BISBEE— “It’s not if; it’s when.”

Those five words were passionately spoken by nearly all the speakers who came to what some say is the No. 1 fire-risk city in the state during a town hall meeting hosted by Old Bisbee Firewise (OBFW). The idea was to impress upon the public the serious need to take action and reduce combustible fuel sources surrounding their homes into their own hands

“I don’t want to alarm anybody, but, Bisbee, you have a problem,” said Marc Titus, Firewise Specialist and a former wildlands manager in the Pacific Northwest who now lives in Bisbee.

Joseph DeWolf, Sonoita/Elgin Fire Chief, is very familiar with the Firewise Program which has been active there for the past 12 years. Through grants totaling $874,000, the community is able to keep the combustible, natural materials in check for around 800 property owners in an area covering 3,000 acres.

“Creating a Firewise group is exciting in the beginning, but keeping it active is hard,” said DeWolf. “You have to keep people involved.”

Longtime riskIt is not a new problem. The old town burned to the ground in a conflagration in 1908. The city responded by hiring full-time firefighters and the best equipment.

Now-retired fire chief Jack Ernest brought the danger to the forefront over a decade ago, when he presented the mayor and city council with information on the high risk of catastrophic fire in Old Bisbee, as was reported by the Herald/Review at the time. He told the city officials about the Firewise Program, how to create defensible space and how important it was to form a local organization to protect not just the residents, but the firefighters as well. A local program was never adopted.

In fact, a short time later, a resident started the 2008 Moon Canyon fire in Old Bisbee by burning trash on a windy day with no permit from the fire department. Bisbee firefighters were joined by a number of county and state fire crews to battle the blaze which threatened homes and businesses.

Around 100 people were evacuated from the area as the fire spread across the hills and into the canyons burning private, city, state and federal lands.

Getting fire wiseOld Bisbee is picturesque in photos. Homes scattered up and down canyon walls, quaint, historic, denying rhyme or reason. But, the miner’s shacks and craftsman homes were not built with roadways in mind. Not all the homes have street access and stairs are, for some, the only way to get in and out. It creates a problem for firefighters, and it creates a serious problem for evacuations, as Ernest pointed out years ago.

Now, with the prominence of wildland fires in California and the massive loss of homes and lives, the impetus for organizers is not to suffer another total loss as Paradise, Calif., and lose the whole historic enclave.

So, attorney Ann Carl and her husband Al Anderson decided to get the ball rolling and formed the OBFW, which now has some 400 residents and business owners involved to protect the historic district from fire. They do not want to see their homes and lives threatened by fires, which often start by lightning strikes on federal lands.

There have been fires on public lands above Old Bisbee or in nearby canyons almost annually. They know how difficult it is for fire engines and tenders to traverse the narrow, steep roads and the small staff who put on the yellow suits to fight fires with limited water resources.

“The Paradise Fire was a wakeup call for us,” Carl said. “We were just starting Old Bisbee Firewise and we knew we needed to protect what we have and get everyone involved.”

Bisbee police chief Albert Echave pointed out Dannielle Bouchever was a big help in the award of a $200,000 grant for a critical upgrade to the city’s emergency services communication system.

“The Star Fire (in 2017) showed how faulty our communications systems were,” Echave added. “We weren’t able to talk with one another. This was a big help.”

Could happen hereBisbee Fire Chief George Castillo said solemnly, “What’s happening in California could happen here. We want you to know the risks and help protect the city. We’re very appreciative of what OBFW is doing to make it safer. Our resources here are slim.”

According to the AZ Department of Forestry and Fire Management (ADFFM) Mayra Moreno, fuels and prevention coordinator, Bisbee is identified as a “community-at-risk,” and faces a significant fire threat.

“We have been wanting to establish a Bisbee Firewise program for a long time,” she said. “We’re happy to work with you. Just call me and I’ll be down here.”

Reducing fire risk“When I did this, it was like pulling teeth,” Titus said. “OBFW is working hard and getting grants to reduce the risks. And, funding is vital to a successful program.”

Titus explained the main activity to help reduce the risk of fire is to clean roofs, gutters and yards from dead leaves and pine needles, which are highly combustible should “fire brands,” the floating, smoldering embers, land on it. Fire brands can ignite things downwind of the fire setting off new fires.

It is also recommended that lower limbs of trees, particularly evergreens, and any dead branches of shrubbery close to the house be removed, he said.

“Keep that fuel swept up and away from your homes,” he advised. “You are the answer to the fire risk problem, not the firefighters and their three fire engines. Every person who owns a home or rents needs to be aware of the danger. It will happen, so you have to be prepared. And think about your outbuildings. Homeowner responsibility is critical to success.”

Titus continued, “We have to look at the empty lots and abandoned houses as community property. Take responsibility whenever you can to clean up. Talk to your neighbors. Get them involved. We have trained fire risk assessors who come out for free and will tell you what you need to do.”

Insurance woesAnderson talked about the difficulty of obtaining and keeping fire insurance in high-risk areas. Some insurers may cover property, but at a cost often double that of a traditional policy. How close the home is to a fire department is also a concern and if it is more than five miles away from a fire station, rates increase or just denied.

So, another goal of the Firewise program is to reduce fire risk to lower insurance costs.

In response to a question about making OBFW city-wide, Anderson explained the hours and hours spent organizing, gathering members, planning and applying for grants. Part of the reason for the meeting was to offer people in the other districts direction in starting other programs.

“We have worked countless hours and have devoted our lives to this over the past year. But, we reach a point of burnout. We need more help,” added Anderson.

Karl noted, “We are overwhelmed in Old Bisbee. If you want an effort in Warren, find someone to spearhead the effort. I’ll help some, but I really have enough to do.”

Moreno and Judy Lynn, county deputy director of the Office of Emergency Management, told them they would be happy to sit down with a core group interested in a second Firewise Program.

Future plansThe group will continue to work with the property owners in Old Bisbee and try to gain more members to help with clean-up and debris removal. This includes those residents who are physically unable to do the work themselves.

Karl said, OBFW was recently awarded a Union Pacific Foundation grant, to help with critical, ongoing outreach, so everyone understands the importance of participation.

Another $135,000 grant from ADFFM will provide funding to begin work on lots in Old Bisbee, added Anderson.

The plan is to start along Hwy. 80 and move north toward the tunnel removing debris from both sides of the highway. There are a number of neighborhoods up Tombstone Canyon that need work, one in particular is Spring Canyon Rd. where homes and wildland interface are intertwined.

The communication tower which provides cell service for the population and emergency communications will also be cleared and protected.

“Eventually, we want to get around the whole town,” emphasized Anderson. “We were able to clear 180 parcels in our first grant and are looking to do another 320 strategically placed lots as more funds become available.”

Grady Meadows, Step Up Bisbee/Naco, offered help from the non-profit’s volunteers who assist low income and disabled residents with home repairs, renovations and yard cleanup.

Moreno also suggested using wildland crews from the Arizona Department of Corrections to help with creating a fire break, as they have the knowledge of what needs to be done.

Anderson said it costs $1,500 a day to get a state lands crew down to do the job.

A major cleanup day is scheduled next year on Saturday, May 2.

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