Officials Push To Thin Forests

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The Cave Creek Complex fire's threat to the Rim country was the last straw for Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin.

With the residents of Pine and Strawberry nervously watching the approaching inferno under pre-evacuation alert, Martin realized that the time had come to get the federal funding to secure the Rim country from the menace of wildfires.

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Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin

"Once the Cave Creek Complex (fire) took a bead on Pine-Strawberry, it was like, damn it, the communities have done their job, the county and the cities have done their job, the Forest Service has done their job," Martin said. "(The federal government) is willing to put all kinds of money into (fighting) fires, but they're not willing to put any kind of money around here into mitigating them."

The District 1 Supervisor is upset because federal funding is all that's needed to implement the Rim Country Community Wildfire Protection Plan, a comprehensive plan developed by local communities and government agencies more than a year ago. Of particular concern is 5,500 acres in two critical acres southwest of Payson and Pine that need to be mechanically thinned immediately.

"If they can do those acres, which are the most flammable and the most threatening to these communities, they could then back away from them and do lots of slash and burn treatments and not threaten the communities," Martin said.

The 5,500 acres are ready to thin, and another critical 1,500 acres in the Kohl's Ranch, Christopher Creek area will be ready in the fall.

"It's getting these first 7,000 acres dealt with and the extreme fire risk is lowered substantially," Martin said.

Many Payson residents have a false sense of security since the Willow fire cleared out massive areas of dangerous forest.

"The Willow fire really didn't fireproof Payson," Martin said. "Payson's got this southwest corner they wouldn't let it get into because it would have taken Payson if it had."

Arne Koch, who lives on the southwest side of Payson, is in favor of Martin's plan.

"I was wondering (if that was a dangerous area) myself," Koch said. "If thinning will make this part of Payson more secure, I'm all for it."

From an environmental standpoint, Martin is also concerned that previous wildfires, including the Dude, Rodeo-Chediski, Pack Rat and Webber, have destroyed about half of the old-growth forests to the north.

"If a fire came, it would not only endanger the Rim country's communities, but it would run right up the Rim and right across the top and it would take out the very last bit of the old growth forest."

If that happens, Martin fears they won't recover to their current grandeur.

"Nobody has a clue about how to restore health to a burned area in any decent time frame," she said.

Martin estimated it will take $5 million to treat the first 5,500, acres and she'd like a little extra to make sure the job is done right.

She is actively enlisting the support of the elected officials she hopes can help her make it happen.

"(Sen. Jon) Kyl and (Rep. Rick) Renzi were both in Show Low over the Fourth (of July) so I went to visit with them with all this documentation."

Both congressmen pledged their support, but Martin isn't taking any chances. She wants to get the entire Arizona congressional delegation behind the effort, and she's asking Rim country residents to help her make it happen.

"We need to encourage everybody to support this," she said. It's not that there isn't any money available; it's that funds are going to the wrong places.

"I see a lot of money going into the Santa Fe Forest, the Apache-Sitgreaves, and they don't have as much at stake as we do," she said. "There's 88 subdivisions from Pine-Strawberry to Payson and across the rim out to Colcord Estates, and we're going from summer homes to full time people."

If Martin can get the funds committed, the work on the critical 5,500 acres could begin almost immediately, according to Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Ed Armenta.

Martin just hopes it can be completed before another fire season.

"I'd like us to be in a substantially different position this time next year than we are right now -- if we can just dodge the bullet this year."

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