Crews Turn Lightning-Caused Wildfires Into Controlled Burns

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Fires have burned through thousands of acres of thick forest all across Rim Country in the past month. How nice — and how strange it’s so nice.

Well-spaced thunderstorms have turned the scariest time of the year for firefighters into an unprecedented chance to extend the controlled burn season well into the summer.

As a result, Pine, Strawberry and other Rim communities got major additions to their fire breaks. Equally important, low-intensity fires have thinned the thick brush and saplings near Blue Ridge Reservoir — which could ultimately reduce erosion into the reservoir now vital to Payson’s future..

All across high country, lighting has triggered fires that a few years ago the Forest Service would have rushed to stamp out. But now, they’re mostly constructing fuel breaks and starting backfires to keep the fires away from settled areas while letting them burn as much brush as possible.

“It’s created a good window of opportunity for us to get in there to reintroduce fire to the ecosystem,” said Coconino National Forest fire information officer Jean Gilbertson.

Low-intensity ground fires when fuels are damp help prevent the kinds of devastating fires that climb into treetops, threaten towns, sterilize the soils and dramatically increase erosion.

Erosion caused by such a high-intensity fire in the watershed of the Blue Ridge Reservoir could significantly reduce the capacity of the reservoir.

Fires burning in the region include:

4th of July Complex: The lighting-caused fire has burned 1,800 acres and is now approaching the southern shore of the Blue Ridge Reservoir, with smoke alarming homeowners in the immediate area and drifting on toward Heber, Overgaard and Forest Lakes. The Forest Service has closed the area around the fire, including FR 123. However, FR 300, FR 95 and FR 139 remain open to through traffic.

Independence Fire: The 1,300-acre fire burning along Highway 87 between FR 613 and FR 147 near Potato Lake is now 80 percent contained. Rains Wednesday nearly smothered the remaining flames. The fire consumed some of the brush that has choked the canyon where the cavalry and several Apache bands fought one of the most desperate pitched battles of the Apache Wars.

Board Fire: Crews are keeping track of this 600-acre, lightning-caused fire east of Highway 288 and FR 203, but mostly letting it burn. Crews include the Payson Hotshots, Pleasant Valley Hotshots, two engines and one helicopter, with the fire now 35 percent contained.

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