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Steve Plath, with the Gila Watershed Partnership, stands beside the Pima Bridge. Firebreaks will soon be placed around water wells and valuable infrastructure such as this bridge. 

Graham County will soon be hiring a contractor to build firebreaks in the Gila River bed after a $200,000 grant came through. The firebreaks will protect bridges and electrical lines and make life easier for firefighters.

The Graham County Board of Supervisors amended the county’s wild land fire protection plan in May so they could pursue the grant, the first of its kind in Arizona, from the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

It was approved in late June, said Bill Brandau, Graham County extension director.

“The plan is, hopefully, by the first of October we’ll be up and running,” he said.

Brandau created the Gila River Corridor Fire Mitigation Plan over the course of four years. The mitigation plan includes creating 14 firebreaks within the Gila River bed from the east side of the Gila River to the reservation on the west side. Firebreaks are areas where ground fuel, including salt cedar and Tamarisk trees have been removed, said Brandau.

The firebreaks will be around 500 feet in size and surround water wells, electrical lines, and bridges, Brandau said. Tamarisk trees will be cut down and then sprayed with herbicide to slowly remove it from the firebreak area.

Once in place, fire departments will be able to consult a river map to see if the fire is able to burn itself out on a firebreak before deploying crews.

Brandau reached out to local entities within the community and mailed over 26 letters of support for the firebreaks to the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management with the application. Brandau said he was told the agency had never seen so many letters of support for a single grant application.

To be eligible for the grant, the county had to have a 10 percent match of local money, and the local fire districts as well as the Graham County Coop agreed to participate in the required funding, he said.

Gila Watershed Partnership Director Melanie Tluzcek was happy to hear the firebreaks project will be funded.

“This is going to allow us to control the fires in the river and protect the valuable infrastructure and protect our restoration sites,” said Tluzcek. “Two of the fire breaks bracket the proposed Linear Park.”

The Linear Park will be a seven-mile park along the river’s south bank from Graveyard Wash, east of Safford, to Reay Lane in Thatcher and might connect to the valley’s shared-use trail system..

The proposed park would include a paved pathway, a softer aggregate surface path and native soil trails leading to the river’s edge. It could also include fitness activities, habitat restoration, interpretive exhibits, pedestrian bridges and wildlife-watching stations. There could also be parking areas, restrooms and possibly ramadas.

Tuluzcek said the firebreaks will also come in handy once the dreaded tamarisk beetle arrives.

The beetle, which is expected to arrive in Graham County within the next year, defoliates the tamarisk trees and increases the river bed’s fire danger, Tluzcek said. The first year the beetle arrives is when the fire danger is the highest.

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