The Payson Ranger District has won $1.1 million to cap a decade-long effort to protect Rim Country from wildfires by creating thinned buffer zones at the edge of each community.
The district snagged year-end money other forests could not spend by completing environmental studies on nearly 260,000 acres of forest and keeping contracts in place, so they could quickly take advantage of money dropping from bureaucratic heaven.
“It’s a lot of work — a lot of work,” said Jeremy Plain, assistant fire management officer for the Payson Ranger District, of the decade-long effort to complete the necessary environmental studies and contracting agreements.
Don Nunley, the district’s fuels specialist and fire management officer, said most of the latest $1.1 million will pay crews to go back into about 7,000 acres of thinned forest around Pine, Strawberry and Payson to cut the brush that has grown back.
The district has now created buffer zones around most Rim Country communities. The district hopes to get money in 2012 to complete the last piece of the buffer zone system, which will protect the communities around Tonto Village.
Nunley, who has been with the district from the start of the long process in 2001 said, “What we’re trying to do is reduce the torching index and the crowning index. That means you don’t want the (tree) crowns touching.”
Such buffer zones proved their worth in the White Mountains this summer when thinned firebreaks allowed firefighters to save Alpine and Greer from the Wallow Fire, which was racing from treetop to treetop until it hit the firebreak.
The Tonto National Forest has spent some $13 million on thinning projects that have dramatically reduced fuel densities on 29,000 acres in Rim Country since 2001, including more than $700,000 donated by various local communities.
The new money will help create a thinned buffer zone around Christopher Creek, nearly completing at least initial thinning around all of the major communities in Rim Country.
In addition, crews in the next six months will thin 3,500 acres around Payson, Pine and Strawberry.
Workers will cut the new growth in previously cleared areas. Crews have already started and will continue through next March.
Moreover, crews will feed slash piles left by previous thinning efforts into mulchers, clearing piles of wood from about 603 acres in the Colcord Estates area.
The last time the district won a big chunk of money for creating the firebreaks was in 2009, when the district received $3 million in federal stimulus funds, mostly because Nunley and the other members of the fire analysis team had already completed the environmental studies, which can consume two or three years, Plain said.
Process started in 2001
Nunley started the whole process back in 2001.
“When he started this project, it was a daunting task. When you look at 450,000 acres and say, ‘we need to break this down into analysis areas and develop a landscape scale project.’ It was a little overwhelming.”
Plain said the contracts for the re-thinning work went to a California company and that no local firms submitted a bid.
Crews with chain saws will cut all the brush, then pile it up for burning once it dries out.
In areas thinned for the first time, they’ll also cut enough trees to keep the branches of one tree from interlocking with another. That generally means cutting all the pines smaller than 12 inches in diameter, all the oak trees smaller than 9 inches in diameter and all of the junipers less than 19 inches in diameter at the base.
The Payson Ranger District has proven adept at winning fire prevention and forest restoration money, mostly by getting all the necessary environmental studies done — and then waiting for the unpredictable release of funds nationally.
Fighting wildfires now costs the federal government $3 billion annually, thanks to a decade-long drought and decades of fire suppression efforts that have allowed the buildup of tons of dead and downed wood on each acre across the nation.
The dramatic increase in catastrophic fires and fuel buildups has coincided with an explosion in the growth of small subdivisions completely surrounded by thick, overgrown forests.
The rising costs of fighting massive wildfires that threaten to consume whole communities has devastated the U.S. Forest Service budget, including the Wallow Fire this summer in the White Mountains. The largest fire in state history, the government spent $79 million trying to contain it — but only previous thinning projects saved Alpine and Greer.
The Payson Ranger District has worked to clear firebreaks on the outskirts of Rim Country communities for the past decade and has completed initial buffer zones around most of the larger communities — including Payson, Star Valley, Pine, Strawberry and other smaller communities.
That effort has proved expensive, especially since brush and small trees grow back fast enough to pose a renewed threat after five to 10 years. That’s why fire crews this winter will revisit thousands of acres they cleared five years ago.
On a parcel-by-parcel basis, such assessments can easily take two years or more.
For instance, the environmental assessment for Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline that would run down the side of an existing road and result in cutting very few trees took the Tonto National Forest more than two years to complete. But the Payson Ranger District has worked to develop an approach that studies the impact of thinning across thousands of acres at a time.
Environmental assessments finished
The environmental assessments needed before the district can actually start a thinning project have been concluded now on 49,000 acres along the Verde and East Verde Rivers, 72,000 acres on the outskirts of Pine and Strawberry and 30,000 acres in the Christopher Creek and Hunter Creek areas.
Since 2006, many Rim Country communities have raised money to augment the Forest Service’s thinning program.
That includes $78,000 from the Pine Strawberry Fire District, $200,000 from Gila County, $50,000 from Payson, $18,000 from the Tonto Apache Tribe, $40,000 from The Rim Club and $100,000 from the East Verde Park homeowners association and fire district.
All told, private groups have contributed $721,438, according to Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Angie Elam. That represents about 5 percent of the total spent since 2001.
So federal taxpayers have spent about $433 for each resident of Rim Country to thin forests and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires.
Despite that investment, Rim Country remains one of the most fire-menaced regions of the country — thanks to the combination of thickly overgrown forests and the large number of small communities scattered throughout those forests.
The dramatic increase in fuel loads has resulted in a rush of deadly crown fires, with flames jumping from treetop to treetop.
Nine of the 10 largest wildfires in state history have occurred in the past decade.
The Forest Service hopes to escape from the seemingly endless need to use scarce taxpayer dollars to continually thin and re-thin forests surrounding vulnerable communities by offering timber companies long-term contracts to harvest the small trees now choking millions of acres in Arizona.
At the moment, the Forest Service is seeking bids from timber companies to thin more than 700,000 acres in central Arizona, including most of Rim Country.
Forest managers hope that the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative can demonstrate timber companies will essentially thin the forest for free in return for contracts that are sufficiently reliable and long term, so that they can raise the money to invest in mills and power plants that can make use of the small trees in such oversupply.
In the meantime, the Payson Ranger District continues to scramble each year for dwindling federal dollars to thin the forest on the outskirts of Rim Country towns and settlements.