A fall and winter defined by record or near-record dryness has skyrocketed the measures of fire risk around Flagstaff for much of the past several months, though the season’s first storm Jan. 10 did provide some respite.
The dry conditions already have local forest managers looking at bringing on seasonal firefighting resources up to a month earlier than normal, said Duane Tewa, Coconino National Forest fire staff officer.
The Coconino National Forest hires about 100 seasonal fire staffers, including hotshots, each year. Agency officials are looking at hiring on some of those people in March instead of April, with a hotshot crew one of the resources specifically discussed, Tewa said. Statewide, the Forest Service is looking at bringing on three to four hotshot crews earlier than normal to support regional preparedness, especially for the state’s southern forests where fire season starts earlier, Tewa said.
Generally, the individual forests have to foot the bill for the extra time the firefighting crews will be working, but they can apply for special “severity funding” to offset the cost, he said.
October through the end of December saw the forest fuels dryness and the energy release component — a measure of potential fire intensity — at or near record levels in the Flagstaff area.
The Forest Service has seen 53 human-caused fires since Oct. 1, which Tewa said is a slight uptick from normal. The lightning strikes that preceded the snowstorm earlier this month also caused two fires that each burned more than an acre near Fort Tuthill and Munds Park, he said.
Flagstaff Fire Department saw a much bigger jump in fire starts during the final three months of the year as compared to years past.
For October through December, the department responded to 29 wildfires in and adjacent to the city, according to Paul Summerfelt, wildland fire management officer with the city of Flagstaff.
Those fires were all human-caused, many from illegal campfires, and burned a total of 11.6 acres, Summerfelt wrote in an email.
That’s well above the average of the previous five years: eight wildfires burning less than 3 acres over that three-month period.
The 4.7 inches of snow that fell on Flagstaff last week did push fuels moisture and fire danger levels back toward normal and the moisture forecasted for this weekend should help too, said Wesley Hall, a fire planner with the Coconino National Forest.
Snowpack is important not only for the moisture it provides but also because its weight compacts grasses, and matted grass doesn’t burn as readily as grass that is standing up, Hall said. That’s important for montane grasslands like Kendrick Park, the area north of the San Francisco Peaks and near Mormon Lake, where the grasses are still standing tall, he said.
He also noted that ponderosa trees have recently been dropping their needles at a greater rate than normal, potentially because the trees have started to sense drought conditions. That means there is more easily burnable ground litter going into the wildfire season.
But the real make-or-break for how the summer fire season plays out will be the moisture, wind and temperatures that northern Arizona sees this spring, Hall said.
Even if the region gets below-normal snowfall this winter, there’s still the possibility that a wet spring without a lot of wind will make for a relatively mellow fire season, Hall said. On the other hand, a dry and windy spring can wipe out the gains of a wet winter in relation to wildfire risk, Hall said, pointing to the Schultz Fire as one example.
“Wind is a high factor for us,” he said.
If the Coconino does hire fire crews earlier than normal this season, the additional manpower could help the forest meet new targets for prescribed burning, which helps reduce fuel load in the forest, Tewa said. Those targets, which come down from the Forest Service’s Washington office and new Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke, are higher this year than in the past, he said.
“If we have conditions we're going to go forth and do as much as we possibly can,” Tewa said. “The drying trend now is going to really push us to strategize on how we’re going to accomplish that.”
If there is no window to do the burning though, the Forest Service won’t do it, he said.
While it has been dry, it’s perfectly safe to do prescribed ignitions under current forest conditions, Hall said. Those controlled broadcast burns could start up in the next two to three weeks if conditions allow, Tewa said.
The NAU Institute for Human Development is home to two separate libraries that lend out all sorts of gadgets, toys, devices and even computer programs that allow students, teachers and families with disabilities the opportunity to try before they buy technology that may make their lives easier.
“We offer seven core services,” said Jill Pleasant, the program director at the Arizona Technology Access Program. Those services include two libraries that lend out tools, toys and gadgets to the public and educators for a short time, a loan program to help people with disabilities purchase items that may make life easier, a product demo program, a training program to use various devices, a device reuse program and a consultation program that can help people decide which device works best for them.
“It’s a great program and offers a lot of benefits to people that they might not be aware of,” Pleasant said. “We can’t buy something directly for someone, but we can educate them on what’s out there. And there’s no sales pitch, so there’s no pressure to buy anything. “We want people to make a good decision.”
AzTAP is part of and fits perfectly with NAU’s Institute for Human Development’s mission to allow “people with disabilities to fully participate in all life experiences,” she said.
