Surviving Fire Season A Cooperative Effort

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With the worst fire season in Arizona history still smoldering in the minds of Rim country residents, the U.S. Forest Service paused to recognize and honor those entities that came together to prevent a catastrophe.

Plaques were presented to local fire departments, law enforcement agencies and media at the ceremony, held Tuesday at the Payson Ranger Station. Ed Armenta, district ranger, said the Forest Service couldn’t have done it alone.

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Forest Service officials Ed Armenta (left) and Karl Siderits (center) present an award of gratitude to Joe Knoell, representing the Whispering Pines Fire Department, during a ceremony to honor fire, police and media personnel who assisted during the explosive 2002 fire season.

“It was the worst in Arizona history, and the threat to the Rim country was tremendous,” Armenta said. “We had a lot of issues going on, from the forest closures to the fires to a whole lot of other things. We’re just happy we made it through a tough season relatively unscathed.”

While the local fire departments had practiced together, Armenta said there was no way all the things that happened could have been anticipated.

“We knew what resources were out there and where they were located, we did a drill early on in the season, and did some evacuation planning,” he said. “We were trying to be as prepared as possible.”

One of the moments that stood out for Armenta was the united and near-instantaneous response to the Five Mile Fire, a 376-acre blaze that broke out near Strawberry while all available resources were already committed to the Pack Rat Fire raging northeast of Payson.

“We were fighting the Pack Rat and having that other one start up was our worst nightmare because it had the potential to get into Pine Canyon,” he said. “We were amazed at how fast everybody jumped on it.”

Also on hand Tuesday was Bob Ortlund, fire management officer for the Payson Ranger District. He, too, expressed his gratitude to the award recipients for their efforts during the entire fire season.

“We had close to 130 fires start up, and you guys were really on top of it,” he said. “You extended out of your normal fire districts, and I can’t say enough about what you did. Those were long days.”

Just implementing and enforcing the forest closure took extensive cooperation.

“The fire departments staffed the checkpoints, rounded up volunteers, and helped coordinate all of that,” Armenta said.

“The closure was very effective ...”

Payson Fire Chief John Ross, who also serves as chairperson of the Regional Payson Area Project and president of the Gila County Fire Chiefs Association, emphasized the role the Forest Service has assumed.

“The Forest Service has done an outstanding job ... and a lot of our success is the willingness of the forest service to work with us,” Ross said. “It’s been a great collaborative affair.”

Fire departments that were recognized included Payson, Diamond Star, Mesa del Caballo, Pine-Strawberry, Christopher-Kohl’s, Tonto Village, Whispering Pines and Gisela.

Organizations that also received plaques for their contributions were the Payson Roundup, KMOG, Payson Police Department, Gila County Sheriff’s Department and Payson Municipal Airport.

Besides the Five Mile Fire and the Pack Rat Fire, which consumed more than 3,000 acres, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, an inferno that torched nearly 500,000 acres, sent residents of Pinetop, Heber-Overgaard and other communities scurrying to Payson for shelter.

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