Controlled Burns Return

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

Forest Service crews will this week burn several hundred acres each day near Payson and Pine in an attempt to create a thinned fire break around each community.

The Tonto National Forest Service on Monday started a week-long series of prescribed fires on the outskirts of Payson and Pine, with plans to burn several hundred acres every day throughout the week as weather allows.

Payson Ranger District crews will burn up to 100 acres of debris piles from previous thinning efforts every day this week.

The burns should generate “moderate” amounts of smoke every morning. Most smoke should clear by the late afternoon, but some smoke could still drift through town and into low-lying areas through the evening hours.

In addition, crews will treat 100-200 acres of chaparral south of Payson and near the Payson Golf Course, which will add to the smoke generated by the debris piles. In that case, most of the smoke should drift down Rye Creek, or the East Verde River toward the Mazatzal Mountains.

The forest service will post information about the burns at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Web site: www.azdeq.gov/ environ/air/monitoring/download/fs_wf_note.pdf.

Residents seeking information about the burns can call the Payson Ranger District at (928) 474-7900.

Residents can also stay updated on forest prescribed burns at www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto. To report a wildland fire, the fire emergency number is (480) 457-1555, or (866) 746-6516.

The push to treat hundreds of acres daily before winter rains set in is part of an overall effort to create a buffer zone around the largest Rim communities, all among the most fire-threatened communities in the nation. Payson sits in the transition zone between two fire-adapted ecosystems — the chapparal and pinyon-pine forests of the lower elevations and the start of the world’s largest continuous ponderosa pine forest.

Both those ecoystems evolved with regular, low-intensity fires that burned through every four or five years. Regular fires in the pondersosa pine forests cleared out the small trees and brush, leaving about 50 to 100 mature pines with thick bark and the lower branches so high they were all but immune to low-intensity fires. In the lower elevations, the regular fires mostly created grasslands, with scattered clusters of pinyon and juniper.

But a century of putting out virtually all fires coupled with the effects of logging the big trees and grazing have dramatically altered the landscape. Now, the ponderosa pine forests have 800 to 1,500 trees per acre, dominated by spindly “doghair thickets” of small trees. The grasslands have been largely replaced by thousands of acres of thick stands of pinyon and juniper.

Several major fires in the past decade including the Dude Fire and the Rodeo Chedeski Fire revealed the danger of any fires that get loose in the hot, dry spring and summer with potential to sweep through thousands of acres. The massive fires forced evacuations of Rim communities and revealed the fire danger posed by the overgrown conditions.

Since then, the local forests have all undertaken major thinning programs near Rim communities and attempted to use prescribed burns to thin overgrown forest further from the settled areas. In the past three years, the Payson Ranger District has spent millions to create buffer zones around Payson, Pine, Strawberry and Star Valley.

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