On a danger scale of one to 10, Payson Assistant Fire Chief Don Rose calls the manzanita-choked greenbelt in Payson North Unit IV a nine.
And according to Scott Hunt, district forester for the Arizona State Land Department, "If the dry spell we're now experiencing continues through April, the potential for disaster will be very high."
The 11-acre greenbelt, which has been allowed to grow wild since the neighborhood was built almost 30 years ago, loops around all 284 homes of Payson North Unit IV.
"It would be very difficult if not impossible to fight a fire in some of those areas (of Unit IV)," Rose says. "And the material that's in there burns very hot and fast. Do we have the capability of putting those out and saving nearby homes? No, we don't. If I was living there, I'd be very concerned."
In the line of fire
Lester and Margaret Burton are very concerned.
Those who've met them, hold one of two distinct opinions of the couple.
Some describe the 26-year members of Unit IV as cranky malcontents whose primary mission in life is to cause trouble for their neighbors.
Others say the Burtons are the very model of model citizens, and that the town would be a better place to live if everyone was as concerned and proactive as they are.
These diverse viewpoints were forged in the heat of battle -- a fight between the Burtons and their homeowners association that's generating sufficient BTU's to thaw Nome, Alaska.
For years, the Burtons say, they've been trying to convince their homeowners association that the subdivision's overgrown greenbelt is a fire hazard.
"This home is our life," Margaret says of the house she and her husband started building in 1973. "Everything we own is right here. I don't know what we'd do if we ever lost it."
The Burtons know first-hand how destructive fire can be. In 1960, Lester's mother died in a fire that consumed half of Main Street in Hilton, N.Y. Ten to 14 stores were destroyed, he says. His mother was living above one of them.
"I'm not scared or worried about fire," says Lester, who operates a tool-grinding business out of his home. "But I do have a great deal of respect for it. When it happens, you are helpless. The firemen don't want you near it. There's nothing you can do. I will never go through that again."
At the opposing end of this fiery argument is retired emergency physician Keith Blankenbeuhler, who for the past two-and-a-half years has been president of the Payson North IV Homeowners Association. He says his board of directors has done "everything that can possibly be done" regarding the greenbelt cleanup. Blankenbeuhler also says the board is barred from further action by Unit IV's 262 homeowners, who've never "requested or voted to have the board appropriate funds for the specific use of cleaning out the greenbelt."
Still, the Burtons felt their greenbelt concerns were being ignored. So Lester, 77, and Margaret, 75, started writing letters. To the Payson Fire Department. To the Arizona State Land Department. To Arizona Governor Jane Hull. On Oct. 18, the Burtons were visited by Scott Hunt of the land department and fellow forester Jim Downey. After viewing the greenbelt, they reported it was "overstocked ... with heavy fuel loading, threatening the urban interface. Most/all houses threatened." The solution, they said, was to thin the brush and clear room to walk between plants.
Assistant Fire Chief Rose agreed with the land department in a Nov. 3 letter to the Burtons:
"(We feel) the greenbelt, as it stands, is a potential threat to fire safety in the area and will become problematic under fire conditions when the fire index rises to the extreme." Rose urged the Burtons to "continue your commitment to having the greenbelt cleaned up ... to reduce the fire threat to homes in the area."
Blankenbuehler says the Burtons never showed him these letters, and that they haven't even attended a homeowners meeting for three or four years. The Burtons say Blankenbeuhler no longer takes their calls or answers their letters.
Blankenbeuhler flatly denies that charge.
And their disagreements don't end there.
According to the Burtons, homeowner association board members are ignoring their own deed of restrictions, which state -- in a version drafted in June 1971 -- that the annual homeowners association fees paid by Unit IV residents are to be used in part for "cleaning and maintaining common areas," which include the greenbelt.
Blankenbuehler says the covenant has been impossible to abide by because the $8-per-year homeowners' fees cannot cover the cost, and the current six-member board has voted to eliminate the greenbelt maintenance entry altogether. Due to a separate condition in the deed of restrictions, however, that change cannot go into effect until next year.
Cutting a fire break
The board's refusal to act on a covenant it wants to change but can't really irks the Burtons -- and only partly because they recently spent $605 and 92 hours cleaning up the V-shaped stretch of greenbelt behind their house. The area, which ranges from 10 to 30 feet deep, was once a sheer, impenetrable wall of manzanita, oak, pinon and juniper. Now it's as accessible as a public park -- and accessibility is vitally important, Lester Burton says.
"If there had been a fire back here, the fire department would not have been able to get to it. They would not have been able to get themselves, let alone their equipment, through all that growth."
On Nov. 5th, the Burtons sent an invoice to their homeowners association outlining the efforts and expenses they'd invested in the clean-up. Blankenbuehler, denying their request for reimbursement in a Nov. 24 response, wrote that "... each individual homeowner has accepted responsibility for maintaining and clearing their adjacent greenbelt area(s) in accordance with fire prevention codes and hazardous conditions."
