Gov. Jane Dee Hull flew over the Rim country's parched forests Tuesday morning and then attended a briefing at Payson Town Hall on local plans to combat what could be a long and dangerous forest fire season.
Between stops in Show Low and Flagstaff, the governor listened to presentations by Forest Service officials and area fire chiefs at town hall. She complimented local efforts and promised the state's full support.
"We will do whatever we can do to help," Hull said. "We are going to Safford, Thatcher and Sierra Vista Friday, and I would assume that almost the entire state will be under emergency order before too terribly long."
Payson district ranger Ed Armenta said the Forest Service will issue a press release on Monday announcing restrictions in the Payson area.
"We'll go with restrictions for awhile to see if we can avoid a full closure," Armenta said.
In a ceremony at Highlands Fire Department south of Flagstaff following her visit to Payson, Hull released $1 million in emergency funds and authorized use of the Arizona National Guard to maximize the state's wildfire prevention efforts. The money will be available through July 31, with most of it designated for more firefighters in 20 rural districts, and for use of two tankers and two airplanes.
The Payson area will receive about $124,000 of that money for prevention patrols, additional firefighters and an engine task force.
The governor said the helicopter flyover of the area which included the Bonita Creek subdivision where 50 homes were destroyed by the 1990 Dude fire, as well as new fuelbreaks near Strawberry designed to prevent fires from spreading dramatically brought home how much growth has occurred in the Rim country and the urgency of the situation.
"Until I flew over today and saw those roofs where there used to be trees, you have no comprehension of the growth in these mountains," she said. "(When) you look at the homes that are in the woods and their ability to burn, you realize what danger we are in not only this year, but every year."
Payson Fire Chief John Ross said the governor's visit was first and foremost a fact-finding mission.
"She is very interested in what's going on in northern Arizona ... with regard to wildland fires, and she educates herself periodically by visiting (the area)," Ross said.
During his presentation, Ross explained that drought conditions and an unhealthy forest are the perfect combination for a wildland fire disaster.
"It looks like a long, hot summer," he said. "The Forest Service does historical analysis of wet and dry periods. It was kind of wet for the last 50 years, but now we're in a drier period that actually could be more normal."
Contributing to an unhealthy forest is the fact that fires have been suppressed in the area over the last century.
"A lot of fuels have built up as a result," Ross said.
The fire chief also highlighted the Regional Payson Area Project during his presentation. A wildland-urban interface fire mitigation plan funded by grants, it incorporates vegetation management, density reduction, prescribed burning, selective revegetation and fuel hazard mapping.
While the program was originally funded last year with a grant for $105,000, Ross said more grant money will be needed to finish the job.
"We need to treat thousands of acres," he said.
But even that may not be enough to prevent another major wildland fire.
"We look at it as not if we're going to have another Dude fire up here," he said. "It's when."
That conflagration, sparked by a lightning strike 10 miles northeast of Payson, destroyed 24,000 acres in three national forests, leveled 63 homes, and resulted in the deaths of six firefighters, 25 deer and elk, and 30 head of cattle. A total of 2,632 firefighters battled the blaze, which cost $7.5 million to suppress.
Armenta put the current situation in perspective.
"Within the Payson Ranger District's 480,000 acres, we have some 65 land holdings summer homes, church camps, organization camps, private property," Armenta said. "That coupled with the condition of the forest, the explosive nature of the fuels we have out there is a perfect example of the wildland urban interface issue that we have in the state of Arizona. So this is a primary area to focus our efforts."
Armenta said about 900 acres have been "treated" so far. But the process is expensive "roughly an average of $580 per acre."
Hull also emphasized the need to educate summer visitors.
"It's really important that the word gets out throughout the state that the forests are one of our national treasures and we must protect them not only if you live here, but if you're just up here for the weekend," she said.