The latest long-range weather forecast calls for a hot, dry summer in the West, causing the region's drought to grow even worse.
With some experts predicting perhaps another 20 years of drought ahead, the need to thin the Rim country's forests back to the density of a century ago is more critical than ever.
"Forestry scientists tell us that in the United States, 73 million acres of national forests are on the verge of ecological collapse," Payson Ranger District Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts said. "There's a lot of contributing factors, but none looms larger than the fact that our forests are too thick.
"Baby boomers and younger have grown up with forests that are already too thick, so we think that's a healthy forest, but historically our forests were not like this. In fact, the forest today is 137 times more dense than it was 150 years ago."
Efforts to thin our forests are under way on several fronts, but the enormity of the challenge has led Gila County to introduce a new initiative that will hopefully bring all forest thinning projects under one umbrella.
"The Gila County Board of Supervisors has launched a Natural Resources Initiative as we seek to restore health, functioning and productivity to our county's natural resource base and to the industries and economies that are tied to them," District 1 Supervisor Ron Christensen said in announcing the undertaking.
The county hopes to utilize information developed by Northern Arizona University, which received a $5 million grant to develop a landscape model for forest health.
"They've been developing that computer model, and they've tested it," Gila County Manager John Nelson said. "It does work."
Another key component is a congressional exclusion under Healthy Forest Restoration Act that speeds up the lengthy approval process if local residents participate in the decision-making process.
"These are public lands, so let's ask the public what they want and get it done," Nelson said. "(The federal government) basically said if you have early, meaningful public participation -- if this is what the public wants -- there are new requirements on the court system to move fast on these projects."
Current Rim country forest thinning projects include:
- Regional Payson Area Project (RPAP)
Established in 2001, RPAP is a grant-funded program to create a healthier forest that is safer from catastrophic wildland fires and from bark beetle
infestation. It is a 10-year program to thin the forest and take out bug-killed trees in and around local communities. Participating communities include Payson, Pine, Strawberry, Whispering Pines, Rim Trail, Christopher Creek, Tonto Village, Mesa del Caballo and Star Valley.
- Payson Wildland Urban Interface Project
While RPAP seeks to create firewise communities on private land, the Forest Service is working diligently to address the public lands around them. Through the Payson Wildland Urban Interface Project, for example, forest fuels on 35,000 acres adjacent to Payson will be treated through a variety of treatments, including the mechanical construction of fuel breaks, prescribed burning, and the use of herbivores (goats). It is the largest wildland/urban interface wildfire mitigation project in the state of Arizona, according to Payson District Ranger Ed Armenta.
Thanks to such programs, the communities of Pine and Strawberry are now encircled by a 330-foot-wide fuel break. Completed in November of last year, they offer at least a degree of protection for those vulnerable communities.
"It's not a 100 percent guarantee, but we've seen many times where the fire just absolutely lays down when it hits one of these," Roberts said.
But while existing treatment programs have helped increase forest health and decrease the danger of catastrophic fire, they don't go far enough, according to Nelson.
"If we're in the path of an actual crown fire, small community fire protection plans are going to help, but watch out," he said.
"To do something about crown fires, we're going to have to take more than a small community look; we're going to have to take a landscape look -- half a million acres, a million acres, two million acres. We're going to have to change the world we live in."
The next step, according to Nelson, is to take the NAU landscape view down to the community level for more input.
"We need to let the communities tell us what they like and what they don't like," he said. "This is no longer about Washington, or NAU, or the county, or anybody else telling communities what they're going to get."
How fast can it happen?
"The Healthy Forest Restoration Act has given us the authority, NAU is offering the tools and expertise, and there is $720 million in funding available each year," Nelson said. "Our goal is to have a finalized plan to Washington for funding by September 30."
The key, of course, is the funding.
"Basically what Washington is saying is that if you want funding, you better take a landscape view and you better get your communities involved," Nelson said.
The choice is clear.
"If the community gets involved and demands action, we'll get this place cleaned out. If they don't, we're going to burn up," Nelson said.
To that end, the county will soon begin holding a series of community briefings based on the landscape model.
"We're going to be taking it out to all the fire departments, and we're going to have four or five large meetings," Legislative Liaison Lionel Martinez said.
The presentations will be interactive.
"We hope to bring this on CDs, give it to the people with some quick instructions, and let them go home and play with it," Nelson. "It's for the people to look at this area and decide what they want.
"This isn't NAU telling this community what they want. This is this community having the tools so they can take a look at it."