The town of Payson needs to put a much greater emphasis on forest health than it currently does, city council members were told at a special meeting on Thursday.
The message was delivered by Lew Levenson, executive director of the Arizona Partnership for Forest Health, with an assist from Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi.
"I asked for the meeting a couple of weeks ago after I met with (Town Manager) Fred Carpenter and asked him to raise the level of awareness, consciousness and action in the council regarding how we prepare Payson to protect ourselves better in the event of fire," Levenson said.
The fact that forest health is "buried" in the town's Corporate Strategic Plan is of great concern to Levenson.
"One objective is a greater understanding by the council of the notion of defensible space," he said. "In the community's strategic plan it's barely acknowledged; it gets lost in the 40 different things they came up with.
"My issue is simply that if you don't have a town, you don't need any of that other stuff."
Levenson cited water, economic development and road maintenance as examples.
"Are they really contributing to the situation or not?" he asked the council. "We're spending a lot of resources on things that are nice to do, but not in the face of the real possibility of this threat."
DeMasi told the council that money appropriated for clearing brush and removing dead trees within the town limits is nearly gone.
Levenson believes a relatively mild fire season contributed to the council's apathy.
"The Rodeo-Chediski Fire reminded us of the danger we face, but it's a long-ago, far-away memory now," he said.
Specifically, Levenson wants the council to incorporate language into the Corporate Strategic Plan that delineates specific roles for each department.
"What is parks and recreation going to do with their property?" he asked. "What is streets going to do about the trees and branches overhanging roads? There must be the expectation that these departments will respond."
Levenson also emphasized that the council needs to insist on strict enforcement of existing codes and restrictions.
"We need more enforcement," he emphasized. "We've got the codes and standards written for what people ought to do, but an absence of commitment and enforcement and follow through.
"Let's realize that nobody is going to come in and solve this problem for us and put some muscle behind us. There's not going to be a lot of federal money to help us clean up the place."
Councilor Judy Buettner said the council got the message loud and clear.
"We all listened," Buettner said. "I was amazed that our funds are already gone for helping people get rid of their dead trees. There is so much more to do."
Councilor Dick Wolfe took exception to at least part of Levenson's presentation.
"Everybody who has a special concern wants to be higher up in the planning process, but I don't see (forest health) surmounting water," Wolfe said. "That's always number one. Of course, you have to have water to fight fires.
"I thought there was a lot of good information, although it was awfully lengthy. Everybody is very frustrated because it's hard to get anything done."
The Arizona Partnership for Forest Health is a corporation that was formed April 1 to streamline the grant process.
"Its intention was to be the vehicle RPAP (Regional Payson Area Project) could come under," Levenson said.
RPAP is a wildland-urban interface fire mitigation plan funded by grants. It incorporates vegetation management, density reduction, prescribed burning, selective revegetation and fuel hazard mapping.
Levenson admits that the formation of the partnership also has contributed to the stagnation of forest health initiatives.
"We're certainly in a transition stage for taking over administration of the RPAP program," he said.