Not more than four days after Arizona state Sen. Jake Flake called the Rim Country a, "New Orleans disaster waiting to happen," a plume of gray smoke swirls above the forest and into the firmament.
The February Fire, 12 miles north of Payson and 6 miles east of Pine, marks the beginning of fire season 2006.
This year, wildfire gurus predict plenty of blazes. Above-average temperatures and dry weather are part of the problem; however, the U.S. Forest Service predicts unnaturally dense and unhealthy forests provide the fuel for catastrophe.
Saturday, Feb. 4, United States Sen. Jon Kyl and Flake listened to local politicians and community members plea for financial help to clear thousands of acres of dry undergrowth, small-diameter trees that burn quickly and piles of debris created from thinning projects.
Since 2001, the U.S. Forest Service has identified about 190,000 acres of Tonto National Forest in need of wildfire oversight -- 142,000 or nearly 75 percent of that land is available for thinning and prescribed burning.
Funding constraints forced the Forest Service to concentrate on only 6,000 acres -- or 4 percent -- of the 142,000 acres that surround Rim Country communities.
Ed Armenta, Tonto National Forest District Ranger, said the vegetation on this land is ready to thin and clear, but the problem is money. The Forest Service needs about $3 to $5 million to complete the project.
During a round table discussion Saturday, a coterie of local politicians, fire officials and community members lobbied Kyl for help.
But the senator said his hands are tied. Healthy Forest Initiative dollars are funneled to areas selected by the federal government. In the shuffle of bureaucracy and the media attention on huge fires in California and other parts of the West, the Tonto National Forest is overlooked.
Instead of waiting for Washington, D.C. to cut a check, Rim Country residents can take fire safety into their own hands.
"It's a matter of personal responsibility," said Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi. "Each of you as private property owners need to take care of your own property."
DeMasi urged residents to clear properties of garbage and brush, and call the fire station for prevention tips at (928) 474-5242, ext. 3.
The Pine Strawberry Fire Department offers curbside vegetation debris collection. For more information, call (928) 476-4272.
Regional Payson Area Project for firewise community offers brush burning -- call (928) 472-7908 to find out the specifics.
But the most important step is to contact our legislators and let them know our mountain communities and our lives are in jeopardy. It's time to take our safety into our own hands.