After attending Gov. Janet Napolitano's Forest Health Summit, Payson Fire Chief John Ross is even more wary of the coming fire season.
"The Forest Service predicts that conditions this summer could parallel or be worse than they were last summer, that we are in a long-term drought, and that it will take several years of significant moisture along the Rim area and in the forests of Arizona to help the forests become healthier," Ross said.
The summit, held March 10 at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute in Prescott, brought experts together from several disciplines to address forest health and wildfire threats. Ross was especially impressed with a presentation made by Dr. Wally Covington, a professor at Northern Arizona University.
"He was very knowledgeable regarding forest health," Ross said.
"He had a slide presentation that showed the Rodeo-Chediski Fire overlayed on the Flagstaff area. It consumed the Flagstaff area, and that is a scenario that can happen this summer unless we immediately start working on restoring the forests around communities at risk."
Ross said Covington predicted the current condition of the forest years ago.
"In 1994, he noted in writing that the forest has been overgrown for the last 50 to 100 years and that with drought conditions we would face catastrophic wildland fires."
Faced with this situation, Ross said it was an excellent time for Napolitano to convene a gathering of all concerned parties.
"It was important to come together with environmental groups, scientists, Forest Service people, municipal people, and the fire departments to talk about these issues," he said.
A consensus of sorts was reached when attendees adopted an action plan that addresses the following issues:
- The wildland-urban interface in Arizona.
- Local disaster preparedness.
- A federal, tribal, state and local communication and coordination system.
- Family readiness and resources.
- Economy and technology as they apply to forest health.
- Building a healthy forest as a concept.
"The governor is going to establish a forest ecosystem advisory group to address the action plan and to steer policy regarding forest health activities," Ross said.
But while significant progress was made at the summit, Ross believes the time is at hand to translate talk into action.
"It is absolutely necessary to restore forest health by thinning out some of the underbrush, thinning out some of the smaller diameter trees and maybe a few of the large trees to restore the forest as it was years ago when it was in a much healthier state," he said.
"I still have a certain amount of frustration over this issue. Local forest stewardship programs are in place in many Arizona communities, and they're ready to receive federal and state funds to accelerate the creation of defensible spaces in and around the communities at risk."
The Rim country's Regional Payson Area Project is one such program. It is a wildland-urban interface fire mitigation plan that incorporates vegetation management, density reduction, prescribed burning, selective revegetation and fuel hazard mapping.
"We are taking dead and dying trees down, we are creating defensible spaces, and we have the infrastructure in place to really accelerate our safety in this region, but we are not (adequately) funded," Ross said.
"We continue to ask congressional committees for funding, we continue to apply for grants, and we have asked the governor's office to supply monies for these entities that are doing this kind of work right now in their communities."
But Ross also understands the economic realities.
"With the worldwide and national economies depressed, the state is wrestling with declining revenues right now, so the potential for significant amounts of state money is extremely limited."
In the meantime, RPAP is doing the best it can with the resources available.
"RPAP has been working in the Pine-Strawberry and Christopher-Kohl's areas, as well as in and around Payson," Ross said. "We are removing dead and dying bark beetle-infested trees from large tracts of properties. We are requiring that defensible spaces be created on large properties that are deemed fire hazards. We are trying to offset the costs of removing trees by working with contractors to develop markets.
The Payson chief complimented Rim country residents for their preparedness.
"Folks in the Rim country have been doing a great job removing brush, trimming trees, taking pine needles out of gutters, things of this nature that minimize the chance of their homes igniting if embers fall onto their property from a large forest fire."
While many volunteers are already at work on RPAP, more are always needed.
"We're setting up programs to work with neighborhood associations where folks will spend several weekends eliminating fuels off their property," Ross said. "We can't afford a Rodeo-Chediski-type fire in the Payson area."
For more information about RPAP or to volunteer, call 468-8694.