The Sweet Smell Of Smoke

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It's not quite the bracing smell of "napalm in the morning," but we get positively giddy with the wafting of smoke drifting into town these days from the Forest Service slash piles just over the hill.

This week, the Forest Service concluded the last of its major winter burns to get rid of piles of debris from tree thinning operations on more than 4,300 acres on the outskirts of Payson.

Makes us want to do a little jig -- and throw our arms around the nearest stalwart in Forest Service green and give him a big, wet kiss.

Make no mistake -- that smoke is wafting of Rim Country's biggest problem.

Truth be told, every other problem on the list -- from meth use to propane bills will some day seem like trivial foolishness if the Forest Service doesn't get thin the dangerously overgrown forest before the inevitable disaster overtakes us.

Unfortunately, it falls to today's overburdened and underfunded Forest Service to set right a century of mismanagement.

Once upon a time, fires burned through Rim Country regularly -- thinning the trees and creating a network of meadows, aspen groves and open patches. The forest was largely fire resistant, with the big trees relatively unaffected by the frequent, low-intensity ground fires.

Then we turned the forest into a tree farm and spent a century stomping out every fire we could. Crowds of pine thickets sprang up in the clear cuts and tons of down wood accumulated on every acre.

So a forest that used to have 50 to 300 trees per acre and more grass than pine thickets now has 3,000 spindly, overstressed trees per acre across vast stretches. A timber industry geared to profit from the now scarce big trees has been nearly shut down, just when the Forest Service needs to thin the forest on a massive scale.

The terrible fires of recent years delivered a stark warning. But we've been lucky -- so far. The heroic efforts of firefighters and the vagaries of the wind and weather have prevented any of the massive, out-of-control blazes from sweeping into Payson, Pine, Strawberry, Star Valley or any of the other scattered Rim communities.

Fortunately, the Forest Service -- especially the Payson Ranger District -- has made terrific progress in thinning the trees on the outskirts of the largest communities.

Last year, crews finished creating a thinned area around Pine and Strawberry, where the trees are thickest. This year, they went to work on the somewhat less dangerous crowding of pinions and junipers that dominate the area around Payson.

In fact, local forest planners had the foresight to get their paperwork done early, so that when hulking bureaucracy stumbled over a stash of cash the local forest stood ready at the head of the line, resulting in one of the biggest thinning projects in the past seven years on local forests.

So the Forest Service has now hand-thinned some 9,000 acres around Rim communities and used carefully prescribed fires to "treat" another 25,000 acres. After a hand-thinning, Forest Service crews burn off some 30 tons of slash pile debris per acre.

Of course, all of his is only the down payment on a solution. Forest planners say there's another 150,000 acres in urgent need of "treatment."

But at least they've now created some basic defensive zones around the major Rim communities. Firefighters say that a crown fire that's jumping from treetop to treetop and spreading at a deadly pace will pause and drop to the ground when it hits one of these thinned defensive zones, which gives firefighters a chance of staging a last-stand defense before the fire reaches town.

That's why we love the smell of wood smoke in the morning.

That explains why we're so grateful to the Forest Service guys out there in their fireproof boots, producing the smoke we protected citizens have the luxury of grumbling about.

And it may seem like we're over reaching -- but we had one more thought.

Would it be possible to leave a couple tons neatly piled for winter?

What with propane bills rising halfway to orbit and no end in sight, we have a feeling we'll be stoking the wood fireplace come fall.

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