If Arizona residents care about their homes, they will stop fueling land tottering on the brink of becoming an uncontainable, irrepressible wildfire.
Jim Paxon, the former U.S. Forest Service public information officer, delivered that message to about 140 Paysonites at Tiny's Family Restaurant Tuesday night in a presentation titled "Living with Fire."
"Until we remove some fuel, we're going to have fires that make the Rodeo-Chediski look like a tea party," said Paxon, who became internationally famous after delivering up-to-date information on the status of Arizona's wildfires last summer.
"I won't tell you we'll have a fire at your house this year, but we will have a fire at your house," he said in a serious Texan accent. "That's not a warning or an ominous threat. That's a promise. It's going to happen."
Ed Armenta, the head ranger of the Payson Ranger District, was among the audience members and introduced Paxon.
"Jim has a unique ability to turn bureaucratic terminology and technical jargon into words easily understood by the public," Armenta said. "We'd look forward to seeing and hearing Jim during his daily briefings, knowing that in spite of sometimes tiring and unfavorable conditions, his information would be current, accurate and compassionate, and at times, delivered with a great sense of humor."
The Rodeo-Chediski, Arizona's largest recorded wildfire, devoured 470 homes and 16 businesses during its nearly two-week life. Paxon said more than half of the homes and businesses could have been saved if owners had implemented what is called "firewise landscaping."
Firewise landscaping includes chopping down trees close to a building or pruning the branches above eaves and removing dead brush and grass, Paxon said.
He added that a resident of Christopher Creek once asked him, "You want me to cut down all those beautiful trees?"
His reply was: "No, I don't want you to, but the fire does and if you don't, Mother Nature will. Mother Nature is tired of us messing in her playhouse. And she's telling me and you, if you kids won't do it, I'll do it for you, like the Rodeo-Chediski."
Paxon said that prescribed fires, those set by professionals in a "controlled" setting, will also help the hazardous state Arizona is in by removing some of the fuel that could feed a fire.
"There are too cotton-picking many trees," he said. "If we don't do periodic, low-intensity burns, Mother Nature is going to do it for us. I'm the eternal optimist, but unless we begin to manage some forests, we're in for some huge disasters. My fear is that we'll start losing people."
Paxon said increased logging, the cutting of trees for money, would reduce the risk of fire while at the same time funding existing firefighting efforts.
He said that environmentalist groups like the Forest Conservation Council in New Mexico and the Center for Biodiversity in Tucson are wrongfully hindering increased logging laws by getting them appealed in court and opposing prescribed fire.
John Talberth, the director of conservation at the Forest Conservation Council, defended the council and said that while it does oppose logging, it supports prescribed fires and firewise 100 percent.
"We regularly and consistently recommend that Forest Services implement an aggressive program of prescribed fires in areas where it makes sense to do so and to focus on prescribed fire as a management tool rather than cutting down trees that should not be cut down," Talberth said from his office in New Mexico.
"We have a major problem with the Forest Service's notion that the answer to fire risk out there is to aggressively cut down trees."
Talberth said that research has shown that "logging is one of the major causes of increased fire risk, not the solution."
He said logging leaves behind flammable debris, changes microclimates so fires burn faster and requires access roads that allow more people into the forest.
"People are the No. 1 starters of fires," he said.
While there is no one clear solution to reducing fire risk, Paxon urged the audience at the presentation to at least contact their elected officials and express the need for prescribed fires, a point with which Talberth agrees.
"You need to get active," Paxon said. "You need to get volatile. Get people's attention. The will of the people remains supreme. You just have to express it."
Another major topic of the night was preparing residents for the worst.
Meckenzie A. Helmandollar is an instructional specialist at the Wildfire Risk Reduction/Forest Health Program with the University of Arizona and has helped fight wildfires in the past.
"This fire season is going to be awful," Helmandollar said. "For this area, it's not if we will have a big fire. It's when. We need to prepare homeowners for that."
She said that she was excited to see what Paxon had to say about this year's wildfire season and that it was worth an 80-mile trip from Globe.
Paxon's visit did not come free, but Connie Bullock, president of the Mogollon Republic Women, said that it "more than paid for itself."
The Mogollon Republican Women, a one-and-a-half-year-old club with 58 members, sponsored the event, charging $20 per ticket.
Paxon left the audience with a sense of fire's power.
"Fire is the most terrifying, mesmerizing, marvelous force on God's green earth," he said. "The Greeks really had it right. They didn't have a periodic table with zinc and helium and plutonium. They had four elements: earth, wind, rain and fire. The more I learn, the more I think that's true."