The series of water bladders strategically placed around the county has kept flames from engulfing the Rim Country, Supervisor Tommie Martin told about a dozen people at a Citizens Awareness Committee meeting last week.
Not only have the dip sites made water readily available should flames strike, but Forest Service committed a helicopter to the Payson Airport in response to the county’s aggressive anti-fire stance.
“The fire risk right now is profoundly less than it was in 2006,” said Martin, who provided people at the meeting an overview of local forest issues.
In 2006, a February fire burned 4,000 acres and the resulting fear spurred conversations leading to the water sites.
However, the forest’s lessened fire risk doesn’t translate to a healthy forest. To truly improve the forest’s health, industry needs to enter, said Martin. Instead of spending millions on fuel breaks and other fire prevention methods, the government could allow industry to thin the forest, make money and pay taxes, improving the economy.
The Forest Service’s culture is changing, said Martin. For now, efforts focus on shoring up Rim Country, making it as fire-proof as possible.
The largest fire in recent history, the 770-acre Water Wheel, ravaged so much land partially because Payson’s helicopter was off in California fighting fires.
This year, the county has 32 dip sites around northern Gila County, in places like Camp Geronimo, Thompson Draw, Cinch Hook and Gisela.
Each year the county delivers truckloads of water to the dip sites. If fire strikes, the helicopter can fill up from the site, then drop the water on the blaze before it grows too large.
In recent years, the county has also pushed for firebreaks by offering to match money towns spend on creating them.
However, brush continually re-grows in the cleared areas, necessitating continued investment. “To me, that’s like pouring water down a rat hole,” said Martin.
Instead, allowing cows to graze, for instance, could allow government to make money off of decreasing fire risk instead of spend money.
Other industries could enter, including those wanting to harvest small trees for chipboard.
Martin is working with the Four Forest Restoration Initiative Project that includes the Tonto National Forest and aims to thin small trees and reduce fuel over 2.4 million acres on the Mogollon Rim. Part of the idea involves working with a chipboard manufacturer to thin 30,000 acres per year over 20 years.
Leaders are negotiating with Forest Service officials, who right now want to limit any partnerships to 10 years. However, private industry needs 10 years to return its investment and then another 10 years at least of turning a profit.
Martin said lower-level government officials have issued support for the project, but high-level officials still need convincing.
Meanwhile, packed forests turn every dry spell into a drought and grassless ground cover indicates an unhealthy forest.
Earlier last century, trees numbered anywhere from three to 30 trees per acre, and grass covered the ground, said Martin.
“None of us would believe that today,” said Martin. Now, some areas contain up to 3,000 trees per acre and pine needles cover the ground.
Crowded forests lead to bug infestations including the pine bark beetle that recently killed millions of trees.
Efforts continue to convince the government to allow industry into the forests. Industry, said Martin, is willing to abide by environmental laws if the Forest Service is willing to abide by economic laws.