A skirmish line of orange-helmeted, chain saw wielders this week attacked the overgrown forest threatening to engulf Christopher Creek, the most fire-menaced community in Rim Country.
This month the contract crews will clear a 9-mile-long strip of trees and brush about one football field wide to create a firebreak around some 300 homes and cabins in the Christopher Creek area, using both local contributions and federal stimulus money.
“Right now, this is the most endangered place” in Rim Country, said Fire Manager Don Nunley, with the Payson Ranger District in the Tonto National Forest.
“That’s why we took the stimulus money and are doing as much as we are — they need it,” he said.
Residents contributed $85,000 and Gila County kicked in $50,000. Stimulus money will pay for the rest of the roughly $900,000 project.
Relieved residents cheered the sound of the chain saws, after a two-year delay in starting the work on the firebreak.
The Promontory Fire underscored the area’s grave peril several years ago when it roared down off the Rim and nearly engulfed the town before winds shifted.
This week, about a dozen men with chain saws led the counterattack in the war on wildfire, dropping most trees fewer than 12 inches in diameter and cutting off most of the brush at ground level. In the next few weeks, they’ll thin about 330 acres.
Coming along behind the cutters, a crew of about 20 men heaped the branches and trunks into huge piles, which the Forest Service will burn this winter after the wood dries out.
The crews work for a California contractor that has thinned thousands of acres in Rim Country in the past four years. Almost all of the workers come up from El Salvador each spring and live in Payson as they labor through the summer and into the fall on thinning projects.
After crews clear the first 300-foot-wide firebreak, they’ll go back and make a little less drastic cut on another 660 acres along that same battle line. In that next zone, they’ll take any trees less than 9 inches in diameter and most of the brush.
The result will provide a buffer zone some 600 feet wide where the branches of trees no longer interlock, providing a space where fire crews can make a stand to protect homes and businesses in the event of a wildfire. The crews will leave at least one tree every 25 feet, unless they encounter clusters of trees larger than 12 inches in diameter.
“The fuel break is that last resort when a fire’s coming into town,” said Nunley.
The crews will eliminate the majority of the thick vegetation in the 1,000-acre fuel break. For instance, a stump count on 25-foot radius patch of ground after the cutters finished included two trees still standing and 30 small stumps, mostly juniper and ponderosa pine saplings.
But the 1,000-acre firebreak is just the leading edge of a plan to cut and burn a total of 20,000 acres as quickly as possible.
The full project will include about 5,000 acres hand-thinned and perhaps 5,000 acres thinned in the course of a planned timber sale. In addition, crews will burn about 10,000 acres, mostly scrub brush south of Christopher Creek, said Nunley.
The long-delayed Christopher Creek project nearly completes the years-long effort to create thousands of acres of firebreaks around Rim communities, mostly Payson, Pine and Strawberry.
Nunley said forest managers have started work on the studies necessary for a thinning project in the next year or two to protect Tonto Village, the last major Rim settlement without a firebreak of some kind.
He said the Christopher Creek project proved especially complicated, due to the stream, steep side canyons and the presence of endangered and threatened species — like spotted owls and goshawks.
Both goshawks and spotted owls rely on thick forests to nest and forage. If the forest becomes too open, they can’t find suitable nest sites and lose out to other, less agile competitors — like red-tailed hawks and great horned owls.
Both species nest in the area around Christopher Creek. So the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came up with a plan to leave 600-acre patches of thicker forest around half a dozen spotted owl areas and two goshawk areas.
In those areas, crews may thin the brush on the forest floor, but leave most of the trees.
Not only will that benefit the owls and goshawks, but other species as well. Biologists note that a patchwork of tree densities, meadows, grass, tree-shaded streams and steep canyons contribute to a healthy ecosystem, with the greatest diversity of wildlife.
“It was a complicated process, just a lot of issues to consider,” said Nunley.