Creating Defensible Space Around Utility Poles

Above: The power pole hazard mitigation crew’s sawyer flush cuts a palo verde stump.

By Tom Story

“As Arizona’s largest utility, there are fire risks we have to manage,” said Wade Ward, Fire Mitigation Specialist for Arizona Public Service (APS). “The primary goal of fire mitigation is to prevent fire from ever happening. The second is to provide safe and reliable electricity to the communities APS serves.  Just as important is the ability to provide for firefighter safety around our system in the event of a fire”, Mr. Ward continued.  “With five thousand miles of transmission and twenty-eight thousand miles of distribution it is hard not to have our system affected by wildland fire.  When this happens, APS’s priority is providing a safe environment for crews to work in”.

defensible space power poles
In Cave Creek, AZ; Wade Ward, Fire Mitigation Specialist for Arizona Public Service, sizes up a palo verde tree slated for removal as part of the APS Defensible Space Around Poles program.

Mr. Ward knows fire (he joined APS after his fire career at the Prescott Fire Department) and he has seen factors like drought, climate change and forest management set the stage for larger and more powerful wildland fires.  “It is becoming more evident that due to extended drought over the past decade forest and vegetation ecosystems have been stressed from the lack of regular moisture compounded by shorter drier winters and longer warmer summers,” Mr. Ward said.

APS sends out inspectors to identify hazardous vegetation in violation of its safety and reliability clearance standards as well as violations of the National Fire Code and the Urban Wildland Interface Code (which state that a utility with equipment attached to the pole must clear all vegetation 10 feet in all directions including 10 feet from the ground). The area around the pole is cleared by work crews to create defensible space.  “There are approximately 70 thousand poles within our system that we will have on a three year return cycle to maintain Defensible Space Around Poles (DSAP)” said Mr. Ward.

defensible space power poles
Other crew members cut up and feed the branches into a chipper.

The clearing is being done using manual methods (including chain saws, string trimmers and other hand tools) and where approved is followed by the application of herbicide in compliance with Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Vegetation Management practices. APS has prioritized the treatment of subject poles by utilizing data derived from a risk assessment done across the state. Mr. Ward continued; “It is a part of our core values at APS Forestry to manage vegetation and the environment by balancing benefits to create healthy forests and safe reliable energy”.

Mr. Ward finished his remarks noting, “In 2016 we created 110 acres of defensible space around the state of Arizona. One pole at a time”.

defensible space power poles
Putting the finishing touches on the cleanup around one of the Arizona Public Service power poles in Cave Creek, AZ.

Creating the Aravaipa hand crew

Above: Aravaipa crew superintendent Greg Smith, center in black shirt, briefs the crew on the thinning project in the Garden Canyon area of Fort Huachuca.

The photos and article are by Tom Story

Greg Smith has had more preparation than usual to get his crew ready for the upcoming fire season. He is starting the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Aravaipa hand crew from scratch and the task is almost complete.

Aravaipa hand crew fire
Greg Smith, superintendent of the Ariavaipa Hand Crew.

“This is unique. I know the overhead, most of the overhead, but we know nothing about any of the seasonals, except on paper”, said Mr. Smith. “We are trying to do a veterans crew and right now the numbers are 75 percent vets”.

“The reason that the numbers aren’t higher”, Mr. Smith continued, “is because there aren’t a whole lot of vets with the experience at those higher GS levels; the captain and squad boss positions. All the old vets have moved on into higher up positions or got away from the fire service in general. So now we’re getting a new group of entry-level folks”.

“I was able to pick up a few non-vets with extensive experience: three or four years on a shot crew, which brings a lot to the table where you are starting a new crew” said Mr. Smith who had learned earlier that “strong overhead is key”.

The crew’s overhead positions are all Jackson Hotshot alumni. Mr. Smith brought with him to Sierra Vista both his assistants, Wade Irish and Ryan Hagenah, one of the squad bosses, Anthony Ashalintubbi, and a former squad boss, Daric Burrwith.

Aravaipa fire crew
Arturo de Leon cuts and Shane O’Farrell swamps as the Ariavaipa crew thins vegetation near a recreation site in the Garden Canyon area of Fort Huachca.

“I think we have a pretty good blend. At least seventy-five percent of the crew have some fire experience. Some of the vets came from the vet program. I picked up quite a few of those folks”, continued Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith started his wildfire career in Arizona with the Coconino National Forest’s Flagstaff Hotshots in 1993 after serving in the Navy. Two years later he moved to the Globe Hotshots on the Tonto National Forest where he spent the next thirteen years, eventually becoming the crew’s superintendent in 2001.

