater fire risk.
“What we need is an umbrella organization in the community, a natural resources working group that will work on bringing in environmentally-friendly industry for wildlife enhancement and fire protection,” he said. “Restoration of damaged forest systems will come through informed decision-making.”
Schmidt said that would be difficult in the Grand Canyon community.
“How can a park employee and resident change the Park Service’s preservation attitudes,” he asked.
“We start with a collaborative working group,” Campbell replied. “This includes agencies like the Park Service and Forest Service.”
Grand Canyon National Park fuels specialist Chris Marks also spoke, discussing projects and outlook for fire treatment.
“We have 5,000 acres we need to treat,” he said. “It’s a huge project to make the park fire safe.”
The north and south rims require different approaches, he said, but the goal for both is to reduce the risk of canopy fires.
“We can fight a ground fire,” Marks said. “A canopy fire, we can’t fight. It’s too hot and it moves too fast.”
The South Rim’s pinion-juniper habitat has crowded out grasses that would sustain a healthy ground fire. The North Rim’s ponderosa pine and aspen habitat is rich in ladder fuels – smaller trees that would carry a fire into the treetops.
The solution is “a two-tier process,” Marks said. On the South Rim, the focus is on thinning to open the ground up to light and water, encouraging new grass to grow, and creating at least 10 feet of space between tree canopies.
On the North Rim, they plan to thin and follow up with prescribed fire to clear out ground fuels.
Currently, APS and the Park Service are working on thinning projects, starting with park infrastructure and moving eventually to historic buildings and dwellings.
“Priority one is the infrastructure,” he said. “We need water and we need radio systems to fight a fire.”
Work in the residential areas will begin in August as workers mark trees for treatment or removal. The actual work will take place through the fall, he said. He added that the draft environmental impact statement for the park’s new fire management plan is almost ready for public review and comment, and is due out sometime in late summer or early fall. The plan calls for more thinning, bigger thinning projects, more prescribed burning near the village and more fire education.
“I encourage you to take a look at it,” he said.
Schmidt suggested that park departments improve communication.
“I agree with your frustration,” Marks responded. “When the Emergency Services building on the North Rim was completed, Reveg planted a bunch of spruce trees around it. The most flammable trees are next to the fire building.”
Nemeth added that park policies are changing and that all new construction is expected to meet Firewise guidelines.
Those guidelines were highlighted by Christopher Jones of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension of Gila County and Art Elek of the Coronado National Forest.
“Firewise is a way to educate people on how fire behaves,” Elek said. “Your home is fuel and everything around it is fuel.”
He stressed the importance of taking responsibility, not only for personal space but also to plan for the future of the forests.
“The forests aren’t going to manage themselves,” he said.
According to Jones, there are two factors that influence how vulnerable a dwelling is to fire – the roof material and the quality of defensible space. He defined that as space free of fuses – flammable materials that can carry fire toward homes.
“You need to look for tall grass, evergreen hedges, fences, and ask, ‘What are the fuses leading up to my house?” Jones said. “You want to leave room for firefighers to do their job, and to lessen the intensity of the fire.”
He said removing fuels like woodpiles and yard debris, trimming shrubs and replacing flammable landscaping and roofing materials with fire resistant varieties equates to “taking the rungs out of the ladder.”
Kaibab National Forest fire information officer Jackie Denk spoke on a successful collaborative effort ongoing in Williams.
“We got together local, state and federal agencies,” she said. “We started a fuels management partnership to help people safeguard their property through thinning and education.”
Under the program, which is funded through a grant from the National Fire Plan, work crews undertake thinning projects on private property. Homeowners pay $200 an acre, with the work done by prison crews. Denk said it’s a big savings for homeowners as the average cost to remove trees is between $800-$1,000 per acre. So far, 200 acres have been treated.
“We’re looking at hundreds of other acres,” she said. “We have a waiting list two to three years out. When people take action with their home and property, they encourage their neighbors to be proactive too."