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Wildfires/Natural Disasters

Valley wildfire risk high

Threat worst in decades

Holly Johnson
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 27, 2005 12:00 AM
A few charred saguaros still dot McDowell Mountain Drive, but private golf clubs and million-dollar homes have flourished where gray ash and desolation were once all that remained.

Spring has brought blossoming wildflowers that pepper the desert landscape, offering a hint of vibrancy some residents here say they feared they’d never see again.

A decade, it seems, is all it takes to wipe away the physical remnants of one of the most destructive brush fires in recent memory. The “Rio” fire burned more than 24,000 acres of pristine desert north of Scottsdale in 1995 and threatened nearly 100 homes.

Now, as Valley fire officials gear up for what some say could be the worst fire season in 20 years, it’s all coming back. 

“Right now, in the fire business, we’re seeing the perfect storm,” said Phoenix Assistant Fire Chief Bob Khan. “We’ve got the most rain we’ve seen in 10 years, unprecedented growth and new homes under construction in urban-interface areas. Honestly, there’s the possibility that we won’t have enough municipal fire services to go around for all those areas.”

An unusually wet fall and winter, followed by a dry, warm and breezy spring, could cook up a mean fire season well ahead of schedule, and fire agencies and residents are scrambling to prepare.

Kim Chmel lives in the Rio Verde foothills northeast of Scottsdale and said she always takes the precautions necessary to safeguard her home, which sits on 5 acres near 150th Street and Rio Verde Drive. She clears dead brush and weeds regularly, trims tree branches bordering her home and waters living plants.

“Like everybody living out here, we’re living on natural desert land,” she said. “That’s what we liked. We didn’t want to come in and blade everything away . . . but this is obviously a very serious issue in this community.”

Cliff Pearlberg, spokesman for the State Land Department’s fire management division, says “literally hundreds” of engines could battle a large-scale desert fire.

“The number of engines that are needed is not an issue,” he said. “We could move hundreds of engines into north Scottsdale if we had to. . . . We have the ability to move engines from as far away as Alaska if need be.”

The areas north of Scottsdale bordering the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and Tonto National Forest are particularly vulnerable to brush fire, as are parts of north and southeast Mesa, northern Peoria and the Ahwatukee Foothills.

• In Scottsdale, crews are working to thin fuel loads in areas around the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, said Chief William McDonald.

“We’ve had a more passive approach in the past to clearing (brush), but we need to get more aggressive,” McDonald said.

Scottsdale is particularly concerned about home construction sites, which provide a veritable tinderbox for hungry wildfires.

The department will staff additional companies during the fire season and will add more firefighters to its four brush trucks.

• The Mesa Fire Department has already sent engine companies to comb the city for high weeds. They compiled a three-page list with at least 100 hazard areas.

All fire shifts have trained with other agencies, including Apache Junction, Gilbert, and Peoria, on how to work together in brush fire scenarios.

Currently, Mesa staffs its four brush trucks 24 hours a day.

Already, Mesa has responded to 56 brush fires, with a total of 21 in April alone.

• Phoenix’s Khan said firefighters in predominantly landlocked, urban parts of the Valley are concerned about brush fires as well. Phoenix typically responds to 700 grass or fuel fires a year, but Khan said it could run up against as many as 2,000 this season. Phoenix has already responded to one multiple-alarm brush fire, near 40th Street and Pinnacle Peak Road.

• Peoria and Glendale have reported a handful of small brush fires this year, mainly on vacant lots with a buildup of vegetation, according to fire department officials.

Peoria has about 30 firefighters who have received advanced training in battling brush fires in urban areas. The city is especially vulnerable because of a lot of desert areas in the northern reaches, south of Lake Pleasant.

• In Glendale, Elio Pompa, a deputy fire chief, said the major worry is the buildup of brush on a number of vacant lots, as well as the mountainous wildlands in Thunderbird Park, along 59th Avenue between Deer Valley and Pinnacle Peak roads.

Valley fire officials say they’ve learned and grown since the Rio fire, sparked by a lightning strike. They know, for example, how heedless a fire’s many permutations and twists and turns can be. They know how quickly a wildfire can grow and feed on dry fuel scattered throughout the desert landscape.

And now, they say the perfect storm is brewing again.

“It’s as bad as we’ve seen it,” Khan said after a recent meeting with the state fire marshal. “It’s as bad as anyone has seen in over 20 years. Because of the drought and rain, we just have the growth of unprecedented amounts of fuel.”

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