Fired Up Over Fire Breaks

Trimming of forest leaves homes safer, residents surprised


Sherry and Mark Peterson's home is nestled snuggly in Pine Creek Canyon, a picturesque setting that has lured many to the Rim country.

The drive to the Peterson home takes you up steep hills and around sharp corners to get to the three-story house, built a mere 12 feet from the Tonto National Forest.

The views were spectacular -- until crews created a fire break around their home.

The young couple was shocked and dismayed when crews contracted by the Forest Service came in and decimated the nearby forest in the name of fire safety.

"It is criminal what they did," was Sherry Peterson's first reaction as she looked from her kitchen window at a forest reduced to piles of brush. Large pine trees that towered around her home now resembled Lincoln logs, and healthy manzanita was cut at its base and left in ugly piles up to 15 feet high.

Peterson questioned whether the crews had to cut right up to her property line, what would happen to the piles of brush and why no one had talked to her first.

These are concerns that officials at the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest have addressed and will continue to address.

"We have had a lot of public meetings in Pine-Strawberry," said Pat Velasco, fire management officer for the Payson Ranger District. Forest officials have also spoken with several homeowners associations, but Velasco admits they overlooked the Portal III Homeowners Association, where the Petersons live.

The Forest Service is creating a fuel break around mountain communities like Pine and Strawberry, said John Varljen, Pine-Strawberry Fire Marshall and coordinator for the Northern Gila County Urban Interface Commission. This is a project he finally supports.

"I love it. It reduces the threat of fire spread from both the urban to the forest and the forest to the urban. It gives us a chance to get in there and defend the community," Varljen said.

Creating a fire break involves clearing the underbrush and all tree that are nine inches or less in diameter in a swath 20 to 50 yards wide. The diameter of a tree is measured at a height of four feet, Velasco said.

This creates a clear area with little or no "ladder fuels" that allow a fire to climb higher and spread faster. Fire spread can be stopped on the ground before it reaches the tree canopy, Velasco said.

Once the brush is cut, it is piled and left to dry out. The Forest Service will burn the fuel in prescribed burns, Varljen said. The piles will not be a fire hazard for next summer, he said, because the fuel is isolated and away from the large trees and fire would be easy to contain.

P-S fire break mostly done
Over 90 percent of the fire break has been completed around Strawberry, and Pine is about 50-percent done, Varljen said. He said it will take a year or more to get all of the piles burned and then a maintenance plan will be put into place to keep these areas open.

The bottom line is that if people want to live in the forest they are taking risks, and the Forest Service sees it as its job to reduce the risk as much as possible.

"Pine is really a design for disaster," Velasco said. "We can't have it our way -- it is going to burn up there someday. We need a place where we can make a stand. We are talking about saving lives and property."

One of the largest risks is from the people who want to live in the forest, which is why the Forest Service chose to cut the fire break right on the property line.

"People are the risks and the fuels are the hazard," Velasco said. "We have to reduce the hazard as close to the risk as possible."

"If I were president of the United States, I would have every prison empty. {Prisoners) would be stacking brush and prescribe burning."

A Forest Service inspection officer, Bea Day, was sent to the Peterson's home to look at the fuel break and explain the process.

"Bea explained it very well," Peterson said. "It was just so shocking."

Peterson said she has always agreed with the Forest Service and realizes the risk she accepted when she bought her home in the notorious Pine Creek Canyon.

"I have two boxes of things I have packed and ready to go," she said.

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