By Tammy Gray –
“According to the U.S. Forest Service, we’re in historic dry conditions. It’s the worst it’s been since they started keeping records. It’s about at the same levels as it was for the Rodeo-Chedeski fire,” remarked Navajo County Emergency Operations Deputy Plans Chief Catrina Roe.
Fire restrictions are in place throughout all of Navajo County, up to the reservation line, to try to prevent a catastrophic fire. Roe noted that even the desert grasslands are vulnerable right now, with a fire recently occur-ring at 14-mile hill between Holbrook and Snowflake on Highway 77.
“Last year we had a fire when a car pulled off the road on to the weeds. The car wasn’t smoking or over-heated. All it takes is a hot car, just the heat from the engine,” she said. “The weeds are so dry right now that it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Labeling conditions as “historically dry” is based on 21 years of record keeping by the Forest Service. Roe noted that other types of rainfall and water flow records have been kept longer, but the historically dry condi-tions are a measurement of fuels that feed fire and their moisture or resistance to fire.
In response to the conditions, nearly every governmental agency in Navajo County has put some type of fire restriction in place. Emergency Manager Mary Springer explained that the agencies are trying to work together to keep the restrictions similar in all places.
“For example, there were places in Lakeside where one person could have a charcoal fire, and the person next door couldn’t,” she remarked. “It’s confusing if you can look over seeing someone else do it, and you can’t.”
According to Springer, agency representatives have been meeting weekly since April to coordinate not only fire restrictions, but plans for an emergency response in case of fire.
“We’ll stay working even after the fire season and try to coordinate all of our ordinances with the Forest Service, so it’s not so confusing for residents,” she said.
Among the entities which have fire restrictions and are working together to coordinate them are the U.S. Forest Service, Navajo County, the State of Arizona, cities within the county and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
As for the unincorporated areas of Navajo County, emergency fire restrictions are currently in effect in all three zones.
“There are no exceptions,” Roe noted.
She explained that law enforcement officers have been asked to help patrol for illegal fires.
“The sheriff’s office and the police departments have been issuing citations,” she said.
Under the county restrictions, “no open outdoor fires, campfires, charcoal fires or outdoor smoking are per-mitted on either public or private property…” Civil penalties include a minimum fine of $100 and a maximum fine of $750, as well as “restitution for any medical treatment required, and any property damage or other eco-nomic loss suffered by any person as a result of such violation.” Criminal penalties include a minimum fine of $250 and a maximum fine of $750, as well as the same restitution required in a civil offense.
According to Roe, even with the emergency fire restrictions in place, firefighters are constantly putting out new blazes throughout the county. She noted that it is only good fortune and quick responses that have kept the fires from getting out of hand.
“We just had a small fire started by a welder in Heber/Overgaard on Wednesday,” she said. “Luckily, they were able to get it out, but with conditions around there it could have been really bad.”
Roe also pointed out that weather officials are not expecting a strong monsoon season, meaning the fire sea-son could drag on longer than usual.
“We’re just holding our breath for the next three to four weeks, until the monsoons,” she said. “But the out-look for monsoon season is not that favorable. We’ll possibly have weaker monsoons.”
Even with fire danger high, Roe and Springer both noted that one positive outcome is that all of the agencies involved in fire prevention and response have become much better coordinated.
“This is the best level of cooperation I have ever seen and the best rapport,” Roe said.
“I feel this is the most coordinated it has ever been,” Springer added.
In addition to coordination between governmental agencies, a number of community meetings to prepare citizens in case of fire and evacuation have been held throughout the county.
“We really want to get the awareness out,” Roe said.
More information on fire preparedness, as well as current fires and other emergency incidents, is available at www.593info.gov and www.inciweb.org.