Forest Living: Rim Residents Can Learn To Protect Homes From Devastating Fire

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Rim country residents can learn firsthand how to create a healthy forest neighborhood through two forest stewardship programs beginning soon at Gila Community College.

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As part of the Regional Payson Area Project, Houston Mesa firefighters and other volunteers have begun thinning the forest around Mesa del Caballo, but they have not yet reached this house on Toya Vista Road which is almost hidden by thick forest growth.

Chris Jones, University of Arizona extension agent assigned to Gila County, will be the lead instructor for a series of Friday evening courses running from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Chuck Jacobs, Regional Payson Area Project coordinator and former Payson fire chief, will teach a series of Saturday morning workshops throughout March entitled "Living in a Healthy Forest Neighborhood."

Jones explained the forest stewardship concept.

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Where thinning has been completed, a park-like atmosphere has been created in the forest around Mesa del Caballo. Residents in the thinned area, primarily on Vista del Norte Road, report that the remaining trees already look healthier.

"The term ‘stewardship' means caring for the land, being a caretaker, so being a steward means you would have a knowledge of what a healthy forest is and help it to be in that condition," he said.

It's especially important for people who moved here from somewhere else.

"In a small town, you can't be anonymous like you can in a big city," Jones said. "A lot of people retire here and just want to have their own little space, but so much of what we need to know is different from what we grew up with."

The schedule for the Friday evening courses:

Feb. 27 -- Pruning and Tree Care Basics

Optimize the life and function of your trees. Learn about plant selection, planting techniques, fertilization and pruning of shade and fruit trees.

March 12 -- Chain Saw Safety

In 1999, there were more than 28,000 chain saw accidents nationwide, and the average injury required 110 stitches. If you or someone you know is a casual chain saw user, make it a point to attend this class.

March 26 -- My Yard, My Responsibility

Whether you belong to a homeowners association or not, regardless of the size of property, how you care for it affects your community.

April 9 -- Landscape Plant Irrigation

Learn how evapo-transpiration and other factors affect your grass and other plants' water needs and how best to time your irrigation to conserve water and maintain healthy plants.

April 23 -- Firewise Landscaping

As the threat of wildfire looms and insurance companies reconsider insurability in wildland urban interface areas, we need to do all we can limit home ignition due to wildfire.

May 7 -- Invasive Plants and Weed Control

Learn why invasive plants are a priority environmental issue, how to identify noxious weeds in northern Gila County, and what they can do and you can't. Includes a practical approach to integrated weed management for homeowners.

May 21 -- Water Harvesting

Take better advantage of rainfall on your property by contouring your land and other practical methods of controlling runoff to retain moisture longer or store water for later use.

Jun. 4 -- Backyard Wildlife

Many choose to live in Payson for the closeness of nature and its wildlife. Learn techniques to limit impact of nuisance wildlife and encourage visits by those you want.

The objective of Jacobs' Saturday morning workshops is to help people understand what a healthy forest is and why a healthy forest is a more fire-resistant forest.

"RPAP is a fire reduction program, and the way we go about it is by teaching people, first of all, what the problem is and how it got that way, and secondly, what can be done to make your little piece of the forest healthier," Jacobs said. "Most often, especially if people have acreage, it's overgrown with a lot of small stuff and they've literally got too many trees."

To understand the solution, Jacobs believes you have to understand how the forest got in the condition it's in today.

"Everybody likes to blame the Forest Service for stopping forest fires, and they did later on, but they weren't even in existence when this all began," Jacobs said.

Ranchers who moved here in the early 1880s were the original culprits.

"A lot of them came from mid-Texas where they had a lot of rain and the grass grew tall," Jacobs explained. "They came into this area and they saw this wonderful grass and they misjudged how fragile it was and how long it took to grow back. "Essentially in the 20 years or so between 1880 and 1900, they brought a lot of cattle in and they overgrazed the area really badly.

"It was those grasses that carried frequent fires that cleansed the countryside and revitalized the soil. Once they were gone, wildfire became much less common.

"What ended up coming back was the brush and the dog-hair thickets and all this kind of stuff," Jacobs said. "There was no grass to carry the fire through and keep it thinned out, and the cattle wouldn't eat it, so eventually that stuff ended up taking over."

In 1910, the Great Montana Fires hit, burning 3 million acres in Montana and Idaho.

"Those fires burned up whole towns and killed a bunch of people, and that's where the decision was made that every fire was bad and needed to be controlled," Jacobs said. "That's when the Forest Service started its policy of trying to put out all fires."

Another contributing factor was the Forest Service's decision to kick all sheep out of the forest.

"The sheep ate the brush and the cattle didn't," Jacobs said. "Now, of course, they understand that and they're bringing goats back to do the job on an experimental basis."

Fast forward to modern times, and this is the forest we inherited.

"When most of us came into the picture, we saw it the way it is and thought that was the way it should be," Jacobs said. "But Mother Nature's way of fixing it when things get overgrown to this point is to kick up a Rodeo-Chediski Fire, a cleansing fire that moves in and burns the whole thing.

"In Mother Nature's time frame, if it takes 200 years to grow back that's no big deal, but on our time frame that's a huge thing, and, of course, we go and build towns right in the middle of it."

While different methods can be employed in the forest, the only practical solution around homes is mechanical thinning, and that's the focus of the second half of Jacobs' workshops.

"We're going out for a walk the second hour to show people what we're talking about," Jacobs said. "We'll explain to people why you would want to keep this tree and get rid of these.

"In other words, we'll take the mystery out of thinning, because people are afraid to cut a twig. They're afraid something bad is going to happen."

"I can walk up and say I would keep this tree because it's nice and straight and has a chance of becoming a forest giant, and these two over here that have a big crook in them are never going to grow into a forest giant. You take these out and you keep this one.

"If they learn nothing more, we want to tell them that not every tree is good and not every fire is bad."

Cost for both Friday evening and Saturday morning classes is $5 per session. For more information or to register, call Sarah Nelson at GCC, (928) 468-8039.

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