Fire Breaks Buffer Towns

Some homeowners say thinning citations have gone too far at wide-ranging meeting on wildfire danger

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Rim Country county, federal and local officials this week presented a heartening overview of work done in recent years to protect forest communities from devastating wildfires, but at least one Payson homeowner said efforts to force landowners to cut down their trees and brush has gone too far.

The fire officials all agreed that Rim communities have so far run along the edge of disaster without falling off, given the effects of a decade-long drought and forests crammed with 10 to 15 times as many trees per acre as they originally evolved to accommodate. As recently as 2000, thick forests ran right on into Pine, Strawberry, Payson, Star Valley and other smaller Rim communities, without a firebreak that would provide an area where firefighters could take a stand to stop a crown fire or start a town-saving backfire.

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Gila County provided strategically placed 20,000-gallon water tanks so Forest Service helicopters could grab buckets of water to fight wild fires.

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin headlined a session before the Payson Citizen's Awareness Committee, with help from Forest Service Fire Management Officer Gary Roberts and former Payson Fire Chief Chuck Jacobs.

Martin highlighted Gila County's efforts to lobby the federal government to thin fire breaks around Rim communities and to position water tanks and other facilities at key points to fight wildfires.

The county has spent several hundred thousand dollars to support thinning projects and to position 20,000-gallon tanks of water at key points from which firefighting helicopters can fill huge buckets or water trucks can take on a fresh load quickly.

For his part, Roberts detailed the frantic effort in the past five years to create fire breaks around each of the Rim communities, after studies showed that places like Pine and Strawberry rank as among the most fire-threatened places in the nation. In addition to creating buffer zones of hand-thinned forest around each of the major Rim communities, the Forest Service has used controlled burns to reduced the fuel load on 26,000 acres.

"We're dramatically safer here than we were in 2000," said Roberts.

The Rim Country made it past the prime wildfire month of June without any problem -- despite some roughly 18,000 drying piles of trees and brush still sitting in the thinned areas. He said at least twice in the past four years, serious fires have taken a run at Payson or Pine, only to hit the thinned areas and drop from the tree tops down to the ground, where hand crews stopped them.

Despite the gains of recent years, the Payson Ranger District has already identified another 150,000 acres in need of "treatment," either by hand-thinning or controlled burns.

Jacobs, now a fire consultant, also talked about the effort by Rim Country fire departments to convince homeowners to make their property "firesafe" by reducing brush and ground cover and thin trees.

Jacobs said the Rodeo Chedeski fire, which briefly forced the evacuation of Show Low, awoke people to the extreme danger posed by a dry, overstocked forest.

"Can you lose a whole community? You bet," said Jacobs.

He said the Chedeski Fire created such a firestorm that embers started new fires three miles ahead of the flame front.

For years, fire crews mostly just hoped and prayed during June -- the prime month for major fires, said Jacobs. Starting in about 2000, the Forest Service begin creating fire breaks and Rim fire departments developed a regional master plan to convince people to protect their homes by thinning out the brush and trees.

That approach has presented challenges, he said -- since so many Rim Country residents treasure large lots with lots of trees. "When we tell people the best way to keep their property healthy is to cut down two-thirds of the trees, the response was like the racking of a shotgun," he said.

But the firebreaks on the outskirts of town will prompt a fast-moving crown fire to "drop to the ground" where fire crews have a chance of stopping it.

"We've been very lucky over time: Payson is still standing," said Jaccobs.

Has tree cutting gone too far?

However, several members of the audience said the effort to reduce fire dangers in town by forcing property owners to cut most of the brush and trees on their lots has gone too far.

One homeowner cited the example of the nearly bare-ground thinning project on St. Phillips. Any area where trees and brush once provided shelter for quail, birds and even javalina was converted to bare dirt, after Payson threatened a citation and a subcontractor cleared the lot, said Jeanie Langham.

She said about 26 residents in the neighborhood received citations for having too much brush on their property. The resulting thinning projects drove out wildlife, cost homeowners thousands of dollars and now have resulted in a dramatic increase in erosion off denuded hillsides, she said.

"We need more common sense about this," she said. "We have a right to buy, own and maintain our property and they've totally ruined that. You have to have some shrubs to hold in the moisture. They mismanaged the forest for eight decades, now there are no more sawmills and they're out there saying we have to totally clear our lots."

Jaccobs said he wasn't familiar with that project and agreed that some contractors get "overzealous" but added "wait a year or two and it will look like a park," when grasses fill in the bare spaces. But if a fire comes, "you can stand out there and argue with the fire -- but it's not going to listen to you. If that fire comes -- it just looks at everything as fuel -- including your house."

Martin concluded by stressing the need to tackle the problem on many fronts, including reinventing the timber industry so that it can make a profit on thinning the millions of small trees crowding the landscape.

Before the Forest Service assumed management of the Rim Country forests nearly 100 years ago, studies suggest it had an average of 50 to 100 trees per acres, generally in clumps separated by meadows and grasslands. Now, the forest harbors an average of 800 to 1500 trees per acre, with thickets of small trees that enable a fire to easily climb into to the lower branches of the biggest trees.

Martin said those small trees can be used for plywood, wood pellets to burn in fireplaces, power generation and pressed roundwood, made from small logs. The region should push to bring such industries to Rim Country, she said.

"We're relearning how to manage that forest in a sustainable and restorable way," she concluded.

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