By Sondra Barr
Fire danger remains a pressing issue as development continues to encroach upon the North Scottsdale desert. In response, Scottsdale Fire Department (SFD) has ramped up efforts to educate residents and businesses about fire prevention and preparedness.
North Scottsdale communities are built in places that take advantage of the area’s natural beauty. These picturesque spots where homes are built near or nestled within the desert landscape are prone to wildland fires and are part of the wildland-urban interface. Fires are particularly dangerous in these areas due to ample fuel.
Defensible Space & Firewise Certification
Educating homeowners about defensible space is key in SFD’s fire prevention efforts. Defensible space is the buffer created between a building and fuel (e.g., grass, trees, shrubs, or any woodland area that surround it).
According to SFD Community Risk Reduction Captain Steve Hunter, defensible space is needed to slow or stop the spread of wildfire, while helping to protect a home from catching fire – either from embers, direct flame contact, or radiant heat. It also provides navigable ground, should firefighters need to access the area.
A certified Firewise Assessor, Hunter works with homeowner’s associations and individual property owners to educate and assist them toward becoming a recognized Firewise USA® site.
He not only helps HOAs determine what they’re responsible for from a real estate perspective, Hunter also plans their mitigation and fuel reduction efforts and writes up a custom plan specifically for each community that’s submitted to the National Fire Protection Association through the Department of Forestry Fire Management.
“Once that’s completed and they’ve completed their fuel reduction and maintenance, then they can be deemed a nationally recognized Firewise Community,” he says.
“The number one benefit is public safety, that you have a defensible space for the protection from wildfire,” Hunter adds.
It doesn’t cost anything to get the certification. However, a homeowner and/or HOA is responsible for the cost of fuel reduction.
“Our main goal down the road as we build these Firewise communities is to become a Fire-Adapted Community – one of the only ones in the Southwest. We’re on our way to do that,” he says.
New Home Construction
SFD Deputy Chief of Prevention Services Kerry Swick agrees that fuel reduction is essential, as is pinpointing the source of ignition. His job encompasses managing inspections, inspectors, fire investigations, assisting community risk captains, and devising methods to prevent fires.
People cause most fires and what Swick has found is that new home construction is a significant contributing factor to brush fires in North Scottsdale. “They’re grinding metal, cutting metal, welding – all things that produce sparks and that can light up the grasses around them. They’re way out in the desert and can catch the whole mountain on fire,” he says.
To address the issue, the fire department produces an informational flier in English and Spanish that’s included in all building plans. Fire inspectors also utilize a custom iPad inspection program that tracks construction sites. Inspection results show up as green (pass) or red (fail) tags on a digital map of Scottsdale.
“The program shows year comparisons. It identifies the tags the inspection program did, and then the map also shows you where the actual fires have been,” explains Swick.
Contractors found negligent in maintaining safe building environments are responsible for damages via fines and/or criminal citations for the cost of providing fire protection services and for property loss.
A Fire-Adapted Community
Becoming a fire-adapted community means also preparing meticulously for when the inevitable happens. That’s where City of Scottsdale Emergency Manager Troy Lutrick and SFD Community Wildfire Mitigation Coordinator David Ramirez come in.
“Troy and I put on yearly training for our city leadership. We put on training for all of our partners. We go through exercises so that when we have an incident, people are familiar with the process and protocol for how to deal with an emerging fire,” says Ramirez.
“Scottsdale is doing a lot of proactive work doing fire mitigation and working closely with its partners – the utility partners, the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of State Lands,” says Ramirez. “There are not a lot of municipal programs that are doing what we’re doing.”
To further bolster fire prevention efforts, SFD recently received a $350,000 Healthy Forest Initiative Grant to increase fire mitigation work around the city and to ramp up educating the community about fire danger.
“North Scottsdale is in a prime area where brush fires can take hold. We need to be in partnership with the residents there to ensure we’re protecting their investments as best we can, as well as protecting the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, which is the diamond of Scottsdale,” says SFD Public Information Officer Lori Schmidt. “We have to take these steps together to make that happen.”
To learn how you can do your part, visit scottsdaleaz.gov/fire/wild-fire-prevention.