NAU’s Mountain Campus is home to the Arizona Department of Education’s Assistive Technology Loan Library. The ADE library was created in 2005 with assistance from the Arizona Department of Education.
This library is for schools and contains nearly 3,000 items. It loans out items, such as large-type computer keyboards, educational toys, computer programs, books, and assistance devices like clamps to attach things to wheelchairs free of charge to teachers across the state.
The items in the ADE library are available only to district schools, charter schools and approved private schools. In order to borrow from the library a school or school district has to complete an annual form, Pleasant said. And they must have a physical address that the item can be shipped to, no P.O. Boxes allowed.
During the 2016/2017 school year, the ADE library loaned out 2,199 items to 103 different public education agencies in nine different Arizona counties, said Janelle Bauerle, the ADE Loan Library’s program coordinator.
The items from the ADE library are loaned out for free about four weeks, she said. This allows teachers and students to learn about the item and try it without having to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for it first, she said. The loans can also be used to temporarily replace something that a student already uses while the student’s item is being repaired.
The ADE library also has laptops that they mail out for free for teachers to check out computer programs that might help students, Bauerle said. Loaning out a laptop along with the program allows a teacher to check out specific software without having to download it onto their school computer.
Educators don’t even have to drive to the library to borrow an item, she said. They can pick out an item at AzTAP’s website, aztap.org, and the library will ship the item to the school or district for free. Free postage to mail the item back is also included in the package. Just like any traditional library, the ADE Library does have late fees and fees for items that are returned damaged.
The organization also holds regular workshops around the state that allow teachers and the public to try out various assistive technology, Bauerle said. They also have workshops for educators that teach them how to adapt the singing and dancing stuffed animals that you find in drug stores around the holidays with switches that allow adults and children with disabilities to use them.
Bauerle said she’s always checking out the toy aisle for more toys, educational items such as puzzles or blocks that she can modify in some way to make them more accessible to students or adults who may have a learning or physical disability.
For example, she’ll snap up packages of giant sized, brightly colored shapes, because the larger size is easier for some students to handle and the bright colors are easier to see for students who might have vision problems.
Bauerle said most people would probably be surprised at what you can find and adapt to meet the needs of special education students or adults in the regular toy aisle.
AzTAP also has an Assistive Technology lending library for the public to use. The main branch of the AT library is in Phoenix, but it also ships, for free, items across the state. Members of the public A smaller branch of the library is located at NAU’s mountain campus. The AT library was started with a federal loan in 1994, Pleasant said.
This library has many of the same items that the ADE library has but this library only loans out items for a couple of weeks and it loans directly to the public. However, shipping to and from the library is currently still free. This library also needs a physical address to ship to and has late and damage fees. Lenders also have to sign paperwork accepting responsibility for the item while they are borrowing it.
If a client isn’t sure which technology is out there for their needs or what might work best for them AzTAP has specialists who can demo a product for them and help them select from the thousands of items in either library, Pleasant said.
Both loan libraries are funded by federal grants and with aid from state partners, she said.
Once a parent, teacher, student or member of the public has found something that works for them through the lending library, AzTAP can also help them apply for a loan to purchase an item through its Arizona Loans for Assistive Technology program, she said. AzTAP does not and cannot purchase items for individuals or schools.
A Flagstaff elementary school teacher arrested on suspicion of child molestation repeatedly abused two young children for over a year, according to interviews with the victims disclosed by Flagstaff Police.
Killip Elementary School teacher and chess coach Ted Komada, 37, was arrested by Flagstaff Police over the weekend on suspicion of sexual abuse of a minor, according to the Flagstaff Police Department. He resigned Tuesday.
The two victims were examined and interviewed by officials at the Flagstaff Medical Safe Child Center. One of the children examined had injuries consistent with rape, and both victims told officials that Komada would frequently ask the children to perform sexual acts on him, according to the Flagstaff Police report.
Komada was caught molesting one of the victims by an adult, who called the police.
Flagstaff Police also collected multiple pieces of evidence containing Komada's DNA.
The teacher said that he had never molested any of his students, according to a witness whose name was redacted on the police report.
He admitted to police that he had committed some sexual acts with the children, but denied other claims by the victims, according to the police report.
When police arrived to arrest Komada on Sunday he said that “I am disappointed in myself and the situation. My life is over.”
Komada resigned his teaching position via email before the start of classes Tuesday. The school district has made all required reports about the arrest and resignation to the Arizona Department of Education, and has taken steps to ensure that Komada is no longer allowed on campus or otherwise involved with the District, according to a statement by Flagstaff Unified School District.
He is currently being held in Coconino County Jail on $25,000 bond.
Komada taught at Killip for 14 years and was named STEM teacher of the year in 2016.