As weather permits, the U.S. Forest Service will burn debris piles on some 4,300 acres around Payson, Pine and Strawberry between today and March 22, part of an ambitious effort to protect the three communities from wildfires.
Smoke will drift through all three areas off and on for the next few weeks as the Forest Service works to take advantage of the wet, late winter conditions to burn off tons of dead wood and brush piled up around town as a result of forest thinning on thousands of acres south, southwest and southeast of Payson.
The thinning operation targeted areas with as many as 3,000 trees per acre, leaving behind a dramatic reduction in the number of trees and about 30 tons of slash piles on each acre.
Residents should see large columns of smoke rising from the debris piles on burn days. Those piles should burn down by about 3 p.m. each day.
The current wet, humid conditions present a good opportunity for the burn, since sparks from the slash piles would have a hard time setting off uncontrolled fires, forest officials said.
The big uncertainty remains the wind, so Forest Service officials will make a case-by-case judgment on which days to burn, said Gary Roberts, fire prevention officer for the Payson Ranger District.
The first areas likely to see a prescribed burn are about 100 acres between Pine and Strawberry, on both sides of Highway 87. Those burns should take place between March 3 and March 7.
Some moderate smoke from those fires may also drift back down into Pine and Strawberry in the evenings.
The much more extensive prescribed burns south of Payson should take place between March 4 and March 22.
The slash pile burns represent one of the larger such efforts in the five to seven years the Forest Service has been working to create a deep boarder around Payson, Pine and Strawberry where tree densities have been dramatically reduced, Roberts said.
A century of logging, forest re-growth and fire suppression has created a massive increase in tree densities in the forest, which in turn have spawned ever larger fires in recent decades. A decade-long drought and massive bark beetle infestation has made the danger critical in recent years, Roberts said.
Forest Service officials several years ago identified a major threat to Payson, Pine and Strawberry, which are all surrounded by overgrown forests on federal land.
Forest Service officials said while the documented health effects of limited exposure to fire smoke are modest, the smoky days can pose problems for people with breathing disorders.
In the past seven years, the forest service has thinned 9,000 acres and reduced dangerous fuel loads through prescribed burns on another 25,000 acres on the Payson Ranger District, said Roberts. The prescribed burns can remove as much as 30 tons of dead and downed debris per acre.
The district current has completed plans to treat another 150,000 acres whenever it can get the funding.
Fire smoke includes carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and other irritants, so residents are urged to avoid breathing smoke if possible -- especially anyone with congestive heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma, Roberts said. Children and the elderly remain especially vulnerable.
If smoke drifts into town, people are urged to avoid heavy outdoor exercise and people with lung conditions are urged to leave the area or stay in doors. People who suffer from asthma should take preventative medications.
Symptoms from smoke exposure that may include scratchy throat, cough, irritated sinuses, headaches, runny nose and stinging eyes generally go away quickly after the smoke dissipated.