Smoky Rites Of Fall’S Prescribed Burns

Controlled burns protect towns, but raise plumes of smoke

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Ah — fall is in the air.

Oh. Actually — that’s just smoke.

But don’t fret — the whiff of wood smoke wafting across Rim Country this week and next actually offers hope some ravenous wildfire won’t come roaring in off National Forest land next summer and gobble up a couple of Payson neighborhoods.

Both the Tonto and Coconino forests have been setting fire to hundreds of tons of wood piled up in slash piles on thousands of acres on the Rim and on the outskirts of Rim communities.

The effort to thin effective fire breaks around Pine, Strawberry, Payson, Star Valley and other communities has made drifts of smoke a new sign of the changing seasons, as lower temperatures and higher humidity provide better conditions for such burns.

The national forests in the Rim Country have spent millions of dollars in the past two years hiring crews to thin dangerously overcrowded stands of trees in accordance with a federal law passed after the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire demonstrated the potential for mass destruction in forest communities as a result of fires in once clear-cut, now overcrowded forests.

Historically, ponderosa pine forests had 50-100 trees per acre. But after a century of stomping out fires and timber harvesting policies that spurred the growth of thick, second-growth stands of trees, millions of acres have more than 1,000 trees per acre.

The Tonto National Forest has targeted some 200,000 acres that need thinning, and has completed about 10 percent of the work focused on areas surrounding the larger Rim communities. The Forest Service hopes to hand-thin the areas closest to the towns, but can’t afford to thin the millions of acres now dangerously overgrown. Eventually, the Forest Service hopes to shift to the much wider use of controlled burns, which could mean residents will have to cope with a lot more drifting smoke.

For now, the prescribed burns mostly involve the slash piles left in the last two years. The private crews hired to thin areas close to town charged about $800 per acre and left about 40 piles per acre, each weighing about a ton.

Tonto Forest burns taking place between Oct. 6 and Oct. 11 include:

• 25 acres of debris piles south of the Payson Golf Course

• 78 acres of debris piles west of the Arrowhead Estates and north of Tonto Bridge

• A “broadcast burn” of weeds and brush on 100-150 acres near the southwest corner of Pine, which will produce heavy smoke visible in Pine

• A broadcast burn of 250 acres southwest of Strawberry Mountain between Forest Roads 428 and 194, which should send smoke drifting down Hardscrabble Creek

The Coconino Forest also scheduled controlled burns this week and next. Some of those burns on the Mogollon Rim produce smoke visible from Payson. Those burns include:

• East Clear Creek Project — off Forest Road 321 at Dane Spring, 4-5 miles west of Knoll Lake

• Good Enough Project — between West Clear Creek and FR 142, north of the Highway 87 and Highway 260 junction

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