Fire Smolders, Budget Burns

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Burned guard rails and other hazards have kept Houston Mesa Road closed.

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

Two Forest Service bombers played a key role on Sunday in stopping the Water Wheel Fire short of Beaver Valley, but the high cost of firefighting now consumes about half of the agency’s budget.

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

Local fire departments like Beaver Valley provided the first response to the Water Wheel Fire and are now eligible for federal reimbursement. The aftermath of the Water Wheel Fire (below) could cause major erosion problems this winter.

More than 300 firefighters spent Thursday working the edges of the 770 acres burned by the Water Wheel Fire, their dogged and vital efforts underscoring the plight of the U.S. Forest Service — which now devotes about half its total budget to fighting forest fires.

The Forest Service declared the blaze 90 percent contained and official figures show that the fire at its peak threatened 500 homes and forced the evacuation of 700 people.

Supported by four helicopters dumping buckets of water on flickering hot spots, the hundreds of firefighters drawn from throughout the region will spend another couple of days making sure that the rain-doused hot spots don’t send a spark drifting into unburned areas.

Investigators have still not officially established a cause for the fierce, short-lived blaze that charred nearly two square miles and forced the evacuation of perhaps as many as 700 people from Whispering Pines, Beaver Valley and Geronimo Estates. The fire started just opposite the Water Wheel Campground, prompting many residents to call for restrictions on that popular but unregulated camping area on Forest Service land.

Houston Mesa Road remains closed for the indefinite future as firefighters work to cut down burned trees that could topple and pose a danger to drivers. Several key guard rails also burned in the fire, according to Tammy Pike, public information officer for the Tonto National Forest.

The closure of the paved Houston Mesa Road at the East Verde River bridge at First Crossing forces residents of Whispering Pines to come and go on the dirt Control Road, with exits at Christopher Creek and Pine.

Crews have bulldozed a new fire line just south of Whispering Pines, which will provide the community substantial protection in the future from fires coming up from the thick chaparral to the south. Moreover, the burn itself now provides a charred but effective fire break for Beaver Valley.

Meanwhile, two much larger wildfires continue to burn fitfully up on top of the Rim north and west of Chevelon Lake. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest has shut down forest roads 504, 170 and 9517, but the campground at Chevelon Lake itself at the end of FR 169B remains open for the holiday weekend.

The lightning-caused 6,800-acre Durfee Fire and the 5,000-acre Weimer Fire have been burning off and on for more than a month in a remote area of the Rim. Mostly, the Forest Service has let them burn, part of a new philosophy to let fires that don’t threaten structures thin the dangerously grown forests.

Meanwhile, this week the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved use of federal funds for the Water Wheel Fire, which means local agencies can get back up to 75 percent of the money they spent fighting the blaze. The declaration noted that the fire threatened 500 homes, forced the evacuation of 700 people and required 65 people to seek emergency shelter.

The Forest Service has not released official numbers on the cost of fighting the Water Wheel Fire, which crews fought aggressively due to the danger to the two, forested settlements. However, some top fire officials put the ballpark figure at perhaps $2 million.

That’s small change in the face of the more than $1 billion the Forest Service has spent putting out fires annually in five of the last seven years. This year could exceed that bleak average, given the massive fires in California even before the onset of the fierce, Santa Ana winds that usually produce the worst fires of the year there.

All told, the Forest Service has spent $14 billion on its National Fire Plan in the past five years, most of it to actually fight the fires — which jumped 17 percent in the current year. Meanwhile, money for preparedness, state fire assistance and preparedness has declined 12 to 25 percent.

The Forest Service budget has been burning cash for most of the last decades, due to the intersection of a drought and the results of a century of fire suppression. Forests have burned in the past seven years on an epic scale.

Those fires have consumed the Forest Service budget. The Forest Service’s non-fire budget has declined more than 35 percent since 2001, according to an analysis by the Wilderness Society.

The proportion of the Forest Service budget devoted to fighting fires rose from 13 percent in 1991 to 48 percent in 2009.

The Forest Service has shifted its approach to fighting fires, from an aggressive effort to prevent almost all fires from spreading to a much more complicated effort to figure out which fires to fight aggressively.

That shift means the Forest Service will let fires like those near Chevelon Lake burn for a month with little effort to contain them, in the process thinning dead brush and small trees from more than 10,000 acres.

On the other hand, the Forest Service still throws resources at even relatively small fires like the Water Wheel Fire that menace homes.

That shift shows in the budget figures. For instance, in 2007 the Forest Service reported a 49 percent increase in the number of acres burned from the year before, but a $127-million decrease in spending on suppression.

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