by Mike Burkett
roundup staff reporter
It wasn't much of a brush fire burning leaves and dead vegetation in an area only about 400-feet square Saturday afternoon in the 800 block of East Frontier Street. And it was quickly extinguished by Payson Fire Department crews with hand tools and hose lines.
But like all fires which spark to life in residential areas, this one could easily have been devastating to nearby homes if conditions had been even a little more blaze-friendly.
It is that ever-present potential, Payson Fire Marshall Jack Babb said, that makes the Regional Payson Area Project's $210,000 Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Mitigation Plan so valuable.
"This plan could have prevented that fire from happening," Babb said, "eliminating the threat to the homes in that area."
The plan, which is to be signed into official existence today by Mayor Ray Schum, was created as a sort of urban extension of the U.S. Forest Service's prescribed-burn program.
"The Forest Service performs prescribed burns throughout the year to reduce the hazards," Babb said. "Well, in some areas, you can't do a prescribed burn because it's too close to structures so you have to go in and thin the vegetation and fuel build-ups by hand or mechanical means, then gather up and dispose of the debris."
Because those chores would be too expensive and complex for many homeowners, the fire mitigation plan based on a successful program now used in Flagstaff covers the cost and the organization of the cleanup.
The $210,000 received by the Payson Fire Department to fund the plan is made up of a $105,000 matching grant from the Arizona State Land Department, as well as in-kind services of equal value provided by such entities as the Arizona State Land Department, and the Christopher-Kohl's, Tonto Village and Mesa del Caballo fire districts.
Now that the grant money is in the bank and fire mitigation plan is about to be launched by Schum's signature, the next step, Babb said, is to plan, assess and develop areas in and around the communities of Payson, Star Valley, Pine-Strawberry, the Tonto Apache Reservation, Christopher Creek, Kohl's Ranch, Mesa del Caballo and Tonto Village as well as campsites, recreational areas and parks susceptible to extreme wildland fire scenarios.
Once identified, all urban-wildlife interface areas will be examined and prioritized based on high, moderate and low hazards the next step in the plan.
Informational and educational outreach programs will then be developed and administered to all interested citizens and property owners. A steering committee, comprised of representatives of all Payson Area Project members, will be responsible for developing policy and governing the overall project requirements and functions.
"What we're looking at is ensuring that about 77,000 acres around this region are protected to save communities up here from wildland fires," Payson Fire Chief John Ross said. "There are large tracts of land that we're going to be treating ultimately.
"I personally think that this plan is extremely important to the region to protect existing structures and citizens who live in the wildland-urban interface areas," said Ross. "This could be a be a big deal 5 or 10 years down the road when we have a big forest fire come through here. We're going to have a chance to defend our town."