Fire Neither Good, Nor Bad, Paxon Says

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If the Pack Rat and Five Mile fires made you a little nervous, just wait until the next one.

And there will be a next one, Jim Paxon said probably sooner than you think.

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U.S. Forest Service information officers provide the media with much of the information on wildland fires. Three who have been prominent in the Rim country this fire season are (left to right) Jack Babb (Payson Fire Marshal and part-time information officer), Jim Payne and Jim Paxon.

Paxon, who became somewhat of a celebrity after appearing on nightly newscasts during the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, made a stop in the Rim country to deliver a blunt message.

"People need to understand that you need to live with fire," said Paxon, the lead information officer for the Humphreys Type I team brought in to suppress the Pack Rat and Five Mile fires. "You have to know that if you're in the ponderosa pine, chances are you're going to have a fire visit every seven years whether it's prescribed or natural ignition."

If we don't learn to live with fire, Paxon said Mother Nature will take care of the problem for us.

"The message is Mother Nature is not real happy with us," Paxon said. "We've been suppressing fires and we've stopped our logging and we're not doing a whole lot of prescribed burning, so we've allowed too many sticks to grow out there on any acre that's forested. It doesn't matter the ownership. It doesn't matter whether there are houses there or not. Mother Nature is going to clean things up and try to achieve that balance that was here before European-Anglo settlement."

As evidence that the problem is worsening, Paxon cited the fact that the fire season is getting longer each year.

"A lot of us who have been around 30 years have never seen a Type I fire on Labor Day and here we've got two of them one here and one on the Santa Fe," he said.

While some politicians have tried to blame the current situation on environmentalists, Paxon isn't buying it.

"I don't blame the environmentalists at all," he said. "Look at the Bullock Fire over there on Mount Lemmon. A lot of those people built those cabins because they wanted rustic materials, they also wanted the screening from their neighbors so they wanted those trees there. They were very well intentioned people, but they're somewhat misguided and we've got to do a better job of educating them to the penalties and ramifications of not doing some cutting and burning."

Paxon said it doesn't even matter how a fire gets started.

"On the Rodeo-Chediski, the ignition was inconsequential," he said. "Everything was ripe, and that's true all across the West especially on the Mogollon Rim."

Reversing the situation will take a team effort, and Paxon said we don't have a lot of time.

"We're way behind the power curve," he said. "For 80 years, we put out fires and we got real good at it. But while we did that the fuels continued to build and right now there's a huge backlog and a bunch of fuels ready to burn.

"We thought the Dude Fire in 1990 was a wake-up," he said. "Well the Rodeo-Chediski is really a wake-up and the Pack Rat is an eye opener."

Paxon said the Regional Payson Area Project is an example of what needs to be done. A wildland-urban interface fire mitigation plan funded by grants, the project incorporates vegetation management, density reduction, prescribed burning, selective revegetation and fuel hazard mapping.

A combined effort involving the Forest Service, local fire districts and the Arizona State Land Department, the program was originally funded last year with a grant for $105,000. But according to Payson Fire Chief John Ross, it will take a lot more grant money to finish the job.

"There's just too many trees, too many fuels, and we've got to reduce them," Paxon said. "That means cutting, that means prescribed burning, it means private and local and state and federal all working together to accomplish the same ends. A lot of that has happened right here with the Payson project that you've got going on, but we need to continue that and enhance it."

Individual homeowners also need to assess their properties and do what's necessary to reduce the fire risk.

"On the Rodeo-Chediski, we had a lot of houses that were shake-roofed with log walls and big wooden decks with trees right up to it," Paxon said. "We triaged those houses; we put fluorescent pink ribbon across the driveways and we said we can't do anything with this house so we'll go to this one where we can. That's a tragedy."

Paxon said fire is neither good nor bad it's natural.

"If you live in a forested or wooded environment, you must expect periodic fire visits and you must prepare for those," he said. "That means using fire resistant construction materials, it means doing some things with your landscaping and clearing around your house, and it means constant maintenance."

Paxon called the rain and hail that helped firefighters get the upper hand on the Pack Rat and Five Mile fires a gift from God.

But he's been on enough fires to know that doesn't happen very often.

Fire's impact on water quality topic of discussion

Two public meetings will be held Monday, Sept. 9, to discuss actions being taken to reduce the fire's impact on water quality along the East Verde River. A fire overview will also be presented. One meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at the Whispering Pines Fire Department. The other will be at 7:30 p.m. at the East Verde Park clubhouse. For more information, call the Payson Ranger Station at 474-7900.

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