As the Rodeo-Chediski Fire blazed through the White Mountains in June 2002, burning across nearly half a million acres of forest, tens of thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes.
Soon after the fire, local governments developed plans to protect their residents from the worst effects of wildfires. They invested money in reducing the density of the forest to slow the spread of future fires and lessen their severity. They tried to educate the public about how to best prepare for wildfire and worked with local fire departments.
Yet one key mitigation measure stalled.
It took more than a decade for any community in the White Mountains to sign onto a pledge that’s considered the gold standard in preventing the most severe wildfire damage in neighborhoods, according to Jim Morgan, the fire chief in Pinetop, a town east of where Rodeo-Chediski burned.
Morgan attended a Division of Forestry and Fire Management conference in 2014, the year he joined the fire district. Speakers there discussed a program called Firewise USA, which helps homeowners prepare for wildfire.
To be designated a Firewise site, neighborhoods — usually through homeowners associations, or HOAs — commit to spending a small amount of money on fire mitigation. The money could be used to remove leaf litter and needle cache, cut down some trees or other actions that reduce fire spread.
Firewise also teaches neighbors how seemingly innocuous things could ignite embers, whether it’s the plastic of a skylight or the resinous nature of the flowers lining a house.
But despite weathering some of the state’s largest and most intense fires, Morgan said not a single community in the White Mountains had joined the Firewise program by 2014, over a decade after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire and three years after the Wallow Fire.
Many residents didn’t know Firewise USA existed, even though the program had been around for decades. And while weeks after a major wildfire people might be willing to make changes to protect their property from damage, eventually their attention fades, according to Morgan.
Social science research from Headwaters Economics found that if someone’s property wasn’t damaged, they tended to stop paying attention to wildfire risk 90 days later, even if they had to evacuate their home, Morgan said.
“Nationally, one of the things that we’ve discovered with these wildfires, is the community has a short memory,” he said. After 90 days “it’s like the fire goes into the abyss. People go back to normal lives and forget about the danger that lurks until the next wildfire happens.”
That gives public officials about 90 days after a wildfire to stress mitigation and regulation before attention starts to wane. Since 2014, Morgan has made it his personal mission to raise awareness of fire risk in Pinetop and surrounding towns.
“What it really takes is some gung-ho people to keep after it,” said David Widmaier, a longtime Pinetop resident. “Jim Morgan’s really getting out and reminding people, ‘It’s not if, it’s when.’”
Several neighborhoods in Pinetop-Lakeside and Show Low joined the Firewise program in 2015. Soon the Pinetop and Timber-Mesa fire districts and a few HOAs began hosting an annual Firewise block party to educate neighbors about how to protect their homes from wildfire. Morgan said about 300 people attended in 2015, but after the Cedar Fire the next year, attendance soared to about 600 people.
As of 2022, there were 15 Firewise neighborhoods in the White Mountains, with seven more in the works.
Fire mitigation steps can be expensive, so Morgan applied for grants to offset some of the more significant costs. Pinetop’s fire district received $1.3 million in funding from federal and private international grants.
In the Top of the Woods Phase II neighborhood, where streets are named after timber and trees, David and Marla Widmaier took advantage of the fire district’s heavy subsidization for property thinning. They both have lived in Pinetop for decades and vividly remember the Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow fires.
Small- and medium-size tree stumps, mostly the young, shrubby juniper, were strewn throughout the Widmaiers’ forested backyard in Pinetop. The fire district had “thinned” their property just days earlier, cutting down some trees to help their yard better withstand fire. The Widmaiers only paid 10% of the cost, about $600.
“Part of me was a little skeptical,” David Widmaier said. “But on the other hand, I’ve lived here for 40-something years. I know that if you cut a tree down, you won’t likely miss it.”
Their backyard, while short about 52 trees after the thinning, still resembled a forest, with towering ponderosa pines and junipers encircling the stumps.
Widmaier and a neighbor, Greg Sharp, a former American Airlines pilot, are board members for the Top of the Woods Phase II’s Firewise committee.
“Just like San Francisco lives with the possibility of earthquakes, we live up here with the possibility of wildfires,” Sharp said. “That’s why we’re trying to do everything we can fire-wise to mitigate some of the risk.”
As part of their Firewise Community Action Plan, they purchased large roll-off dumpsters for $1,350 using HOA funds and placed them in different cul-de-sacs so neighbors could have easy places to dump yard waste.
But in the White Mountains, like much of Arizona’s high country, a significant number of homeowners only live in the area part time. Widmaier and Sharp said most of their neighbors arrive after Memorial Day, weeks after what’s typically considered the start of fire season.
This poses complications for their Firewise plan, they said. The Community Action Plan sets a date of May 15 for neighbors to clear yards of flammable debris, a deadline many neighbors can’t meet if they don’t arrive until weeks later. If a neighbor’s yard hasn’t been cleared by the deadline, the Firewise committee will hire a contractor to do it for them, billing the neighbor the cost, usually a few hundred dollars.
