Tonto National Forest will likely irritate many Rim Country residents this week, with its latest effort to keep all their houses from burning down.
Forest managers hope to burn about 1,200 acres of thick forest west of Whispering Pines in the Bear Canyon area sometime this week. The fires will likely produce a lot of smoke. Prevailing winds should push the smoke up and over the Rim into largely unpopulated areas, but could also send smoke drifting into Whispering Pines, Payson, East Verde Estates, Flowing Springs and other communities along the East Verde River corridor.
Moreover, depending on weather conditions, crews could return to the Gordon Canyon Estates area to burn another 500 acres or so this week, building on an 800-acre burn from two weeks ago.
Such controlled burns have become a widespread fixture of fall, especially in the past five years as all three of the National Forests that cover Rim Country scramble to thin dangerously overgrown forests — especially on the outskirts of towns and subdivisions.
“We’ve done an awful lot of work over the past 10 years,” said Tonto National Forest Supervisor Gene Blankenbaker.
“I think we still have some work to do around the smaller unincorporated communities” like Geronimo Estates, Whispering Pines and Christopher Creek, “but on the bigger ones (Pine, Strawberry, Payson and Star Valley), we’re in pretty good shape.”
The Tonto National Forest has spent millions each year hand thinning thousands of acres to create a buffer zone on the outskirts of each of the forested communities. Crews generally cut the bulk of the small trees and much of the brush, pile up the debris, let the piles dry out over the summer then set the slash piles on fire during the cool fall and winter months when there’s less chance the fire will spread.
Forest managers hope that the expensive buffer zones will provide what amounts to a fire break around forested communities, so that they can more often let fires burn, without fear that the blaze will get out of control and destroy a community — as the 500,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire threatened, when it forced the evacuation of Show Low and consumed many houses. Most such intense, damaging fires start in May or June, when the fuels are tinder dry before the onset of the monsoon season. Such a crown fire blaze can all but sterilize the soil, and rush into a town faster than a man can run.
Hand thinning areas close to settlements costs more than $800 per acre. Currently, the three Rim Country forests thin about 17,000 acres annually. They hope to boost that yearly average by about 30,000, through long-term contracts with timber companies that can make wood products from the small diameter trees that have built up in dangerous densities as a result of a century of cattle grazing and fire suppression.
The big controlled burns close to Whispering Pines could produce a substantial amount of smoke this week, which could prove especially difficult for people with breathing problems — like asthma.
The smoke should rise during the day, but sink back down as the air chills, flowing through Gordon Canyon during the night and on into Colcord Estates and Ponderosa Estates areas.
Fire managers will halt burns by 3 p.m. and post signs warning drivers of poor visibility in the area of the fires. Operations will likely continue off and on through Nov. 30, depending on weather conditions.
For information about prescribed fires and mechanical fuels reduction operations, you can call the Payson Ranger District at (928) 474-7900. Residents can also stay updated on forest prescribed fires at www.fs.usda.gov/Tonto.
To report a wildland fire, the fire emergency number is (480) 457-1555, or (866) 746-6516.
Other National Forests will also take advantage of the cool weather to conducted controlled burns, before snowfall freezes shut that window of opportunity.
For instance, the Coconino National Forest will also burn thousands of acres this week, weather permitting. That includes the Mountainaire and Upper Beaver Creek projects, which will send smoke drifting across Lake Mary Road near Stoneman Lake Road as well as in the Beaver Creek and Rimrock areas near Sedona.
Later in the week, crews will conduct four other controlled burns near Flagstaff and in Oak Creek Canyon.
The public can obtain prescribed fire information through a telephone hotline (928) 226-4607) or at www.fs.fed.us/r3/