In late 2007, he moved to the Northwest Fire District, outside of Tucson, AZ to help convert Northwest’s highly regarded Type Two Initial Attack crew into a Type One crew. They achieved Type One status in October of 2009, becoming the Ironwood Hotshots. Mr. Smith ran the crew until the Fire District disbanded the crew in 2014. He then joined the BLM and moved to Mississippi to become superintendent of the Jackson Hotshots.

Aravaipa hand crew fire
Squad Boss Anthony Ashalintubbi (center) coaches Aravaipa crew members Zach Wolf (left) and Sean O’Malley on safe chainsaw handling while limbing of trees on the ground.

According to BLM State Fire Management Officer Kelly Castillo, in 2015 the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) approached the Arizona State office of the Bureau of Land Management about hosting Mississippi’s Jackson Hotshots early in the fire season. “We said yes, but hotshot crews are expensive”, said Mr. Castillo “and being frugal we asked the Gila District folks to find a housing solution”. The district contacted Brad Nicholson, Chief of the Fort Huachuca Fire Department, with the idea of hosting the crew on the Army base adjacent Sierra Vista, Arizona. Chief Nicholson was very enthusiastic about the idea and worked with the base commander to allow the crew to use some available dormitory space. After the BLM and the Army drafted a formal use agreement the Jackson Hotshots completed a successful multi-week tour of southern Arizona in 2015.

“The idea of starting a crew in southern Arizona grew out of bringing Jackson down early in the 2015 season” continued Mr. Castillo, “and since the BLM has a history of having veterans crews, it made good business sense to base them at the Fort”. Besides having the crew be all veterans, the other goal was to have them attain Type One (hotshot) status within three years.

Aravaipa hand crew fire
Cory Hall (left) and Ben Evans work on one of the new saws.

“NIFC allocated the funding for the crew start up and for the remodel of an unused motor pool facility on base” said Mr. Castillo “as well as an increase in annual preparedness funding”.

Mr. Castillo also indicated that the presence of the Aravaipa crew at Ft. Huachuca will serve as a recruiting tool for those in the military looking for opportunities following their military service.

The crew is expected to become available for fire assignments around April 25th.

Good weather for the Pack Test in Arizona

While a blizzard was hitting the eastern U.S. on Friday, firefighters in Arizona were taking the Pack Test.

Pack Test Arizona
Members of the Tribal Nations Response Team take the pack test in Sacaton, AZ January 22, 2016. Photo by Tom Story.

There was no snow slowing down the members of the Tribal Nations Response Team who took the pack test in Sacaton, Arizona on Friday. The team, which supplies personnel for Type 2 IA, Type 2, and camp crews, draws many of its members from the Gila River, Fort McDowell and Salt River-Pima-Maricopa Indian Communities in the Phoenix area, as well as the Pascua Yaqui Tribe south of Tucson.

All the participants easily completed the test and after their safety refresher or S-130/S-190 class will be ready to go.

pack test Arizona
Members of the Tribal Nations Response Team take the pack test in Sacaton, AZ January 22, 2016. Photo by Tom Story.

 

Unusual weather allows broader range of fire management options in Arizona

Camillo Fire
A “Managed Fire” sign was in place to inform the public about the Camillo Fire on the Coconino National Forest.

This has not been a typical fire season in the southwest United States. A series of spring storms kept the high country wet and cool, even bringing snow to the upper elevations in late May. The remnants of two hurricanes off the west coast of Mexico imported moisture and moderated temperatures on the deserts until recently.

Many of the forests in both Arizona and New Mexico have been using the few lightning starts to date as a chance to use naturally occurring low intensity fire to play a crucial role in restoring forest health and fuels reduction.

Camillo Fire
Ed Olague, with Coconino National Forest Engine 483, finishes a firing operation on the Camillo Fire. This burnout had 27 people firing; each one chain (66 feet) apart, putting a dot of fire every half chain. The 1000 acre block was burned in four and half hours.

