The effort to protect the tiny mountain hamlets of Pine and Strawberry from a catastrophic wildfire before it ever starts is continuing with the construction of a firebreak project that began five years ago.
Tonto National Forest crews are constructing the firebreak south of Pine and on the west side of the Beeline Highway.
The firebreak will buttress against a similar one built about three years ago, said Tonto Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts.
The 400-acre project will include cutting and piling manzanita brush, juniper, pine and oak trees.
Plans are to then burn the piles in the winter months.
"But that is weather dependent," said Payson Ranger District Fuels Specialist Don Nunley. "We must have the moisture and weather conditions have to be correct."
When the forest debris is burned, residents in Payson, Pine and Strawberry can expect to see columns of smoke billowing into the Rim Country sky.
Winter is traditionally the time of year the Forest Service begins its burns -- both prescribed and fuel break piles.
Until those piles are burned, the firebreak is not complete, Roberts said.
When the completion is accomplished, Pine and Strawberry will be encircled and more protected from a wildfire threat.
"It's about 330 feet wide," said Pine-Strawberry Fire Captain Mike Brandt.
But, the break will continue to require almost year-round maintenance, which could include the use of some four legged creatures.
"We are looking and getting some goats in," Brandt said.
The animals have been successful used around the Rim Country for several years in reducing vegetation and undergrowth.
The importance of the firebreak turned evident in 2004 when the Willow Fire was threatening Pine and Strawberry.
At the time of the fire, Ed Armenta, Payson Ranger District head ranger said, "We're thinking it (the firebreak) was going to save the day."
The fire was contained, however, before it reached the break.
Reducing forest fuel
Also, helping protect Pine and Strawberry from the threat of a wildfire is a fuel reduction program that involves cutting down dead trees and removing dead and down vegetation.
The $140,000 program is funded by a 50-50 grant from the state.
With the money, the fire department has contracted with Bob Lee and Sons to help homeowners reduce hazardous fuels on private properties in the two communities.
The funds to match the grant come from state government "in-kind" distributions.
Brandt explains in-kind as a program in which the Pine Fire Department receives money for homeowners doing their own fuel reduction work.
If the homeowners submit time sheets for their work to PSFD, the fire department receives $10 from the state for each hour worked.
For more information, call Brandt at (928) 476-4272
-- To reach Max Foster call 474-5251 ext. 114 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.