A 5,000-acre controlled burn south of Young sent up billows of smoke that alarmed some Payson residents – gazing skyward some 50 miles away.
Not to worry, said a dispatcher from the Young Ranger District in the Tonto National Forest.
Crews set the fire Tuesday morning in the “mixed conifer” vegetation in the rugged country south of the remote settlement of Young, site of the infamous, historic Pleasant Valley War pitting cattle ranchers against sheep herders.
Crews had planned the “Cherry” burn for several years, burning in the rugged, overgrown terrain north of Forest Road 203, south of FR 912 and east of State Route 288 – a national scenic byway that snakes up the west slope of the Sierra Anchas.
Clouds moved in and temperatures fell, providing one of the last likely days to do a major prescribed burn before vegetation dried out too much to keep such a blaze under control.
The fire moved through an area not already thinned, which made it more unpredictable – and smoky.
Four fire engines, two hot-shot crews and a fire-fighting helicopter monitored the blaze to keep it in the planned boundaries and to keep it from making a run on any of the scattered clusters of houses in the area – most of them concentrated around Young, in Pleasant Valley.
The Tonto National Forest has thinned or burned more than 8,000 acres this year, struggling to create fire breaks around fire-menaced Rim communities. Crews have thinned dangerously overgrown brush and trees around Payson, Pine and Strawberry in the past three years. This spring, crews started in on a fire break for Kohl’s Ranch. Meanwhile, major controlled burns have provided protection for Young.
The Forest Service has been playing catch up for the past fire years, ever since the Rodeo Chedeski Fire forced the evacuation of Show Low and menaced major Rim settlements. Forest managers say that tree densities on the forest have increased more than 10-fold in the past century, posing a grave threat of catastrophic wildfires.
But the massive column of smoke from thousands of acres of burning brush on Tuesday convinced many Rim residents that just such an uncontrolled disaster was sparking and blazing once again.
However, forest managers say the brush and trees still hold too much moisture from a relatively wet winter to pose a significant threat of an uncontrolled blaze – or worse yet a crown fire in which flames jump from treetop to treetop faster than a man can run.
Most of the region’s worse fires have been sparked in June or July. That’s when vegetation has lost much of its moisture content and the outriders of the summer monsoons bring winds and lighting, without much rainfall.