/ Modified jun 28, 2014 8:30 a.m.

Metro Week: Fire Season Underway, Prep Began Months Ago

lookouts watch for smoke, districts help residents create "defensible space."

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In Arizona's tinder-dry state and federal forests, the course of action taken to control a wildfire begins before any fire's ignition.

Fire departments make plans for fighting the fires, and lookouts begin watching for smoke in wild lands long before the air gets hot and dry, before fire restrictions begin.

The Mt. Lemmon Fire District learned to change its approach to fighting fires after the Bullock Fire in 2002 and the Aspen Fire in 2003 burned a significant amount of the forest and structures in the Summerhaven community.

"One of the big concerns this year is how dry we are up there. Having water available for the fire fighting is a big deal," said Randy Ogden, chief of the Mt. Lemmon Fire District."We learned that we need to have a water source available for firefighting."

Now the district stores about 850,000 gallons of water strictly for firefighting.

"Even if the creeks are down and the water table is down at least we have a reserve," he said.

That water is used when Fire Lookout Mac Tippins finds smoke in the Coronado National Forest. Tippins works in a small building that also is his residence during fire season. Perched above the forest on a site called Lemmon Rock, he watches for "smokes," because flames often are not visible.

Another strategy the Mt. Lemmon Fire District employs now is placing a water tanker, a firetruck that holds water, at milepost 16 on Catalina Highway. Before, all the equipment and resources were at the top of the mountain at the fire station, Ogden said. With one truck and water partway down the mountain, the department is more flexible, he said.

"We're kind of diversifying our some of our equipment and putting some of our people out in different areas," he said. "It gives us an opportunity to adapt with whatever emergency comes up."

When sparks cause smoke and Tippins sees it, he must determine the location using compasses, maps and other instruments such as an azimuth to determine the fire's direction from the lookout building.

“This area, Mt. Lemmon, is very rich in terrain features. If you can read a map, you can pretty much determine distance, and once you have azimuth and distance, you’ve got the position," Tippins said.

The fire district tries to protect homes and businesses, but it cannot regulate private property, Ogden said. Commercial buildings in the fire district, and residential properties on federal land, must clear a 30-foot "defensible space" around the structure, Ogden said. That means eliminating trees, brush and flammable material to prevent a fire from easily spreading to the home or business.

"Fire always burns up and out so we want to keep it off the ground so it doesn't step up into the trees. once it gets into the trees it really spreads rapidly," he said.

The fire district this year offered to dispose of the trimmings and debris people cleared from their properties, as an incentive to fire-proof the area, Ogden said.

The district works with the U.S. Forest Service and Ogden said residents have been helpful in policing the fire danger with community support.

"Because of the history of the fires that are up there, there's a lot of peer pressure from other cabin owners or people who lost their cabins and rebuilt," he said. "As big as the mountain is, it's hard for us to patrol all of that area and a lot of the residents, if they see you smoking, they'll give you a hard time."

They don't just hassle those they see violating fire restrictions, or putting the dry landscape at risk of fire. They also call the fire department to stop fires before they get out of control.

"If they're driving up or down the mountain and they see fire they call us and we're able to go out and put it out."

The Mt. Lemmon Fire District employs seven full-time firefighters, including Ogden. It also has 10 volunteers and four reserve employees. The closest backup is Tucson Fire Department, an hour and a half away, Ogden said.

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