Rim Fire Chiefs Enlist Congresswoman To Help Battle Fires, Forest Service

Firefighters laud forest thinning and front-line cooperation, but decry potentially life-threatening delays on other fronts

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Chuck Jacobs, of the Houston Mesa Fire Dept., emphasizes a point during a meeting of the area fire departments with Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick at the Gila County Administrative office in Payson.

Imagine you’re living on credit cards and your filthy rich uncle comes to town for a sit-down: What would you talk about?

That’s roughly the situation facing fire chiefs in the Rim Country, who attended a “get acquainted” session on Wednesday with first-term, first district Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, on a dash through the area.

Mostly, the assembled fire chiefs pleaded for help getting cooperation from the U.S. Forest Service and landing federal grants to build fire stations, hire firefighters and pay volunteers.

The meeting turned into a crash course on wildfires and the challenges of rural fire departments aimed at the former Flagstaff county prosecutor.

Bing Brown, who heads the Beaver Valley fire department’s grant committee, set up the meeting after talking to a member of Kirkpatrick’s staff. “She was not at all sure where Beaver Valley was, but seemed like she wanted to know,” he observed. “We just want you to understand that when we get a piece of equipment up here, it benefits us all.”

The meeting underscored the degree to which the U.S. Forest Service holds hostage the futures of the scattered, communities in Rim Country. All represent tiny islands of private property in a Forest Service-owned sea of trees, most tightly bunched and fire prone. Only about 5 percent of the land in the county is privately owned.

Only Payson has a substantial tax base and a well-staffed, mostly professional fire force. The rest rely on a core of full-time firefighters and a vital, dwindling contingent of volunteers.

All face a huge risk from an out-of-control wildfire roaring in from the dense, forest. By the same token, activities in those communities also pose a risk to the surrounding forest.

The gathered chiefs from almost every community in Rim Country said the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest has done a great job of starting on the immense task of thinning the forest on the outskirts of the settled areas. They also all extolled the cooperation between the fire departments and the Forest Service when a fire is burning.

However, they begged for help in getting the Forest Service to move more quickly to approve changes needed to protect their communities and to provide land for new fire stations.

They underscored the importance of SAFER, a federal grant program bolstered with stimulus money to pay the salaries of new firefighters for several years. Kirkpatrick had earlier issued a press release trumpeting her bill to reduce or eliminate the local matching requirement for that program.

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin decried a recent ruling by a federal court that she said could delay any future thinning projects for several years.

Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch cited his department’s frustration in trying to get the Tonto National Forest to approve the construction on forest land of a cell phone tower vital to emergency communications — even though the department had agreed to pay all the Forest Service costs in processing the application.

“In the Coconino Forest, the process takes 18 months. In the Tonto Forest, we’re told it will take six years — if we’re lucky,” said Hatch.

Chief Tom Zelkovich, from the Beaver Valley fire department, had his own bureaucratic horror story to tell. Right now, the development off Houston Mesa Road amounts to a giant cul-de-sac, with one road into the 300-home community. That could spell disaster if a big fire in the surrounding forest moves toward the community — forcing everyone to flee by a single, narrow dirt road even as fire crews try to get in to protect the homes on that same road.

As a result, the Beaver Valley fire department has pressed hard to create a back door along a county easement that would cross about 50 yards of mostly flat, Forest Service land and connect to Houston Mesa Road.

“The Forest Service has been doing nothing but throwing up obstacles, and it really just involves a 30-foot strip alongside the county easement,” said Zelkovich.

“We’re talking about saving lives here,” said Brown, “not worrying about administrative paperwork.”

“Makes you want to take a bulldozer out there in the middle of the night and see what happens,” added one chief.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said Rim Country also needs continued pressure to clear fuel breaks on the outskirts of each community. Evans said fuel breaks cleared three to five years ago need renewed thinning now. “We’re growing a lot of fuel out there,” he said.

But mostly, the session served to bring the newly elected congresswoman up to speed concerning the complexities of protecting small, isolated communities scattered about in a five-million-acre public forest.

She promised to stay in touch.

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