Clear Lesson Emerges From Fire's Smoke

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It was a nerve-wracking week in the Rim country.

As we all went about our daily business, unrelenting plumes of smoke loomed on the northern horizon, reminding us of just how tenuous life can be in the shadows of a drought-ridden, bark beetle-infested forest.

It was a week that made an indelible impression. But will the lesson inherent in the Webber Fire be heeded, or will we slip back into complacency?

That lesson was, coincidentally, brought home to the Payson Town Council last week at a special meeting on forest health. Diane Vosick, associate director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, told the council that the forests we live in today bear little resemblance to those same forests a century ago.

Where once there were 30 to 60 trees per acre, today's forests are choked by as many as 2,000. Where once lightning was allowed to play a natural role in keeping the forests of the Rim country healthy, decades of fire prevention have led to a situation where too many trees are competing for too few resources.

Important inroads have been made in recent years. Programs like the Regional Payson Area Project have begun the lengthy process of thinning the forests, at least around our communities. Prescribed burns have become more acceptable as alternatives to catastrophic fire.

But the undertaking is massive, and that's why Vosick is making presentations to governmental bodies and civic organizations throughout northern Arizona.

We are engaged in a race against time. If, as most experts predict, we are in the seventh or eighth year of a 30-year drought, we must redouble our efforts to accelerate the pace of forest thinning.

After Vosick's presentation, Payson Mayor Ken Murphy bemoaned the fact that the timber industry, once a positive force in keeping our forests healthy, had fallen on hard times because of government regulation. His point was that government is too often asked to step into areas where private industry can flourish if allowed to.

It's probably a valid point, but it's one that we don't have time to debate. We were lucky with the Webber Fire.

Lucky it started in a remote area free of homes and other structures.

Lucky an effective firefighting team could be mobilized so quickly this early in the fire season.

Lucky a substantial rain capped the efforts of firefighters at just the right time.

But the reason we call it luck is that it has a way of running out. As Vosick put it, we can't be half-hearted about forest health. We must be fully committed.

While the mayor's point is well taken, we believe both the town council and the Gila County Board of Supervisors should assume a leadership role on the issue of forest health.

We agree with Lew Levenson, executive director of the Arizona Partnership for Forest Health. Streets and parks and libraries are all well and good. But if the town burns down, you just don't need all that stuff.

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