As it happens, it's the elusive definition of "hazardous conditions" that seems to be fueling the debate. But according to Rose, "What the Burtons did is what should be done (throughout the unthinned areas of the greenbelt). If more people were as concerned as the Burtons, Payson would be a better place to live."
For the moment, District Forester Hunt isn't as worried about the greenbelt's danger quotient as Rose is. But that could change this summer.
"Under certain conditions, the brush buildup does have the potential to threaten homes," he says," and that threat will vary by the time of year. At this time of year the threat of fires isn't extreme. But closer to summer, it could be very high."
"In defense of Unit IV homeowners," says Blankenbeuhler, "we are all consciously aware of the fire danger that exists from living in a forested area ... For many years our homeowners have been doing their best to comply with the guidelines set forth by the Payson Fire Department and National Forest Service without totally eliminating the natural environs."
"I think we're getting a bum rap," says retired contractor Roger Thrasher, who is now the Unit IV board's building inspector. "Every year for the last two or three years, we've had a cleanup session where we pick up all the debris, limbs and leaves picked up by the homeowners. True, some people don't participate. But many do. And it has been very successful. In the past two years we've disposed of over nine tons of debris.
"Maybe there is a fire hazard," he says. "But we had a vote, and the answer was no. The board's hands are tied."
The vote Thrasher refers to was taken during a November 1994 meeting, when the association's estimated cost of the cleanup was put at $36,000 -- a bid submitted by the "one individual in town who would clean out the greenbelt area," according to the association's minutes. The idea was voted down, 190 to six, because "dues would have to be increased to cover this ... cost."
"That number sure sounds high to me," Rose says. "I've seen (similarly-sized areas) cleaned up for as little as $4,000 to $5,000, paid for by HOA funds. It's precisely for things like this that homeowners associations collect dues. And if there aren't sufficient funds, there are other avenues."
Bruce Wilson knows about those. As president of the Payson North Unit III Homeowners Association, Wilson has seen this war before.
Two years ago, Wilson became determined to clear the fire hazards in his neighborhood's 13-acre greenbelt. The first bid he received for the job was for $19,500.
"The only way we could have done that," says the retired physical education teacher, "would have been to put a $60 surcharge on every lot. We absolutely did not want to do that."
After running into a few dead ends, he contacted the Arizona State Land Department, which eventually agreed to help fund the Unit III clean-up project through its Forest Stewardship Plan. When Wilson nailed down a bid of just $8,134, the land department anted up 75 percent -- and Wilson's association was left to pay $2,033.50, which was readily available in the association's coffers.
Although Wilson felt like a victor, he says the feeling was not shared by everyone in Unit III.
"Basically, we got three reactions from our residents," he says. "One, complete apathy. Two, very positive. Three, extremely negative. I would say that 98 percent of the negatives were our 'weekend warriors' -- people who don't live up here full time. If this entire area burned to the ground, they would have somewhere else to go. We don't."
Walking through the thinned-out greenbelt behind his home, Wilson is clearly proud of what he accomplished.
"You know," he says, "a lot of people around here think that cleaning these areas out ruins their natural beauty and chases out the wildlife. Exactly the opposite is true.
"We've got more wildlife in here than we've seen in years," he says, just as a squirrel scampers up a nearby tree. "It's still beautiful. It's maybe 500 percent safer in terms of fire hazards. And now, when we want to take a walk, we don't have to walk on the street. We can stroll through this beautiful forest."
Later, viewing an untouched jungle of greenbelt near the Burton's home, Wilson's tune is different.
"This is ridiculous," he says. "A fireman couldn't get through this. What are they thinking?"
Thrasher says there was "quite a bit of criticism" of Bruce Wilson's cleanup of the Unit III greenbelt. "They took too much out. I think they were completely wrong."
In any case, both Bruce Wilson and Don Rose have offered to attend a future Unit IV homeowners meeting and try to help their neighbors call a truce and work out the problem.
"There are solutions," Wilson says. "There may not be one that makes everyone perfectly happy. But there are solutions."
Turning up the heat
Last month, Lester and Margaret Burton were disheartened to learn that the land department's Forest Stewardship Plan no longer has enough money to help private landowners manage their forested lands.
Their moods were brightened, though, by a response to their letter to the governor from State Land Commissioner Michael E. Anable, who pointed the couple to two other state programs that might be able to help fund a greenbelt clean up.
But even if those prospects don't pan out, the Burtons will continue to wage what they call the good fight.
"The cost of battling an emergency in man-hours and the fire crews' safety would far outweigh the cost of cleaning the areas now," Margaret says. "The craziest thing we could do would be to sit back and do nothing."
In the meantime, Payson Fire Marshal Jack Babb says "(The Burton's letter to the fire department) is considered a formal complaint. (It) has been filed, and we will follow up on it."
According to Babb, a typical follow-up begins with a letter to either an individual homeowner, or possibly the homeowners association if the area in question is common property, warning that the area must be made safe. If that letter is ignored, a second is mailed. If the area isn't brought up to code, the owner is cited for a possible misdemeanor charge. At that point, the town could order a clean-up and place a lien on the property until the clean-up bill is paid.