Dan Eckstein squinted up the steep slope crowded with towering, bushy junipers close on the edge of Payson. Then he casually touched the tip of his flaming torch to the closest branch.
Flush with winter moisture, the branch resisted the flame — crackling and popping as the hoarded moisture flared to steam.
Eckstein held the flame steady, fire’s acolyte now after a lifetime of fighting monster blazes — including the 468,638-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire that in 2002 nearly consumed Show Low and the Dude Fire that claimed the lives of six firefighters.
But on this damp winter’s day, he hoped to turn the crackle of flames into an ally to protect Payson — one of 88 Rim communities sitting uneasily in one of the nation’s most fire-threatened regions.
A regional fire protection plan has concluded that the 30,000 full-time and 20,000 part-time residents living in the 450-square-mile expanse from Strawberry to just east of Kohl’s Ranch face the annual threat of catastrophe from wildfires.
Each acre has 37 tons of fuel
In most of that area, a century of fire suppression has left an average of 37 tons of fuel per acre — a terrible total of 11.8 million tons of kindling.
Every year, each acre accumulates another two tons.
And that explains why Dan Eckstein and other firefighters from the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest recently spent yet another day setting fire to thickly wooded slopes within sight of the rooftops of Payson.
The juniper branch yielded finally to the flames, which quickly engulfed the the juniper. Soon, the flame writhed and twisted in a flare 30 feet high, before reaching out to embrace the next juniper up the slope.
Eckstein didn’t stand to watch the hungry roar of the flames. Instead, he moved to the next bush, extending the fire along the contour of the slope. Earlier, thinning crews turned a road into a fire break at the top of the hill. If the fire behaved itself, it would leap gleefully from tree to tree — but collapse when it hit the fuel break. Once they’d carefully burned off the top of the hill, the crews would move down to the bottom and set off another line of fire, using the first burn as a new, wider firebreak.
Soon, Eckstein and the rest of the crew had lit the whole slope on fire. Terrifying pillars of flame writhed with demonic energy, clawing the sky with smoke.
The smoke drifted on into Payson, prompting wheezing by some, grumbling by many.
But that smoke was only the down payment on a fearfully overdue insurance policy.
“We’ve dodged the catastrophic fire bullet so many times, it’s getting like Russian roulette,” observed Diamond Star Fire Department Chief Gary Hatch, in the Rim Country Community Wildfire Protection Plan.
Every summer, Rim Country spins the cylinder on potential disaster.
Wildfires serve notice
Giant wildfires have repeatedly menaced the region, starting with the Dude Fire in 1990, triggered by lightning, some 10 miles from Payson.
Since then, the three largest known fires in Arizona’s history have all threatened Rim communities. The largest was the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002. That half-million-acre blaze formed when two fires merged, one triggered by a lost hiker’s signal fire and the second deliberately set by an out-of-work firefighter.
Other fires underscored the point — including the 84,750-acre Aspen Fire in 2003 and the 19,500-acre Willow Fire in 2002.
The devastation of those fires all stemmed from a century of forest mismanagement, which the Forest Service and Rim Country communities are now scrambling to correct.
Since 1900, tree densities have increased from 3-10 per acre to 800-1,000 per acre on the nearly 300,000 acres covered by the Rim Country Wildfire Protection Plan. Many factors have contributed to the kindling of disaster. Almost every accessible acre of the forest in the Rim Country and up on the Rim itself has been logged — some of it repeatedly. Previous logging methods removed almost all the trees, especially the big ones.
Centuries to recover
A 1904 survey by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that it would take 225 years for the already heavily logged forest to return to its previous condition.
Then in 1918, the ponderosas for some reason produced a huge crop of pine cones. The unusually wet warm winter and spring of 1919 produced ideal conditions and soon millions of acres bristled with a “doghair” expanse of seedlings.
Those 1919 seedlings grew into today’s stunted, fire-prone trees in part because of the Forest Service’s great success in sharply reducing wildfires.
But that success transformed a forest dominated by widely separated, old-growth, fire-resistant, thick-barked ponderosas into crowded tree thickets.
Meanwhile, in lower elevation areas like Payson, the lack of ground fires converted grasslands into thickets of juniper and pinyon pine. These slopes south of Payson pose a grave fire threat, since prevailing summer winds can readily push a fire up the tree-covered slopes and into Payson, with its many forested home sites.
