Preparing for Wildfires in Northeastern Arizona

Preparing for Wildfires in Northeastern Arizona

San Juan Fire (2014), DEMA Deputy Director Wendy Smith-Reeve, DEMA mobile communications vehicle, Forest service personnel, Wallow Fire (2011), and Chief Deputy Brannon Eager of Apache County Sheriff's Office (Photos by: USFS and Aprille Slutsky)

PHOENIX -- Arizona wildfire season is right around the corner. Agencies across the state are ramping up efforts to be ready when the fires come. One area that frequently experiences wildfires is northeastern Arizona. 


The Wallow Fire was the largest wildfire in Arizona history. It ignited on May 21, 2011 and burned in Apache, Graham, Greenlee and Navajo counties. In total, the Wallow Fire burned 538,049 acres.


More recently, the San Juan Fire started on the Fort Apache Reservation, and quickly moved onto the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. The fire burned 6,974 acres of land in Apache, Greenlee and Navajo counties in June 2014.


“The smoke plume was such that it was hard to tell whose jurisdiction it was, so it was all hands on deck,” said Mary Springer, Navajo County’s Emergency Management Director. “Navajo County and Apache counties responded alongside U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Wallow Fire was the same way but on a much larger scale and many more agencies.  Both fires burned in treatment areas (places that were thinned or had been part of a prescribed burn to clear debris) so there are some dramatic outcomes of where the areas that were treated were burned but not destroyed.”


Springer says the agencies working together is nothing new. “We are all cooperators and partners in emergency management,” she said. “We work together to keep our citizens and communities safe from all hazards.”


With the idea of safety for all in mind, Navajo County recently hosted a wildfire media day. “The event idea came out of an after-action meeting from last wildfire season,” Springer said. “We wanted a media day to include local and state media and regional leadership to showcase our regional partnerships and remind people that it is time to start preparations.”


Representatives from multiple counties, national forests, tribes, fire districts, state agencies and volunteer groups attended the event to provide information about the upcoming wildfire season and talk about how to stay safe.


The Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) shared information about where people can find wildfire information online. Wendy Smith-Reeve, DEMA’s Deputy Director spoke at the event on DEMA’s role in the Whole Community.


“The most important element is demonstrating to the White Mountain community that we are a partner they can rely on to support their preparedness efforts, as well as during disaster response and recovery,” Smith-Reeve said. “With the upcoming wildland fire season, this is a peak time of year for them.”


Marta Call, Public Affairs Officer for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, was talking to people about preparedness. She was impressed to see the number of agencies represented and the information that was shared. She used the event to network with partners’ from other agencies. “It is a great partnership that Navajo County Emergency Management and the White Mountain Fire Restriction Group has with us at the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests,” Call said.


County public health representatives were sharing health information and the Arizona State Forestry Office was signing people up to attend fire prevention classes and providing information about keeping one’s property safe from fire.


Pasqual Berlioux is the Executive Director for the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization (ECO). The five counties in the ECO (Apache, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, and Navajo) work together as they have a vested interest in maintaining and utilizing public lands.


Berlioux wanted to remind people that fire isn’t a bad process.  “We need to create conditions to allow naturally ignition fires to happen so they don't become catastrophic, so they can be beneficial for the environment.”


Natural fires help clean the forest floor. Without them, “we have a time bomb on our hands,” said Berlioux. “Extremely vulnerable trees compete with each other to survive. We need fire restoration to give the system the opportunity to recover. We must fireproof landscapes and communities.”


Chief Deputy Brannon Eager, Apache County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Management Director urges the community to be prepared early.  “Now is the time to start encouraging people to clean up around their homes,” Eager said. “Spread the message. Burn irrigation canals now, clear the property area now. Let’s change the mindset to prepare early.”


In addition to agencies talking to the community members about preparing for wildfire season, they were able to spend some time talking with each other. The people that respond to wildfires and other emergencies have developed relationships during the quiet times so as to be able to work together during emergencies.


“One of the best outcomes from this event was the networking with the different agencies,” Springer said.  “While we all cooperate when we have an emergency or planned event… there is no substitute for face- to- face meetings before we have to respond together.”