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Wed, July 08

Plan to prepare Tusayan for fire<br>

“We’re going to have fires. That’s a given,” said Tusayan Fire Chief Robbie Evans as he introduced the newly-drafted Community Wildfire Protection Plan at a public meeting last week. “We need to start taking proactive action.”

The plan, which has been in the works since last August, was compiled by a community-based committee and representatives from cooperating state and federal agencies.

By federal definition, Tusayan is an “at-risk” community for catastrophic wildland fire because it is completely bordered by wildland-urban interface – the zone where development mingles with wildland fuels. Under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, communities that collaborate with state and federal agencies to develop a proactive plan are eligible for incentives to assist with fuel reduction and other mitigation efforts, not only on federal land but on private property as well.

Appointed to the committee last May were Evans, Tusayan Fire Department EMS coordinator Lora Pitsinger, and Tusayan residents Clarinda Vail, Barry Baker and Brent Kok. Cooperating federal and state agency representatives include Robert Blasi and Rick Stahn of the Tusayan Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest, Jim Kitchen and Chris Marks from the National Park Service, John Kraske of the Arizona State Land Department and Brian Power, a retired Forest Service firefighter.

As directed by the Healthy Forests Act, the plan sets out several goals, a key one being increased community participation in its development and in initiatives to protect private property. That involvement is especially invited during a 30-day comment period that started last Thursday when the plan was presented to the public.

“We really do want comments,” said Evans.

“This is still a work in progress and we want a lot of input.”

Other goals include reducing forest fuels and improving forest health through mechanical thinning and strategic use of lightning-caused fires and improving fire suppression abilities with additional hydrants and water resources in the wildland-urban interface.

The plan also addresses evacuation issues and supports further study into a potential power generation plant fueled primarily with forest waste.

The committee has established two protective zones surrounding Tusayan’s 144 acres. The outer secondary zone is 47,920 acres; within that is a primary zone of 15,800 acres. Most of this is Forest Service land with a few small private-property in-holdings.

These zones will help planners identify priority areas for mechanical treatment, prescribed burning and allowing naturally-sparked fires to burn, a practice known as wildland use.

According to Kok, about 75 percent of the high-priority work that would be phase one of the plan’s implementation is already under way or pending.

Arizona Public Service (APS) is conducting thinning projects in its corridors both in and out of the park, and according to both Stahn and Blasi, several Forest Service projects have cleared the public scoping process and are ready to begin when funding becomes available.

“We have a lot of active fire work going on around town,” said Blasi. “We’re lucky to have this action going on. Not all communities have that benefit, to have the entire circumference of town with work like this going on.”

Additionally the plan supports the Forest Service’s continued strategy of wildland use fire, which treated about 4,000 acres in the Tusayan Ranger District last year.

Blasi said that such fires, which are allowed to burn if they are within certain parameters, are the most efficient and cost-effective tool for fuel reduction.

“With fire like that, we don’t have to go through the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process and it’s a proven fact that the cost per acre (compared to a prescribed burn) is a lot less,” he said. “It’s also a lot easier than going in and doing mechanical thinning. Once you start cutting and dragging brush, it gets real expensive.”

The Forest Service’s Dave Mills said the Tusayan community is favorably situated for wildland use.

“There are more concerns in places like Williams,” he said. “There’s more wildland-urban interface and more population.”

Tusayan is also free of sensitive spotted owl habitat and mountainous terrain that can complicate treatment measures.

“This is a fairly flat country and is accepting of fire under certain conditions,” Mills said.

Evans said that because much of the plan deals with Forest Service land and involves wildland fire, the committee accepts Forest Service recommendations.

As a structural fire district, Tusayan Fire District’s efforts will focus more on private property, Evans said. This includes an educational component through the Firewise protection program.

Evans said property owners will be able to request fire-risk assessments to learn how they can make their homes and businesses safer and, with anticipated grant funding, to help them accomplish that goal.

“We’re going to really promote the Firewise protection program,” Evans said. “We want to assess the risks to homes and recommend measures to create a more wildfire defensible community.”

The need for such measures became evident during last May’s prescribed Long Jim burn which escaped control in the park and nearly prompted a call for evacuation.

“When the park had their Long Jim burn, it started talk about evacuation,” Evans said. “But there are issues with evacuating Grand Canyon and Tusayan. In my mind, all you need is one accident and there goes your evacuation plan. If we have to look at evacuation and moving populations with language barriers and folks with no transportation, we’ve got to be able to have a defense in place.”

He said that with an effective defense, it would be reasonable to plan evacuation only as far as Grand Canyon Airport.

“My feeling is that we could shut down the airport and put everyone in Tusayan out there on the runway,” he said. “It’s a big open area with a lot of pavement. There’s a real good buffer zone out there.”

After the 30 day comment period, the committee will reconvene to look at the issues raised and make necessary changes. After that, the plan will go to appropriate agencies at the state and county level for approval.

For a copy of the plan, contact the Tusayan Fire Department at 638-3473.

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