Scattered across northern Gila County, many of roughly 88 small, fire-menaced communities surrounded by overgrown forests have no back door to flee a deadly wildfire.
Beaver Valley, last summer, had a wake-up call to the danger posed by a lack of emergency access. The fast-moving Water Wheel Fire forced everyone in the settlement to grab pets, throw a few things in their cars and flee the onrushing flames on the one road out of the community.
Fortunately, the fire left that one escape route open.
Residents at the time expressed alarm that the Forest Service had spurned years of pleas for a back-door escape along a short stretch of forest offering a second outlet onto Houston Mesa Road.
Now, the Forest Service has asked Gila County to come up with a plan to provide such escape routes in case of emergency for all of the developed islands in a sea of drought-stricken, densely forested land.
The Tonto National Forest is currently in the midst of its ambitious “travel management plan,” which will ban cross-country travel in off-road vehicles at the same time the forest shuts down hundreds of miles of existing roads and re-opens an even greater expanse of currently closed roads.
Unfortunately, Gila County so far has no timetable for coming up with a list of new emergency access for the dozens of communities with no second escape —including Beaver Valley.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin decried the “bureaucratic nightmare” of past attempts to get secondary escape routes approved by the Forest Service and acknowledged that the request for emergency exits had come very late in the travel management process.
She said she would meet on Thursday with the county’s public works department to come up with a plan to comply with the Forest Service’s request for communities surrounded by national forest.
“I’ve been putting up the yell for years to get secondary access to all those communities,” said Martin.
“I do not like one road in and one road out and the communities have been putting up a holler.”
Larry Vogel, assistant forest supervisor for the Payson Ranger District, said the Forest Service can’t afford to address the problem of the one-road settlements without help from the county.
“This stuff’s been brought up in the past,” in connection with at least 65 ‘inholdings,’” said Vogel.
“That’s probably a big task, but we’ve asked them to do that as part of travel management, which hopefully can cover more than one inholding at a time.”
He agreed that would mean Beaver Valley will have to wait for the county to prepare an overall plan. “As far as Beaver Valley goes, there never was a cut-and-dried proposal for what they wanted.”
“Who the hell knows what a formal proposal is?” groused Martin, who said she had repeatedly asked the Forest Service for second entrance roads for a number of communities.
However, she said the nationally mandated travel management process might give the scattered settlements the perfect opportunity to press their cases.
“We’ve gotten no where asking for secondary routes outside the travel management process. What I get is the feeling that it might be the only way to wade through the bureaucratic nightmare to make it happen.”
She said many of the necessary roads already exist, but have in the past been shut down by the Forest Service.
Beaver Valley doesn’t even face the most critical problem, since the entire settlement sits close to Houston Mesa Road. Moreover, a short spur could be turned into a road in a day or so with Forest Service approval.
“Beaver Valley is not the most critical case,” said Martin. “You have Geronimo Estates, the Diamond Point subdivisions — all those little communities along the Control Road. Those are the ones most at risk.”
The communities north of the Control Road face perhaps the greatest danger. Many fast-moving summer fires originate below the Rim, then rush up the slope to the overhanging line of cliffs that form the Mogollon Rim. Small settlements north of the Control Road could easily find themselves trapped by a fire moving up from the south. Such communities with a single road could become trapped by flames or face a slow evacuation even as fire trucks and crews try to get in along the same, narrow road.
“I think we have 88 identifiable communities out there — everything from Bear Flat to Strawberry — and the vast majority fall into the category of ‘one way in, one way out.’ So it makes sense to do them all at once, as long as it doesn’t take forever to agree on the route,” said Martin.
However, money may inevitably also pose an issue, since the Forest Service admits it has no funds to build or maintain roads.
Vogel noted, “It makes sense to have the county come up with a proposal, since the county will have to do maintenance on those roads.”
However, the county has struggled to maintain its existing road network. At a recent board of supervisors meeting, the fire department protecting Young complained that the main road into town from the north is so poorly maintained that it poses a danger in an emergency.
Martin noted, however, that many of the secondary access roads proposed won’t require much maintenance, since they could remain closed to traffic except during evacuations.