'LIVING ON THE EDGE" has a couple meanings to the residents of Prescott, Arizona, a picturesque city of 40,000 about 100 miles north of Phoenix. It means living at the edge of Arizona’s stunning and rugged wildlands, and it also means living on the edge of wildfire danger.
Over the past decade, a combination of dry conditions, millions of acres of forest, and a seemingly endless supply of chaparral and brush have led to thousands of wildfires in the Prescott Basin, the area immediately south and west of Prescott that includes a mix of developed and undeveloped land referred to as the "wildland/urban interface." Most of the fires were small and were put out quickly; two caused evacuations and burned a handful of houses. But no one here takes fire for granted, especially after the nearby 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters and destroyed more than 100 structures just 40 miles southwest of Prescott.
Prescott and its suburbs have avoided a major fire calamity since the 1990 Dude Fire, where six firefighters were killed and 63 structures burned. But residents say it’s not luck that keeps the fire at bay. Shortly after the Dude Fire, resident volunteers, along with local government and fire officials, created the Prescott Area Urban Wildland Interface Commission (PAUWIC). In the years since, PAUWIC has joined with the NFPA-sponsored Firewise Communities® program and developed into a robust public/private partnership covering 31 area neighborhoods. It’s a grassroots effort that works to educate thousands of homeowners about defensible space and other Firewise principles, while doing millions of dollars in wildland fuel mitigation work.
The results have been astounding. Since 2000, the Prescott Basin has had more than 2,000 fire starts—where a fire is reported and assets are deployed—and only two of those have become large wildfires, said Denny Foulk, the emergency management coordinator for Yavapai County, where Prescott is located. Those two fires, the Indian Fire in 2002 and the Doce Fire in 2013, burned a total of eight structures, but there were no deaths.
Each of the 31 Firewise communities in the Prescott area has its own local board, which organizes myriad mitigation events in each neighborhood. The larger PAUWIC group meets monthly and includes representatives from the U.S. Forest Service; state, county, and city officials; members of local fire departments; and Firewise citizen volunteers.
“Most of the discussion centers around sharing ideas and what we are doing in communities so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said Jerry Borgelt, a member of the PAUWIC executive board and a resident of the Highland Pines neighborhood.
Highland Pines holds four “chipper days” throughout the year, where people bring brush from their property to be chipped, enough material
to fill a 40-yard dumpster. “It becomes a big party—we come and work together and have a lot of neighborly discussion,” Borgelt said.
Groom Creek, the first Firewise neighborhood in Prescott, has been holding chipper events for 12 years, and usually gets about 300 tons of debris, said local fire chief Todd Bentley. In Groom Creek, 90 percent of the community has participated in a program to clear 30 feet of defensible space around homes. The community also holds annual pancake breakfasts to talk about mitigation efforts and services available. The neighborhood’s Firewise committee assesses every property each year, then mails out individualized postcards containing information on steps homeowners can take to make their homes and property more resistant to wildfire.
All of Prescott’s 30 additional Firewise communities hold similar events, and are bolstered by the estimated $6 million in state and federal grant money that PAUWIC has secured since its formation for mitigation efforts. Much of the planning and site work happens in the communities, while the overall direction and funding tying it all together comes from PAUWIC.
But even the best efforts can’t stop every fire. Shirley Howell, PAUWIC’s treasurer, said that, if a large wildfire were to strike Prescott, Firewise and PAUWIC have also prepared the community to recovery swiftly. “In event we have a tragedy, we would stand together and help our neighbors in any way we could, because we have such a firm connection from working so close together,” Howell said. “That is part of our resiliency."