The Payson Ranger District Wildland Firefighters boast some of the best cooperation, commitment and success rates in the nation.
Over the last 14 years, the incidents of successful containment of wildfires originating on the Payson Ranger District's more than 460,000 acres is remarkable.
The district, which surrounds the town of Payson and spans north to the Mogollon Rim, has surpassed the national average for catching wildfires at less than .5 of an acre for the past 14 years, 11 of which have been plagued by drought.
"The national average for catching wildfires, with initial attack at .5 acre or less, is less than 68 percent," said Gary Roberts, district fire prevention officer. "Our 14-year average (since 1993) is 84.8 percent.
"And they were disappointed that the average wasn't higher," he added.
So far this year, the stats are keeping with tradition. There have been 11 fires in the Payson district since January. Nine of them have been contained at .5 acre or less. One spread to .7 acre before it was contained and one reached 1.7 acres before firefighters could control it.
In 2006, the district saw 102 fires, 87 of which were contained at .5 acre or less.
When considering the vastness of the area and that there are only 40 firefighters on the Payson Ranger District's wildland firefighting staff, more than 85 percent containment speaks for itself.
"Our fire personnel here have a lot of wildland fire savvy," Roberts said.
Roberts believes the commitment to excellence and preparation has been the key in limiting large-scale wildfires in an area so dangerously ideal for them.
"The bottom line is they have a quick response time," he said. "We zone our firefighters all over the forest during the fire season. When smoke reports come in, they're very close by to pick it up."
Roberts said that cooperation among firefighting entities in the Rim Country also contributes to the relative safety residents here have experienced when it comes to wildfires.
"Our cooperation with rural fire departments and the Payson Fire Department has really come along," he said. "It's not a turf thing. We've come to an agreement. If any of us are closer, we're going to address it. That's really been key."
Preventive efforts that work
Nationally, a staggering 90 percent of wildfires are caused by human carelessness. The Payson district bests that national average as well.
In 1993, 54 percent of all wildfires in the district were human-caused. In 2006, that number dropped to 7.8 percent.
From 2000 through 2006, human-caused wildfires decreased by about 41 percent over the previous seven-year period from 1993 to 1999, Roberts said.
Awareness and preventive efforts have made and will continue to make the Payson district safer and smarter than many others across the nation.
Roberts said that fuels reduction efforts in the district are necessary tools for preventing wildfires from running rampant.
In 2001, the Payson Ranger District began implementation of a long-range, landscape-scale fuels reduction strategy. The achievable goal of the fuels reduction project, Roberts said, is to decrease the catastrophic wildfire danger in the Rim Country, to initiate the restoration of natural ecological systems and to develop and foster sustainable forest conditions.
"Since our plan's inception, we have successfully thinned more than 8,000 acres on critical, difficult, high-priority land adjacent to communities throughout our district," he said. "In 2004, we created a 330-foot wide fuel break, completely around the communities of Pine and Strawberry."
Don Nunley, Payson district fuel specialist, said that major efforts have been completed and are in progress to protect the communities in the Rim Country.
A firebreak encompassing the south end of Payson was completed in September 2006, Nunley said.
Currently, a 2,070 acre thinning and piling effort is near completion, which better protects Payson, Pine/Strawberry, Star Valley, Diamond Point Shadows and East Verde Park.
"It is two weeks from being done," Nunley said.
"That's a huge accomplishment, because it (took) a lot of money."