In the wake of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, the Forest Service accelerated its expensive effort to thin a 1.5-mile-wide buffer zone around Rim communities.
The Payson Ranger District in the next two months burned about 2,000 acres of debris piles left by thinning projects.
However, the problem dwarfs the resources so far devoted to the solution.
The Rim Country Wildland Fire Protection Plan concluded that nearly all of Rim Country badly needs thinning — at an estimated cost of about $82 million.
The need remains “urgent” on 157,500 acres and “high priority” on 136,000 acres more, the report concluded.
The Forest Service in the past four years has roughed out buffers around Pine, Strawberry and Payson. Moreover, two wet winters have eased a decade of drought that had fostered a bark beetle outbreak that killed at least 9 million trees in the region.
A governor’s task force on forest health last year called for a dramatic increase in state and federal spending on thinning projects.
Rim Country prey to crown fires
The task force concluded that 89 percent of Rim Country remains vulnerable to devastating crown fires, where flames travel through treetops faster than a man can run. The whole goal of buffer zones is to force crown fires to drop to the ground where firefighters have a chance of stopping them.
Unfortunately, the budgets for thinning have lagged far behind the need.
A controlled burn like Eckstein’s crew lit, offers the cheapest way to thin, at a cost of $10 to $170 per acre.
However, most of the forest in Rim Country has become so piled up with fuel that controlled burns could easily escape control. As a result, the Forest Service has relied mostly on crews to cut the brush and small trees. Such intensive thinning costs $1,100 per acre — with millions of acres at risk.
The staggering cost has prompted many forest advocates to call for a reinvention of the timber industry, in hopes of turning all those trees once again into a useful product — like particle board, fuel pellets or poles.
Lumber mills once hummed all across forested Arizona, including a busy mill in Payson. Most relied on the big trees. As the number of big trees dwindled, so did the mills’ profit margins. Most gradually went out of business, pushed over the edge by a host of lawsuits filed by conservationists determined to protect the remaining big trees.
The extended deadlock left the last few mills unsure of their wood supply and unwilling to take the risk of investing millions of dollars in new equipment to process small trees.
Political logjam breaking up
But that logjam shows signs of breaking up, thanks to the emerging consensus on forest health. Increasingly, all sides agree on the need to protect the remaining trees larger than about 16 inches diameter at chest height.
The Forest Service, in cooperation with researchers from Northern Arizona University, undertook a study last year to estimate how much useable wood those small trees might provide.
The study concentrated on 2.4 million acres of forest stretching from Flagstaff, through Rim Country all the way to the New Mexican border near Alpine — about 94 percent of it national forest land. The researchers involved wildlife mangers, environmentalists, loggers and mill operators.
The study concluded that right now the forest has so many dry trees that prescribed fires can only be used on a limited basis. Fires in overstocked forests not only kill almost every tree, they burn so hot they sterilize the soil and make it almost impermeable to water. That dramatically increases erosion, smothering streams and spawning mud slides. By contrast, a fire in a healthy forest or a controlled burn in wet, cool conditions, leaves a patchwork of burned and unburned trees.
The report concluded that reducing fire danger and restoring tattered ecosystems will require hand-thinning, followed by the reintroduction of a more natural cycle of fires. Natural fires can maintain the balance in remote areas and loggers could work the areas around settlements.
Consensus on forest thinning
Most of the study participants agreed that perhaps 40 percent of the forest could be mechanically thinned by loggers without doing too much ecological damage. The participants agreed that at least a quarter of the land in the study area was too steep, fragile or vital to wildlife for mechanical thinning. The participants disagreed about the value of thinning by loggers on about a third of the land.
In the area suitable for thinning, the trees less than 16 inches in diameter in that area could yield 1 billion cubic feet of wood.
That far exceeds the current market for such small trees given the number of mills geared up for them or the number of biofuel power plants. However, even that rough estimate underscores the existence of a huge supply of useable wood to offer to a reinvented timber industry.
Of course, that could take years — with a another two tons of dead wood added to each acre every year.
So Eckstein’s crew of firefighters will have to continue widening the vital buffer zone around Payson, Pine, Strawberry and other Rim communities — a few hundred acres at a time.
And every summer, Rim Country residents will spin the cylinder of disaster one more time — then wait for the click of the hammer.