Sharp and Widmaier said there are other reasons why some neighborhoods might not have signed a Firewise pledge. The program seems less feasible if the neighborhood doesn’t have an organized and active homeowners association. And many people live in the White Mountains because of the trees — cutting one down can be painful.
Catrina Jenkins, the emergency manager for Navajo County, said the county and its partners have worked to dispel the idea that residential fire mitigation means cutting down all the trees in front and backyards. Rather, residents can target certain trees to reduce the risk of fire spreading to a house and the rest of the neighborhood.
“I think early on, a lot of people have the impression that Firewise meant cutting down every tree and clear cutting their property,” Jenkins said. “We want you to have your trees and enjoy them. We just want you to do it in a way that is safe for your home, as well as our community.”
Wildfire preparedness extends beyond individuals doing their part in their neighborhoods. It’s a layered response that often involves systemic change and coordination between government agencies.
On the heels of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, several government agencies and fire districts co-wrote a community wildfire protection plan to discuss how best to safeguard their communities.
Pinetop soon mandated that new property owners had to thin their yards, but it stopped short of altering building codes to require fire-resistant construction materials.
At the time, the building industry voiced concerns about finding fire-resistant materials. Morgan, the Pinetop fire chief, said that there wasn’t a lot of fire-resistant building material on the market in 2002.
“A lot of times it’s the building industry,” Morgan said. “There was a sense, and it was anecdotal … that it was going to increase the cost of the home to use fire-resistant construction.”
Those conditions have changed today, with more such construction materials on the market and at affordable prices, Morgan said.
He encouraged local governments to push for policies that make buildings more fire-resistant. City councils could alter building codes to require fire-resistant construction materials or require roofs be built from metal or asphalt shingles with a fire-resistant underlayment.
The wildfire protection plan offered White Mountain communities a roadmap, but there wasn’t a single agent responsible for ensuring benchmarks were met, according to Morgan.
“There was really no champion in our communities pushing the agenda forward,” he said. When he started the position as Pinetop’s fire chief in 2014, the plan hadn’t been updated in six years.
Still, especially in recent years, local officials agree they’ve made progress on other measures. Navajo County and other government agencies have worked year-round to increase awareness of wildfire risk through television and radio announcements. They’ve showed up to fairs and schools, met with stakeholders and sent mailers.
And the public has increasingly acknowledged the importance of preparing for wildfire, especially during the summer months. Though Jenkins, Navajo County’s emergency manager, cautions that wildfire season is year-round.
Dawnafe Whitesinger, chairperson of Navajo County’s board of supervisors, said she’s seen fewer people complaining about prescribed burning, a forest treatment method used to decrease forest density and prevent large, severe wildfires.
At the beginning of Whitesinger’s term about a decade ago, “there used to be a lot of complaints about prescribed burning. People would complain about the smoke,” she said. The smoke from the prescribed burns would blacken the ground and cause concern about the town’s appearance.
But a recent 104-acre prescribed burn in the middle of town barely caused a buzz.
“There was so much communication that went out to the community to make sure that the public was aware that that was going to happen,” she said. “I think initially people didn’t understand how prescribed burning impacted the future of a large wildland fire.”
Still, longtime residents might be increasingly aware of wildfire risk, but that might not extend to tourists and newcomers. White Mountains towns draw large numbers of visitors each summer, but many aren’t always clued in to fire restrictions, like limits on campfires and red flag warnings.
The county has also increased partnerships across different government agencies and the private sector to prepare for wildfires.
When wildfires spread across land, it also means they spread across government agencies. Coordination is key. Different agencies manage different parts of the forest, including the White Mountain Apache Tribe, federal government, state, towns and counties.
Partnerships between the various government agencies that steward the forest and manage emergencies and the private sector are of paramount importance.
Catrina Jenkins, whose job as emergency manager requires coordinating with government agencies, said she meets with partners weekly during the summer months.
The county has also continued to partner with the private sector. Navajo County is home to many tight-knit communities, Whitesinger and Jenkins said, and people from all industries want to help.
“People matter up here. You’re not just a number. You’re not just a nameless face up here,” Jenkins said. “We live here, we work here and we want to protect it every bit as much as we can.”
Utility companies have also done their part. Along Penrod Extension, a road that runs through forested areas between Show Low and Pinetop, large trucks cut down trees near power lines. It’s work commissioned by Navopache Electric Cooperative, one of the county’s two electric utilities.
Electric lines have played a large role in wildfires in other states, according to Jenkins. And both Navopache Electric and APS, the other power provider, have worked to reduce the risk of a tree snagging onto an electric line and starting a spark.
“They work here, they live here,” Jenkins said of the people who work at the county’s electric utilities. “It’s so important to so many of us. I grew up in Navajo County. So this is my home. I want to protect my home and that’s how everybody feels up here.”
Zayna Syed is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow her reporting on Twitter at @zaynasyed_ and send tips or other information about stories to email@example.com.
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