Government, Business Partner To Keep Payson Safe From Fire

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Area hikers exploring the many trails that border the town of Payson may soon notice piles of cut manzanita brush, juniper, pine and scrub oak trees.

These piles of vegetation are the debris left after RCO Reforesting crews have completed their firebreak handiwork with chain saws.

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A recently cut firebreak near the water tower and at the east end of Phoenix Street is part of a network of firebreaks being put in around Payson.

"This is the same type of vegetation that fed the recent Sedona fire," Payson Fire Chief Martin deMasi said.

The Forest Service provides the fuel break's treatment prescription -- how much, what kind and the size of the vegetation to be removed on the federal lands bordering Payson. Tree trunks that are nine inches or more in diameter at chest height stay, as do a number of the already dead trees and clumps of brush because they are part of the wildlife habitat.

DeMasi estimated that brush accounts for 80 percent of the vegetation that is being cut and eventually removed as part of the firebreak.

The piles will be burned in the winter when the fire danger is low and because burning is much more cost effective than chipping.

"Even with the piles we are better off than we were because of the space created so there is no longer a continuous layer of fuel that a fire could spread easily through," deMasi said.

Southwest and Southern aspects of Payson were considered first priority "most exposed," he said.

The 58 acres of Rodeo Ranchos near the water tower were done first.

RCO Reforesting is currently working on Pinon and Elk Ridge, 118 acres near the end of East Phoenix Street.

At their May 11 regular meeting, the Payson Town Council approved a $113,772 bid from RCO Reforesting to do this portion of the fuel break.

Gila County has contributed $50,000 to the current project. The Central Arizona Board of Realtors has pitched in with $2,500, and the town contributing the balance of $61,272.

"When the February Fire hit, that really raised awareness of what the situation was," deMasi said. "This winter was very dry, and having that kind of a fire in February was quite unusual and the weather predictions, the precipitation outlook was grim."

Earlier in the spring, Tonto District Ranger Ed Armenta, thought the Forest Service could obtain $50,000 or more to pay for fuel breaks.

According to deMasi, Armenta, himself, and town manager Fred Carpenter put their heads together for a contingency plan for a fuel break plan that not only included intergovernmental but private corporation agreements for funding.

"The fire department is really wonderful and accommodating with information," said Suzy Tubbs, Rim Golf Club Community Association manager of the presentation and several discussions the Rim Club board had with fire and forest officials. "It was an easy decision to decide to help out with the process."

The board felt they should do their part for the fuel break because of the extremely dry conditions caused by the drought, according to Tubbs.

"Their reaction to our presentation was really quite amazing," deMasi said.

"Folks there said, ‘This is important and we have the resources to do it. We'd love to partner with you.' How cool is that?" deMasi said.

Chaparral Pines split the $41,405 cost with the Rim Club.

So, the last acreage to be done with this round of funding is 65 acres bordering the Rim Golf Club.

Fuel breaks will be created in more areas if more funding from the Forest Service comes through.

The Tonto Apache Tribe is funding a fuel break for the 32 acres south and east of the reservation, at a cost of $20,384, said Jerry Hollan, comptroller for the tribe.

"Fortunately, Payson is starting to get notice on a national level and things are looking better than they ever have for these types of projects receiving funding," deMasi said.

Armenta echoed that sentiment.

The Forest Service is ready to present a $50,000 grant application to the Eastern Arizona Resource Advisory Committee, part of the Secure Rural Schools Community Self Determination Act of 2000, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Once Congress re-authorizes the Act, Armenta is ready to submit the paperwork.

"It looks pretty good because we have a lot of partners who are doing some work out there," Armenta said. "We are expecting the committee to give our application a serious look."

The next projects could be the 33 acres of Fairway, then 73 acres of Country Club Vista, then possibly the area outside the Payson Ranchos subdivision, deMasi said.

"This collaboration has been wonderful -- from the forest service to the county to the (real estate agents), the tribe, and Chaparral Pines and the Rim Club," he said.

-- To reach Carol La Valley call 474-5251 ext. 122 or e-mail clavalley@payson.com.

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