The Payson Ranger District has snagged $179,000 to maintain fire buffers surrounding key Rim communities.
The Forest Service should have crews working on maintaining about 1,400 acres worth of fire breaks on the outskirts of Payson, Pine, Strawberry, Diamond Point Shadows and Kohl's Ranch, to improve the chance that firefighters can protect developed areas from wildfires starting in the dangerously dry and crowded half million acres of surrounding forest.
The fire danger remains high, with a ban on campfires, smoking, target shooting and other activities throughout the Tonto National Forest. Those restrictions have been in place since May 8 and will remain in effect until the monsoon season settles in, generally in the first half of July.
The district has reported markedly fewer small fires than at this time last year, said Payson Ranger District fire prevention officer Gary Roberts.
Between Jan 1 and June 12 last year, the district reported 25 fires. In the same period this year, the district reported just 8 wildfires.
However, last weekend rangers came upon three abandoned campfires -- one of them big enough to qualify as a bonfire.
"Why people think their immediate pleasure supersedes others' safety is beyond me," said Roberts. "Each one of those fires had the potential to escape and cause a wildfire -- and that would destroy the very place they came to enjoy."
Roberts noted that the period between June 6 and June 30 is termed the "Red Zone," because the forest is at it's driest and the onset of the wet monsoon season is often preceded by several weeks of storms that produce "dry lightning" strikes without rain.
The Tonto Forest in 2000 completed a study that concluded most of the Rim communities were perched on the edge of disaster, surrounded by a thick, drought-prone forest. While natural ponderosa pine stories have 50 to 100 big trees per acre, most of the forested areas in Rim Country are choked by thickets of trees at densities of more like 1,000 trees per acre. The near record drought of the past decade has left those already struggling and unhealthy trees tinder dry.
The Payson Ranger District in 2000 identified nearly 200,000 acres that needed thinning, mostly on the outskirts of communities like Payson, Pine and Strawberry.
So far, crews have mechanically thinned 19,000 acres and used prescribed burns to treat another 26,000 acres -- mostly on the outskirts of existing communities. The district has prepared the studies and paperwork for another 150,000 acres, in hopes that additional funding will show up.
The latest $179,000 came from year-end funds for the forest and once again validated the district's policy of having thinning projects all ready to go, said Roberts.
"Do we have a long way to go? Yes we do. Have we come a long ways? Yes we have," said Roberts. "We've done everything we could to get our ducks lined up so that when funding comes our way we're ready to go."
Roberts noted that the 150,000 acres still identified as needing treatment to protect Rim communities include another 32,000 acres that need expensive, hand thinning, 110,000 acres that need prescribed burning and not quite 10,000 acres that were burned some years ago and need another treatment.
He said that despite the three campfires discovered this weekend, the restrictions on fires in the forest seem to have worked well this year.
"Compared to previous years, we're doing really well," he said.