VERNON — A wildland fire started in the early morning hours on Monday, Sept. 30 on the top of Serviceberry Hill near downtown Vernon. Although the fire was small, high winds and the proximity to area homes created a potentailly dangerous fire situation.
Ironically, the fire was a result of a fuel reduction project where residents were working to clear some of the brush and trees from their private property; they had concluded the process on Friday, Sept. 27. Slash piles were burned and buried as per standard procedures.
With the very strong winds occurring Monday morning, some buried embers were uncovered and the dense trees on top of the hill ignited. Winds at 5 a.m. Monday were sustained at 25 mph and gusts were above 35 mph on the hilltop.
At about 4 a.m., firefighters from Vernon Fire District (VFD) responded with four units. Timber Mesa Fire and Medical responded to a call for assistance with a brush truck, and Arizona Forestry and Fire Management responded with three units and the Diablo Hand Crew.
Bo Hounshell and Paul Hancock from Apache County Risk Management/Drone Operations came to operate a drone to help assess the extent and movement of the fire. Chief Deputy Brannon Eagar and four deputies were also on hand to lend assistance.
A joint command was established with VFD and State Fire. Apache County Risk Management provided drone pictures and live video to the command team so they could assess risk and potential fire spread. A plan was developed.
Serviceberry Hill is very steep and is covered in dense trees and brush. Due to the steep hillside, heavy fuels and high winds, residents from four homes were asked to evacuate given the potential of the fire to come over the hill. ACSO also alerted other nearby residents to alert them to go to the “SET” position and fire officials met with the Vernon Elementary School to alert them to be in the “READY” position should conditions change.
Despite the 1,000 foot rise in elevation, crews were able to extend hoses and pump water to the top of the hill providing great advantage. A hand crew was also called in from Flagstaff as much of the fire was in rough terrain.
“Shortly after daybreak, the wind died down for a short time. It was almost amazing. The wind died down and gave us a chance to get ahead of it,” explained Vernon Fire District Chief Dave Niehuis.
Once the fire was controlled, people were allowed to return home. Crews remained on scene for most of the day, returning the next morning to re-check the area.
In the end, despite the extreme elevation changes, the rough terrain and high winds, the fire was held to less than one acre because of the cooperative efforts of the Vernon Fire District, Arizona State Forestry, Apache County Risk Management and the Apache County Sheriff’s Office.
“Prescribed burns are an essential part of fire management in our wildland-Urbaninterface environment. People are encouraged to work with fire officials to either contract or conduct fuels reduction efforts in and around homes. These efforts are vital to our safety on the Mountain. However, a lesson learned is despite following all accepted practices for burning slash and debris, buried embers can remain burning for several days. Extreme caution must be used when clearing brush and trees and all burning operations should be thoroughly checked and re-checked especially when winds pick up in the area,” Niehuis said.