Fires: Bob Worsley's Wildfire Story


On June 22nd, 2002, the Rodeo-Chediski fire (considered the largest fire in the history of the Southwest) ravaged Arizona, consuming 150,000 acres of land and spreading over 26 miles in a single day.

Four hundred and fifty homes were destroyed in the fire, but some survived: Bob Worsley, founder of SkyMall and current CEO of NZ Legacy, a sustainable development company in Arizona, was one of the lucky homeowners. His nearest neighbor—only a quarter of a mile away from him—lost his house completely: according to Worsley, “nothing was left but the fireplace.”

No one warned the Worsleys that their home was in a high-risk area: they found out that the fire was on its way by checking Forest Service forecasting and wind speed reports to monitor the situation themselves.

“We knew on Thursday,” Worsley said, “that a fire would probably come through by Saturday.” The preparedness steps that Worsley took are valuable advice for anyone seeking to protect their home from wildfires.

Here’s what kept the Worsleys’ home safe:

  • No nearby trees. The five acres surrounding the Worsleys’ home consisted of only grass—no trees.

    WHN TIP: Landscaping Your Property

    If you plan to plant trees on your property, keep them a safe distance away from your home. The Colorado State Forest Service recommends leaving 20-25 feet between a tree and your home to reduce the likelihood of a fire spreading.

  • Metal roofing. Bob Worsley recommends using a copper roof if you live in a wildfire-prone area. Copper or other metal roofing materials are better for fires because they will not catch fire like wood or asphalt shingles might.

    WHN TIP: Copper Roofing Costs

    Copper roofing is more expensive (typically about 4 times more) than asphalt shingling, according to Roofer911.com, but, according to Worsley, “you will never need to replace your roof again.” Copper roofing can last up to 150 years.

  • Watering. The Worsley family turned on the hydrants and sprinklers on their property as soon as they heard the Forest Service weather report that a wildfire was moving their way.

    WHN TIP: Propane and Other Explosive Elements

    If you have a propane tank on your property, be particularly cautious. Worsley notes that propane tanks are “very dangerous to have on a fire-prone property: the impact of an exploding propane tank could extend for a quarter of a mile.” If you learn a fire is on its way, “the best thing to do,” Worsley says, is to keep a sprinkler running next to your propane tank for a day or two. This will “keep the tank and everything around it cool, so that the rapid rise in temperature will not explode the tank.”

    Lessons From Neighbors

    Many of the Worsleys’ neighbors lost their homes due to the following common mistakes:

    • Building homes too close to trees. “People want to nestle their cabins into the trees,” Worsley said, “but nestling cabins into trees is a recipe for disaster: it puts your home at a much greater risk of burning down.” According to the Colorado State Forest Service, you should build your home with at least 70-75 feet between the forest and your home.
    • Insufficient watering. The Worsleys ran water on their property through hoses and fire hydrants as soon as they heard about the fire so they could “fight the fire by getting things wet before the fire came.” Their neighbors who did not do this had their properties burn quickly because their grass and roofing were extremely dry.

      WHN TIP: Prepare for the Fire

      If you hear that a fire is coming your way, set up sprinklers to water your roof and “soak it down.” Water your lawn with a “moat mentality”—set up sprinklers around your house to water the grass so that your yard will be less likely to catch fire that could spread to your house.

      WHN TIP: Backup Water Sources?

      The Worsleys had a manmade lake on their property as a backup water source in case of fire. For those who aren’t able to build a manmade lake of their own: if you’re looking to build or move into a home in a wildfire-prone area, look for a body of water near your home. The closer it is to your home, the better.

      How does this help if you live in a fire-prone area? In case of fire, fire personnel and helicopters can “dip out” of that body of water and bring that water back to your home to douse flames.

    • ‘Too close to the woods’ storage locations. Worsley himself stored some tractors and work vehicles “too close to the forest”--and lost them to the fire.

      WHN TIP: Rural/Farm Properties

      If you live on a farm or rural setting, move any animals and/or equipment on your property away from forests and wooded areas--keep them in open spaces like pastures or fields.

      Other Advice?

      • Keep all shrubs and bushes away from your home’s “drip line.” Worsley defines the “drip line” as the area three feet beyond the straight line down from where your house’s eaves end. He recommends keeping rocks around your home’s drip line instead of bushes or plants, because rocks will not burn if embers fall onto them from a burning roof.

      With a bit of “fire-friendly” landscaping, you can protect your home from wildfire risks in your area. As Bob Worsley learned, it is always a good idea to be prepared for the unexpected.

      “Nobody thinks that it’s going to happen to them,” Worsley said. “No one referred to this place as a ‘high-risk area’ when we bought it.”

      Thankfully, Bob Worsley’s home was able to survive because of his careful pre-fire preparation. Take responsibility for your home’s fire safety by considering some of these fire-friendly landscaping tips.

      Want to know more about protecting your home and property from a fire? Check out our Wildfires and Home Fires articles for more information.

      Updated: 5/2009