Despite an ongoing drought that turned the forest to tinder, the Payson Ranger District in 2007 not only "dodged a bullet" but actually took advantage of a federal windfall to complete a thinned firebreak around Payson, Pine and Strawberry, according to U.S. Forest Service officials.
Firefighters' sighs of relief, due to the mild fire season this week, turned into to capers of joy with the onset of another winter storm that will help postpone the start of next season's dangerous fire season.
A decade of mostly below-normal rain has turned trees and brush on the district's 400,000-acre swath of forest into kindling, but only one of the 99 fires that got started in 2007 caused serious problems, said Dan Eckstein, assistant fire management for the Payson Ranger District.
The Promontory Fire in May, started by an abandoned campfire, did burn 4,044 acres, but 667 firefighters contained it before it reached any structures or caused any injuries. All told, lightning sparked 80 fires, arsonists lit two and human accidents caused most of the remaining 17.
"As dry as it was, we really did dodge the bullet," said Eckstein. "We were pretty lucky, since the fire ran into the onset of humid weather."
The holocaust in California sent shudders through fire crews in Arizona, who all remembered the 460,000-acre Rodeo Chediski fire, which consumed 500 homes, forced the evacuation of 30,000 people and demonstrated the potential for carnage in the drought-weakened forest, primed for disaster by a century of shortsighted fire suppression.
The danger for forest communities remains acute, since each acre of the forests and chaparral in the Payson District harbors 20-75 tons of fuel. Ideally, pine forests should only have 5-7 tons of fuel per acre, said Don Nunley, fuels specialist for the Payson Ranger District.
Fortunately, the district made great progress this year in thinning out firebreaks around Payson, Pine and Strawberry, thanks to advanced planning, teamwork and a lucky break.
The Payson District in 2001 adopted a 10-year plan to thin the forests, protect vulnerable communities and ultimately develop a system in which regular controlled burns and natural fires would reduce the accumulated fuel load sufficiently to avoid future catastrophic fires.
The overall plan calls for creating thinned fire breaks around all the major Rim communities, then thinning a mile-deep checkerboard around the scattered towns, said Nunley. That mechanically thinned buffer zone would slow down a wildfire enough for fire crews to protect the towns.
At that point, the Forest Service could re-introduce large-scale controlled burns beyond that boundary while also more often letting natural wildfires burn.
That shift in strategy remains the key to avoiding the massive fires that burn so hot, they all but sterilize the ground. Mechanical thinning of forests costs about $750 per acre, while controlled burns cost about $30 per acre, noted Nunley.
The Payson Ranger District made major headway in protecting still vulnerable forest communities by mechanically thinning some 3,500 acres this summer and fall -- about three times the district's original request.
Congress last year provided funding for forest thinning, in response to a huge increase in wildfires nationwide blamed variously on drought, global warming and the effects of decades of logging and fire suppression.
However, many Forest Service districts couldn't complete the extensive work to prepare for a thinning project or controlled burn, which includes marking all the trees, studying the effect on wildlife and protecting archaeological and other sensitive sites. The Payson District had completed preparations for thinning 3,500 acres, although officials here only expected to get enough money to do about 1,000 acres, said Nunley.
"We got lucky. I got three times what I asked for. We got approved, I think, because we're looking at the big picture and because we're all working together," Nunley said of various interest groups and agencies.
The federal funding enabled the district to complete a buffer zone around Payson, Pine and Strawberry by reducing tree density from about 200 trees per acre to 50 to 75 trees per acre.
In the thinned strips about the width of a football field, crews left most of the trees with a diameter greater than 12 inches at chest height. As a result, the trees in the thinned areas were spaced far enough apart that a fire could not easily move from tree to tree in the branches.
That ring of firebreaks now totals about 1,800 acres around Pine and Strawberry and about 300 acres around the more lightly forested Payson. The controlled burns slated for this week will consume the piles of branches and sawed-up tree trunks left by those thinning projects.
In addition, the Payson District this fall cleared brush from key areas with controlled burns, including one 3,000-acre burn north of the airport between Payson and East Verde Park. That area was piled with half a century of accumulated fuel, perhaps 50 tons per acre, said Nunley. The controlled burn eliminated about 90 percent of the deadwood and accumulated fuel, creating a buffer zone to protect the town.
The thinning projects and controlled burns represent a fundamental shift in forest management philosophy, once focused on preventing forest fires and maximizing the harvest for loggers.
Previously, the chaparral and ponderosa pine forests in the region were well adapted to low-intensity fires burning through every 5-7 years.
The regular fires cleared out the dead wood and undergrowth, encouraged the growth of grass and created a forest dominated by widely spaced, old growth trees, whose lower branches were too high to catch fire when the low-intensity ground fires burned through.
Studies show that fires in such old growth forests created a patchwork of deep forests, meadows, aspen groves and recovering burns, which prevented the spread of monster fires like the Rodeo Chediski and maximized wildlife diversity.
However, returning fire as a natural element to overgrown forest loaded with downed wood and undergrowth poses great risks and hard choices for forest managers -- not to mention intractable budget problems.
The Forest Service spent $4.3 million this summer fighting the Promontory Fire, which burned just 4,000 acres. By contrast, thinning 3,500 acres cost about $2.6 million.
Moreover, mechanically thinning the entire 400,000 acres of the Payson Ranger District would cost roughly $300 million. Treating the same area with controlled burns would cost about $12 million, according to Forest Service estimates.
At this point, however, Forest Service officials are just happy to make it through a fire season without a disaster -- and grateful for every single winter storm.
"We'll take every bit of moisture we can get," said Eckstein, the district's assistant fire management officer.
"We just want to delay the start of the next fire season as long as possible."