To save the village ... they had to fill it up with smoke.
That was the Forest Service’s motto this week, as a 600-acre controlled burn up on the Rim and smaller burns just outside of town turned Payson into Los Angeles with pine trees — at least when it comes to living with a smog-like haze.
Most of the smoke that turned the normally blue sky yellow-gray rolled down off the Rim from a blaze in the damp, thick woods near the Blue Ridge Reservoir on the Coconino National Forest. Crews are burning thousands of acres on the Rim in the Coconino forest this fall, hoping to provide a buffer for Rim communities like Pine and Strawberry and protect the watershed for the Blue Ridge Reservoir, on which Payson’s water future now depends.
A major, uncontrolled fire in that region could denude slopes and cause a dramatic increase in erosion into Blue Ridge, which could eventually fill the vital 15,000-acre-foot lake with silt.
Controlled burns clear brush, dead wood and small trees when humidity, temperature, fire breaks and barriers such as roads allow crews to contain the blaze. The same fire in June or July could climb into the treetops and spread to thousands of acres faster than a man can run.
Still, the smoky haze that filled Payson from that distant fire provoked calls to the Forest Service and breathing problems for people with lung conditions.
Tonto National Forest Service fire manager, Dan Eckstein, who has been supervising crews doing controlled burns, said, “We’ve had a lot of calls.”
He said while Rim Country residents used to complain vigorously about the smoke from controlled burns, several big fires and years of education efforts have won most residents over to the need for controlled burns.
Unfortunately, weather conditions this week conspired to fill the town with smoke from a fire burning more than 20 miles away. “The winds were sort of on the light side. We didn’t have what we call transport winds that provide good lift and ventilation where it lifts the smoke up and keeps it aloft.”
His crews from the Tonto National Forest built on last week’s controlled burns south of Payson, mostly on slopes covered with pinyon and juniper. This week crews also burned about 50 acres of land where crews had made big piles of hand-thinned brush. All that smoke moved around, like rainfall making its way down a mountain in trickles and torrents.
“At night, that’s when it will settle down in canyons and drainages. Up on Blue Ridge, the smoke should drain north to Winslow and Holbrook as a result of prevailing winds, but if it gets real calm — then like water running downhill, it has to go over the edge of the Rim to get into Payson.”
Tonto National Forest officials plan to burn a total of 17,000 acres during the late fall and the early spring near Payson, Pine and Strawberry. Most “broadcast burns” in unthinned brush and forest will shut down once the winter rains start in December. However, local crews will continue burning piles of thinned brush through the winter, said Eckstein.
Burning operations close to town will continue next week as well.
All told, the Tonto forest, between now and about April, will burn approximately 5,000 acres close to Payson, Pine and Strawberry in the so-called “wildlands urban interface.” In addition, the district will burn about 12.400 acres at least a mile outside of town.
So far in the current burn season, the Tonto National Forest crews have burned 1,700 acres close to one of the Rim communities and 5,300 acres farther out.
Payson, Pine and Strawberry rank as some of the most fire-threatened communities in the nation, so public support for the work to create a protective buffer of thinned forests on the outskirts of Rim communities has remained strong, said Eckstein.