Rim Country Rolls The Dice

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Step up to the table folks.

Drop the dice in the cup.

Put your life savings on the line -- tidy little pile of chips.

Let the tension build.

Rattle the dice. Rattle the dice.

Now roll those bones.

Welcome to another fire season here in Rim Country.

The Forest Service this week declared the onset of fire season by barring campfires, even in developed campgrounds in the Rim County starting May 8.

Ironically enough, you can blame those three gloriously wet months this winter, when near-record rainfall provided a savored break from a decade of drought.

Long-suffering seeds that had been waiting out the hard times on millions of acres in the Tonto, Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves forests responded enthusiastically. Wildflower lovers enjoyed a once-in-a-decade spring.

Now the bill has come due.

The rain stopped altogether in March and April. So all those wildflowers -- referred to affectionately as "fine fuel" by firefighters -- turned into the equivalent of the wad of crumpled newspaper around which you build a fire.

So now we have everything we need for a grim fire season -- "fine fuel," dried out brush kindling and lots of deadly dry trees and dead snags, which couldn't soak up enough moisture in three months to make up for the strains of 10 years of drought.

So now the Forest Service has banned all fires in the forest in the Payson and Pleasant Valley ranger districts weeks ahead of even last year's deep-drought restrictions. You can still have fires in designated campgrounds in the established campgrounds at lower elevations at places like Roosevelt and Saguaro lakes.

The high country up on the Rim in the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest also hasn't yet dried out so dangerously. But in the whole sprawl of Rim Country where our lives and livelihoods stand precariously amidst the dry trees, you can't build a campfire, use firecrackers, target practice in the woods or smoke if there's a scrap of vegetation within three feet of where you stand.

Please follow the rules -- and report any violations.

Fortunately, the Forest Service has its network of watch towers manned, so that the spotters can send rangers running for the thread of smoke from the campfires of any arrogant fools who think they can make their own rules. And that should result in a $5,000 fine and/or six months in jail.

Of course, it's still roulette. Already, fire crews respond to about one fire a day -- each one the potential spark of catastrophe. If we're lucky, we'll eke through another fire season, without the banquet of disaster for which a century of shortsighted mismanagement of public lands has set the table.

Hopefully, we'll do something useful with the time we're buying, one breathless fire season at a time. Hopefully, we'll finally figure out how to reinvent the timber industry to help thin the dangerously overstocked forest. Hopefully we'll continue the hard work of clearing a defensible space around Rim communities. Hopefully, the county and towns will adopt building codes that make it much harder for the little tinderbox houses scattered throughout the forest to catch fire.

Hopefully. Because while it's definitely a thrill to watch the dice bouncing across the green table with everything you own on the line --it's no way to make public policy.

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