Smoke from a controlled burn this week smudged the sky north of town, a sight the Payson Ranger District hopes to make much more common if it can tap into roughly $2 billion in federal stimulus funding.
The district has applied for emergency stimulus funding to thin and burn off about 50,000 acres of overgrown forest around Payson, Pine, Strawberry, Kohl’s Ranch, Christopher Creek and Young, said Ed Armenta, head district ranger.
“We’ve submitted potential projects that qualify as ‘shovel ready,’” said Armenta. “We have an awful lot of projects on the books we could implement with some additional dollars.”
Armenta said that in the past two years the district has thinned about two-thirds of the most critical areas, in the wake of studies suggesting Rim communities were among the most fire-threatened in the nation.
Several major fires that destroyed homes and forced evacuations underscored the danger posed by a drought-prone forest crowded with 800 to 1,500 trees per acre. Ponderosa pine forests unaltered by logging, grazing and fire suppression normally average more like 50 to 100 trees per acre, growing in a patchy mosaic.
For years, Rim communities have lived in fear of a wildfire starting in the doghair thickets of little trees that would then climb up into the treetops and sweep through forest communities with devastating effects.
So the Forest Service has been struggling in recent years to clear a buffer zone around Rim communities. The thinning projects started with some small communities along the East Verde, shifted to Pine and Strawberry, and in the past year, have focused on creating a buffer zone around Payson — especially to the south where prevailing winds can push fires into the thickly forested town.
Armenta said the Forest Service nationally got an infusion of about $2 billion to undertake thinning and forest health projects as part of the stimulus package.
“We’ve completed three-quarters of the projects that address an immediate threat,” said Armenta.
“So as it relates to fuel reduction and thinning projects, we have a pretty good track record.”
The Payson Ranger District has completed environmental studies for many thinning projects it can’t yet fund to be sure it has “shovel ready” projects should money become available.
The district has completed the most critical work around Pine, Strawberry and Payson. However, Christopher Creek still faces a critical problem, with thick forests running straight into town.
The district started working on the studies necessary to do a thinning project protecting Christopher Creek about a year ago, but the project stalled when biologists identified some potential nesting areas for endangered Mexican Spotted Owls, said Armenta.
“We’ve had some challenges,” said Armenta.
Now district officials are hoping to finish the environmental assessment for the Christopher Creek project within the next month. With some luck, the district could get a fresh infusion of money to undertake additional thinning this summer.
The Ellison Creek area also faces immediate danger and is in line for a thinning project as soon as funds come through.
Crews generally hand-thin areas close to settlements. The fire crews pile up the debris to dry out and await the damp winter months, when they can torch the piles with less fear of touching off a fire in the surrounding woods.
That’s exactly what crews were doing north of Payson this week, rushing to burn off the slash piles before rising temperatures dry out the forest and makes it too dangerous.
“Every time we put some smoke into Payson, we get the calls,” said Armenta.
He said people in Pine, Strawberry and other deeper forest communities now rarely complain about controlled burns, since they’ve become aware of the critical danger facing their communities. But many Payson residents still complain about the smoke.
“It ebbs and flows, based on the public’s memory,” said Armenta. “We’re sure cognizant of the impact the smoke has on residents and we try to be sensitive when we burn, but I notice that some communities are a lot more accepting of smoke than others.
“I remember one fellow in Christopher Creek who used to complain every time we had a burn out there — but after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, that same fellow called and complained ‘why aren’t you doing any burns in Christopher Creek?’”
Once the district finishes the final 50,000 acres of critical projects so close to settlements that crews must thin trees and brush by hand, the master plan calls for using prescribed burns during certain months of the year to clear a much wider buffer zone.
Hand-thinning and then setting fire to the slash piles costs $750 to $1,000 per acre. But using controlled burns without preliminary thinning costs just $25 per acre.
Forest managers believe they’ll eventually need to regularly burn or thin millions of acres to restore the forest to a healthy condition — but only after the thinning projects have created a safe buffer zone around forest communities.