The idyllic life of a cabin in the woods appeals to just about anyone who lives in the desert Southwest during the summer. But the cooler temperatures and scenic views also can come with a price, as evidenced by a string of large and sometimes catastrophic fires sweeping through the region's forests.
In addition to hundreds of thousands of acres already burned or still burning, this year fires have destroyed homes and forced scores of people to evacuate.
A partnership begun more than a decade ago with the help of the University of Arizona Extension in Flagstaff, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has been encouraging homeowners in fire-prone areas to thin out some of their beloved trees as a way to spare others, as well as their homes.
The Rural Communities Fuels Management Partnership offers homeowners help in reducing the risk of losing their homes.
Art Matthias, the program coordinator for the partnership and a former ranger with the Kaibab and Coconino National Forests, said homeowners can have their properties assessed for risk, including a recommend treatment plan, and arrange for workers to carry it out. A cost-sharing arrangement, Matthias said, will typically split the expense by half.
"We first look at the tree density and health of the forested property. Typically, trees are much denser there than occur naturally," he said. A pre-settlement area that had 30 to 70 trees per acre might have several hundred trees per acre today," Matthias said.
"We don't often bring the forest back to its original condition, but we try hard to separate the crown space so as not to leave a continuous canopy of trees, and thereby reduce the fire risk."
Since it started in 2001, the program has helped thin out some 2,000 acres on private lands. Many homeowners are skeptical, preferring to have their homes and cabins nestled and shaded among the trees.
Matthias said the preferred defensible space is to have trees cleared away at a minimum of 30 feet from homes or other structures, with an additional buffer zone of thinned trees well beyond that.
"We try hard to separate the crown space so as not to create a continuous canopy of trees, and thereby reduce the risk," said Matthias.
When a fire threatens a populated area, fire managers, he said, go through a triage system to identify which homes can be protected and which cannot in order to deploy their often limited resources and personnel. A house with a defensible space makes the decision to protect it easier.
And while a thinned landscape might be noticeably affected by treatments, the changed appearance can be softened by carefully mixing clumps of trees with small openings to avoid the appearance of a tree farm.
A more open canopy also helps enhance the appearance of the property by encouraging grasses and wildflowers to take hold. Besides lowering the risk from fire, fewer trees also improve tree health by reducing competition for water and soil nutrients and threats from disease and insects such as bark beetles.
The Rural Communities Fuels Management Partnership has won national recognition for its work, including a USDA Forest Service award in 2004 "for strengthening relationships, improving communities and engaging in natural resource stewardship," and the 2004-05 national Rural Community Assistance Award, also from the Forest Service, for leadership.
Matthias said federal grant funding will extend the program through 2013.
In addition to the UA Extension, the partnership includes the Kaibab and Coconino National Forests, Arizona State Forestry Division, Coconino County, City of Williams, Northern Arizona University Ecological Restoration Institute, and fire service agencies near Sherwood Forest Estates, Bellemont, Williams, Flagstaff, Blue Ridge and Happy Jack.