With drought conditions and an unhealthy forest creating the perfect combination for a wildland fire disaster, the Payson Ranger District, Payson Fire Department and other area fire departments are holding a public wildland fire meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, June 3, at the Payson High School auditorium.
Open to all Rim country residents, the meeting is co-sponsored by the Payson Roundup, Eastern Arizona College-Payson, the Town of Payson, KMOG and the Regional Payson Area Project. Payson Fire Chief John Ross said the meeting will cover the following topics:
Discussion of the Regional Payson Area Project, a coalition of interested communities, agencies and businesses formed to promote forest health and homeowner fire protection. The primary objectives of the grants-funded project are to hold these types of homeowner education meetings on making homes fire resistive, and to provide assistance to homeowners doing fuel reduction around their homes.
Discussion led by the U.S. Forest Service about why the forest is in its current situation and what is being done about the dangerous wildland fire situation.
A presentation on what residents can do on their private property to minimize the wildland fire danger by a representative of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Program.
Discussion of emergency operations plans.
"It looks like a long, hot summer," Ross said. "The Forest Service does historical analyses 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. "We need to treat thousands of acres."
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. It's when."
That fire, 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. A total of 2,632 firefighters battled the blaze, which cost $7.5 million to suppress.
Payson district ranger Ed 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."
Ross emphasized that while there is no need for panic, residents of the Rim country should be concerned about present conditions in the forest and prepared to take action in an emergency. The meeting will provide the knowledge and information necessary to do that.
While evacuation procedures will be covered, Ross said other types of emergencies can arise that also require some preparation.
"If, for example, we did have a wildland fire and it disrupted our electricity, it would make sense to have some emergency supplies on hand," he said.
The fire chief also announced two new restrictions imposed by the town to minimize fire danger:
The town's brush disposal pits are closed. People with cuttings, pine needles and brush should dispose of them in the county landfill.
"The pits are in the forest and the forest is now closed," said Ross. "We'll have to wait until the rains come to reopen them."
Open burning has also been banned within the town limits.
"Charcoal fires in barbecues are OK if they're attended," Ross said. "But no wood fires or campfires are allowed, and if it's windy we don't even recommend charcoal fires."
Ross also pointed out that the Regional Payson Area Project is looking for volunteers to help with brush clearing, scheduling and coordination, monitoring brush disposal pits (when they reopen), hauling materials and many other tasks.
To volunteer, call the Payson Fire Department at 474-5242, extension 300.