Crews from the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest burned off brush and slash piles on 6,200 acres around Payson, Pine and Strawberry, rushing to create a buffer before the onset of this year’s fire season. Since 2001, the district has thinned or burned 44,000 acres.
The Payson Ranger District this year burned three times as many acres of brush and debris piles as it planned, buying another precious year of breathing space for some of the most fire-threatened communities in the nation.
The district had planned to burn off about 2,200 acres of brush and slash piles left from previous hand-thinning efforts. Instead, the prescribed fire season concluded with more than 6,215 acres burned — most of it on the outskirts of Pine, Payson and Strawberry.
“This far surpasses our original goal,” said District Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts.
Since 2001, the district has used prescribed burns to clear some 33,000 acres. In addition, crews have hand-thinned about 11,000 acres. Crews usually thin areas in the summer and fall and burn them the following spring or winter, once the slash piles have dried out.
“Our prescription burning strategy has three main priorities — reduce catastrophic wildfire danger in Rim Country, restore natural ecosystems, and foster sustainable forest conditions and watersheds,” said Roberts.
Crews set a brisk pace this winter and spring, burning slash piles left from previous hand-thinning efforts.
Residents in Rim communities often had to cope with days when lazy winds blew smoke through town, causing breathing problems for some people with respiratory conditions. However, several years of all-out effort have now created thinned zones where firefighters can make a stand even against a fast-moving crown fire before it can get into town.
Now that temperatures have risen and the moisture content of the trees and brush has dropped, crews can’t risk any more controlled burns. Fire danger should rise steadily week by week between now and the onset of the summer monsoons, which usually start in mid-July. Fire danger generally peaks in June and early July, partly because the plants dry out and partly because the region is prone to several weeks of “dry lightning storms” before the monsoons get established. Such storms can produce a lot of fire-sparking lightning, without any rainfall.
That’s why crews have been rushing for months to get as much acreage thinned as possible, bracing for the upcoming fire season. Rim communities have been effectively living on borrowed time for years now, given the unhealthy, overgrown condition of the forest.
A century of logging, grazing and fire suppression had turned a once fire-resistant forest into a tinderbox. Once, the ponderosa pine forests of Rim Country had 50 to 100 trees per acre, mostly centuries-old giants with lower branches high above the ground. Low-intensity ground fires burned through the forest every five years or so, clearing out dead wood, burning off the saplings and maintaining grasslands.
Now, the forests have more like 800 to 1,500 trees per acre and thousands of acres of grasslands have been converted to thick stands of pinyon pine and juniper. As a result, the entire region is now prone to crown fires that can move through the forest faster than a man can run. Such fires burn so hot they can sterilize the soil. The heat creates a fused crust, which prevents subsequent rainfall from soaking into the ground — causing landslides, floods and soil erosion.
Devastating fires that consumed thousands of acres and forced the evacuation of many Rim communities five or six years ago prompted the Forest Service to make thinning a buffer zone around many forest communities a top priority.
Although the district will not set any more prescribed burns, crews will soon take to the forest to resume hand-thinning.
The district recently won a $3.1 million federal stimulus grant to thin about 8,000 acres. That includes the re-thinning of about 5,000 acres around Pine, Payson and Strawberry. Those areas were initially cleared about four years ago, so crews can go back in and clear out new growth.
The grant will also pay for a first round of thinning on about 3,000 acres around Christopher Creek, which at the moment is the most fire-menaced settlement in Rim Country, according to the Forest Service. The thickly overgrown forest comes right down to the edge of the creek, engulfing a number of housing developments there.
For more than a year, the Forest Service has been working to complete environmental studies there before moving ahead with the thinning. Now, Forest Service managers hope to clear away the last obstacles to the Christopher Creek project in the next few weeks, so crews can start work this summer with funding from the stimulus grant.
Residents in the Christopher Creek area have been pleading for years for a protective buffer zone, frustrated that other, higher priority projects have taken precedence.
Residents have raised money and offered volunteer assistance to no avail. Among other things, work on that thinning project has been stalled by concern about the endangered Mexican Spotted Owls nesting in the thick forest and the best way to undertake the thinning project without causing a major increase in erosion into the ecologically sensitive creek.
Payson Ranger District officials say they’re now seeking to invoke a streamlined exception to environmental restrictions enacted for fire prevention and thinning projects that protect an existing settlement.