Homeowners who are most at risk of losing their homes to wildfires are, in many cases, doing the least to save their properties.
A drive through vulnerable areas near Apache Junction and Scottsdale reveals large numbers of homeowners in lush desert areas who have ignored dire warnings about the worst wildfire season in a decade.
They’ve let wildflowers, grasses and brush turn brown and die without taking any action to keep wildfires from devouring their homes. Fire experts say they’ve done everything they can to prepare for a miserable fire season — and they’re upset at the number of homeowners who haven’t lifted a finger.
"For every person I find who is interested in doing something, there is someone who is ambivalent about the process," said Cliff Pearlberg, the state fire prevention officer for the State Land Department. "I’ve had people look me square in the eye who say, ‘I’m not interested in going out there and doing the work and spending the money,’ and a lot of times, we’re not talking a lot of money."
Instead of trying to save their homes from wildfire, Pearlberg said, many homeowners talk about how insurance and government loans will help them rebuild.
"It’s sheer carelessness and apathy and I find it rather frustrating that there’s a certain part of the population that doesn’t care," Pearlberg said.
Firefighters said they don’t know how to reach out to homeowners with that attitude. Time is running out to clean up dangerous brush, they fear, as the triple-digit temperatures will usher in a terrible fire season in the Valley. The risk will remain extreme until the monsoon, which usually comes in early July.
Fire experts have spent months preparing for a devastating desert fire season in the aftermath of the wettest winter in a decade. Unlike recent years, urban wildfires are a concern where homes border the desert, mountains and washes that are now choked by dying brush.
Fire departments have spent months getting ready for urban fires by sponsoring extra training, adding staff, getting extra equipment — and warning Valley residents about the risk. Should a fire break out, fire departments from across the state and region could help out.
Those who ignored the warnings may pay a high price, warned Alison Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Rural/ Metro Fire Department. If crews fight a fire where one homeowner has cleared brush and another hasn’t, they’ll help the homeowner who has already helped himself by clearing brush.
"We’re going to save the home with the defensible space," Cooper said.
Homeowners have gotten the message in places like Rio Verde, where residents have generally cleaned their properties, Cooper said.
But she worries about parts of the north East Valley where homes border overgrown washes. Even where homeowners have done an excellent job on their property, they often have trees that hang over block walls and brush against dry vegetation.
"It negates the wall," Cooper said. "It gives fire access to your yard."
Homeowners who do clean their properties often do so only for the looks, said Robyn Shaw, who does landscaping work in Apache Junction. As she cleaned old plants from a large yard last week, she pointed out that homeowners usually ask to clear dead grass and brush because it looks trashy.
Dave Montgomery, fire marshal for the Apache Junction Fire District, said he doesn’t know how to combat that attitude. He said his department has tried to stress the danger of not clearing brush. Large amounts of dead plants make fires grow hotter, larger and faster.
"Especially with a little wind behind them, they can move faster than a man can run," Montgomery said.
Homeowners can protect their property by clearing a 30-foot space around their home. This is especially important in areas where homes are on large lots with native vegetation, as in Apache Junction, Paradise Valley, Fountain Hills and northeast Scottsdale.
Scottsdale is asking homeowners to limit the clearing to flash fuels only, and not eliminate protected desert plants. Residents and homeowners associations can call (480) 312-3473 for a wildlife safety inspection.
Traditional subdivisions are at far less risk because their yards are too small for massive fires. In places like the Superstition foothills, however, abundant land will support large, fast wildfires. The influx of homes in these areas worries fire officials.
"Everybody’s holding their breath for that big one in town," Cooper said. "It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when."