The Camillo Fire southeast of Flagstaff, Arizona is one of the largest of these fires.  Starting with a lightning strike near Mormon Lake on June 14, officials on the Coconino National Forest began to manage the fire rather than suppress it. Brady Smith, the forest’s Public Affairs Officer explains their objectives: “Overall, we seek to maintain a healthy ecosystem by reintroducing natural fire back into the forest that will burn at a lower intensity and ‘creep’ across the forest floor, acting as a natural janitor cleaning and restoring the forest to a healthier condition. Ultimately, this type of fire helps reduce buildup of down and dead wood and forest fuels, making it safer for communities and lessening the chances of a large severe wildfire in that area.”

At the time of this writing, the fire was 17,596 acres and while the Maximum Management Area (MMA) is nearly 46,000 acres, Don Muise, Fire Staff Officer on the Coconino National Forest explains that: “Not all 46,000 acres will see fire. We have excluded acres from the MMA due to a variety of reasons including protection of critical wildlife habitat (particularly Mexican spotted owl habitat), protection of archeological and cultural resource sites, exclusion of private inholdings, protection of critical range pastures and range improvements, etc.  Additionally, along the eastern edge of the MMA, the continuous ponderosa pine ecosystem transitions to a pinyon/juniper grassland that may not burn given the current and predicted conditions.  Right now our best guess for total acres burned is from 25,000 to 30,000 acres.”

The monsoon season brings frequent thunderstorms into Arizona and New Mexico, usually beginning in late June and lasting into September.  Asked about the monsoons, Mr. Muise continued: “We will continue to manage fire within the MMA as conditions allow. If the monsoon sets up in earnest and we get significant moisture, we will reduce our committed resources to an appropriate level and monitor the area until the fire is out.   If drying conditions follow the moisture, and, if there is still the potential for the fire to grow (if the fire survives the moisture), we will ramp up our operations to an appropriate level and continue our restoration efforts until all the available operational blocks within the MMA are completed.”

Camillo Fire
The Camillo Fire backs through piles of masticated material under a 345 Kv power line which brings electricity from Glenn Canyon Dam to the Phoenix Metro area. The power company, Arizona Public Service, maintains the right of way.

(More photos are below)  Continue reading “Unusual weather allows broader range of fire management options in Arizona”

Mesa Hotshots Prepare for Fire Season

Ryan Conray leads James Robbins along a ridge line trail during the run portion of the Mesa Hotshots Desert Assesment.
Ryan Conray leads James Robbins along a ridge line trail during the run portion of the Mesa Hotshots Desert Assesment.

Text and photos by Tom Story.

Crews in the Southwest Region (Arizona, New Mexico & a little bit of Texas) get ready early in the calendar year for the beginning of fire season, and the preparation of the Tonto National Forest’s Mesa Hotshot Crew northeast of Phoenix is typical.

The crew was formed in 1973 and was based on the Pleasant Valley District until the move down to the Sonoran desert of the Mesa Ranger District two seasons ago. When the hiring process was all over for this year Superintendent Pat Moore had 7 new hires, “the most I’ve ever had” he commented, to begin their third season on the desert.

The crew’s week long critical training period included the usual pack test, safety refresher, first aid and CPR training, equipment issue and lots of other details.

Jesus Lopez and Justine Bundy inventory their freshly issued equipment as the Mesa Hotshots began their critical training prior to the start of the season.
Jesus Lopez and Justine Bundy inventory their freshly issued equipment as the Mesa Hotshots began their critical training prior to the start of the season.

Since the crew moved to the desert, they have begun to build a new set of physical training traditions. One is called the “desert assessment”, a timed event at the Coon Bluff Recreation site just down the road from the crew’s base at the Goldfield Work Center. It consists of a 1.7 mile run with a 600-foot elevation gain (and loss) followed by tire pounding with a sledge hammer (10 times each side), 20 pushups, 50 total step ups, and 3 per side sandbag getups.

After four rotations of the exercises, participants don a 45-pound weight vest and hike the same route in reverse. The best time of the day recently was 54 minutes, 10 seconds.

Slower than the record, but this year running with the weight vests was not allowed. The idea was to see what shape they were in, while being careful to not cause injuries. The test combined pure aerobics, hiking, and work capacity with the various exercise motions typical of firefighting. Superintendent Moore said the assessment “ isn’t about checking fitness, it is about mental toughness”.

Corey Hall does pull ups as other members of the Mesa Hotshot watch and wait during the crews physical training test.
Corey Hall does pull ups as other members of the Mesa Hotshot watch and wait during the crews physical training test.

