Thanks to a UA extension program, property owners in
woodland areas can get expert assistance in thinning
excess tree cover on their properties, thus reducing the
risk of fire damage and increasing forest health. (Photos
by Lee Ann Beery/Arizona Department of Forestry)
By Jeff Harrison, University Communications, July 2, 2012
Property owners in woodland areas can get expert assistance
in thinning excess tree cover on their properties, thus
reducing the risk of fire damage and increasing forest
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
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 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.
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
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
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