Monster Stalks Rim Communities

Overgrown forests pose deadly danger

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

The Water Wheel Fire underscored the vulnerability of Rim Country.

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

The Water Wheel Fire between Whispering Pines and Beaver Valley charred 773 acres and cost about $2 million to fight.

Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines this week nearly lost the high-stakes gamble every community in Rim Country has made — often without knowing it.

All the bad breaks conspired on Sunday: The freakishly dry monsoon season, a dry, gusty storm with swirling winds and a still undetermined initial spark — very likely human-caused close to the popular Water Wheel Campground.

But even if the specific circumstances first created an inferno, then capriciously shifted its path up the mountain and away from the houses, the frightened residents got a glimpse of the face of the beast that has stalked all 88 Rim Country communities for decades.

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.

In most of that area, a century of fire suppression has left an average of 37 tons of fuel per acre — a total of 11.8 million tons of kindling.

Every year, each acre accumulates another two tons.

“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.

Normally, Rim Country residents brace themselves for June and perhaps July, when temperatures peak before the normally reliable arrival of the summer monsoons. The outriders of the monsoon season often come gusting into Rim Country in June, striking the earth with bolts of lightning, but often withholding rain. By August, fire crews usually breathe of sigh of relief. Payson can usually count on three inches of rain in August out of the 22 inches it receives each year.

This year, however, the monsoons never came. The three inches shrank to half an inch and the monsoon storm that slammed into town on Sunday mostly delivered wind gusts but little rain — with the exception of a downpour in Whispering Pines, perfectly timed to dampen the advance of the flames on that small forest community.

But despite the unusual weather conditions that turned late August into the worst part of this year’s fire season, residents paying attention to the steady buildup of brush and debris on millions of forested acres have been braced for disaster for years.

The Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest has been especially effective at scooping up stray budget cash to undertake projects to clear buffer zones on the outskirts of Rim communities. In fact, the Tonto National Forest grabbed up about $3 million in federal stimulus money this spring, enough to undertake thinning work on some 8,000 acres — including a buffer zone around Christopher Creek and Kohl’s Ranch, two of the most fire-threatened communities in the area.

Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines gained the partial protection of limited thinning projects several years ago, but in some ways face a more difficult situation than communities at higher elevations surrounded by dense stands of ponderosa pines.

Lower elevation communities like Beaver Valley sit in dense, fire-adapted stands of chaparral plants like manzanita which fill the space between the dominant pinion and junipers.

Prior to European settlement, much of that terrain was probably devoted to grasslands, with scattered stands of pinions and juniper. Regular brush fires, often deliberately set by Native Americans to renew the grassland, kept those areas free from thickets — a paradise for grassland species like antelope.

Before the onslaught of millions of cattle, those grasslands that early settlers reported were tall enough to brush the underside of their horses fell. Cattle grazing cropped the grasslands down until it could no longer carry frequent ground fires. As a result, pinions and junipers invaded most of the area that had once supported grasslands, creating dense groves. Most of the space in between filled in with shrubs like manzanita and oak brush.

Meanwhile, grazing and fire suppression also transformed the forested areas at slightly higher elevations.

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.

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 ponderosa pines 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.

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.

Roughing out control lines and then burning off a buffer zone around a place like Beaver Valley, Payson or Whispering Pines costs about $10 to $170 per acre. In forested areas, the Forest Service can sometimes reduce the cost by selling the timber, but the brush and small trees in the chaparral zone have little possible commercial use.

Unfortunately, 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 Forest Service, in cooperation with researchers from Northern Arizona University, undertook a study recently 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 Mexico border near Alpine — about 94 percent of it national forest land. The study concluded that right now the forest has so many dry trees that prescribed fires can only be used on a limited basis.

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.

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.

Both Whispering Pines and Beaver Valley have active Firewise programs, a national program that encourages people to make their communities as fire safe as possible. That usually means severely thinning lots in these usually rural communities, in addition to creating a buffer zone outside the community on public land.

The Firewise approach also promotes safety changes like using flame resistant materials on roof tops, fire-resistant materials like concrete and cement block for walls, not letting plants grow under roof overhangs, clearing away undergrowth and thinning trees so that their branches don’t touch. Homeowners who bought in the Rim Country for love of those trees and the quiet rural feel often balk at the severity of the thinning necessary to protect their homes if a fire roars in off the forest, but that resistance drops sharply after a wildfire gains their attention, say firefighters.

Despite Beaver Valley’s vigorous Firewise participation, for which it has received national recognition, only a shift in the winds saved it on Sunday.

But as the fire turned and consumed the steep, brush-choked slopes of Diamond Rim, with whole thickets of trees consumed in a gulp by flames dancing 50 feet or more in the air, residents got a clear look at the monster that had stalked them all these years — and waits out there in the brush for every Rim community.

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