Field exercises and a camping shakedown were held both on the Payson and Pleasant Valley Ranger Districts on the Tonto National Forest. The site for their chain saw refresher, brushing along some overgrown fence lines by the Ranger station, was at their old home base in Young, AZ. The “final exam” held the following day was constructing about a mile of fireline in steep country to simulate a fire scenario. The crew returned to Mesa to finish up with some classroom work.

Roman Gerriets moves an armload of blackberry brambles as the Mesa Hotshots do some saw work along a fence line at the Pleasant Valley Ranger Station in Young, AZ. The crew combined their saw refresher with some needed project work on the district.
Roman Gerriets moves an armload of blackberry brambles as the Mesa Hotshots do some saw work along a fence line at the Pleasant Valley Ranger Station in Young, AZ. The crew combined their saw refresher with some needed project work on the district.
Joe Schoenemann keeps his chain sharp after refueling during a saw work refresher session at the Tonto National Forest's Pleasant Valley Ranger District in Young, AZ.
Joe Schoenemann keeps his chain sharp after refueling during a saw work refresher session at the Tonto National Forest’s Pleasant Valley Ranger District in Young, AZ.

The first day they were available, the 2015 fire season began for the Mesa Hotshots — they were sent to a fire on the east side of the Superstition Mountains on the edge of their home district.

A member of the Mesa Hotshots runs along a ridge line during the crews desert assessment session near the crews base along the Salt River, northeast of the Phoenix metro area.
A member of the Mesa Hotshots runs along a ridge line during the crews desert assessment session near the crews base along the Salt River, northeast of the Phoenix metro area.

Climbing trees to harvest pine cones after the Wallow Fire in Arizona

Wallow Fire
Engine crew works on the Wallow Fire in 2011. Photo by Jayson Coil.

On a recent October day south and west of Alpine, AZ, James Nesslage and Brandon Billy were harvesting a bumper crop of cones from the top branches of a 100-foot tall ponderosa pine. That tree and others like it are survivors of the 538,049-acre Wallow Fire that burned in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico in 2011, most of it within the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. The cones being picked will yield the seeds needed to continue the restoration of parts of that vast burn.

picking pine cones
James Nesslage climbs a rope rigged in a 100-foot ponderosa pine tree as as he and his crew prepare to harvest seed cones on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest southwest of Alpine, AZ. Photo by Tom Story.

Plans to restore the forest began before the Wallow Fire was contained. Initial estimates were that high burn severity over much of the fire area would result in natural regeneration being hampered by a lack of available seed trees.

To have the best chance of survival, seedlings must be grown from cones taken from parent trees in the area. Patrick Murphy, silviculturist on the Apache-Sitgreaves, explained:

Several factors are used in determining where cones are harvested and from which trees seed is collected.  The forest has pre-established “seed zones”.  These seed zones are geographic locations found throughout the forest.  In collecting seed we take into consideration if the parent tree is free from insects, disease, defects, deformity, or forking.  The tree should also exhibit superior height and diameter growth.  We will plant seedlings in the same seed zone and elevation band where the parent tree is located.

Earlier in the year, there was a larger crew of 20 people harvesting the seed cones. Now as the cone picking season, which began in mid-August, was winding down, there were only two other people; father and son Randy and Brandon James, working that day.  It would take two to three hours for each team to completely strip the tree of its cones. “The contract specifies eighty-percent (of the cones on each tree)” said Mr. Nesslage, “but we try to do better than that”. The pine that the James duo picked that morning barely produced a bushel of good cones while the tree that Mr. Nesslage and Mr. Billy harvested yielded over three bushels.

picking pine cones
Brandon Billy works his way out on a limb as James Nesslage (mostly hidden at right) uses a hook to pull the cone laden tip of a limb close to Mr. Billy during the seed cone harvest. Photo by Tom Story.

A general contractor in the construction business, Mr. Nesslage came across a solicitation for a seed cone harvesting contract on the Federal Business Opportunities website and thought it was a chance to put some of his climbing experience to good use. “Go camping, climb trees and get paid for it! Sweet!” was his reaction. He was awarded a contract and started picking in 2012.  He admitted that the learning curve was a little steep at first but was able to complete the harvest. The cone crop in 2013 was poor and was not picked, so when Mr. Nesslage’s teams returned to the woods this year, not only was there more to harvest, they had a larger crew and more knowledge of how to do the job better and more efficiently.

Continue reading “Climbing trees to harvest pine cones after the Wallow Fire in Arizona”