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After a decade of strenuous effort, the Payson Ranger District has nearly completed a thinned buffer zone to reduce the threat of a devastating crown fire that could consume most major Rim Country communities.
The Tonto National Forest since 2000 has spent $13 million to hand thin 30,000 acres and set controlled burns covering 53,000 acres to create buffer zones on the outskirts of Payson, Pine, Strawberry, Star Valley, Whispering Pines, East Verde Park and other communities.
Fire districts and private donors have provided an extra $721,000, including $200,000 from Gila County, $50,000 from Payson and $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 and $88,000 from the communities of Christopher Creek and Hunter Creek.
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A planned project to thin another 30,000 acres on the outskirts of Tonto Village and Christopher Creek will complete the buffer zone in Rim Country. The district hopes to sell the brush and timber in that area to a private timber company as part of the ambitious 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4-FRI).
In addition, the Payson Ranger District has recently completed the environmental analysis for the 38,000-acre Myrtle Planning Area — the area along the Control Road up to the Rim between Christopher Creek and Whispering Pines.
Unfortunately, the Forest Service must now maintain those firebreaks around all the major Rim Country communities, said Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Angie Elam.
In fact, the district in the next few months will go back into some 5,000 acres already thinned around Pine and Strawberry to cut and burn brush that has grown back in the past several years. In addition, the district will feed into shredders, brush and small trees cut previously on about 600 acres around Colcord Estates.
The 500,000-acre Wallow Fire in the White Mountains this past summer underscored the dire danger forested communities face from wildfires in once fire-resistant forests turned into tree thickets as a result of a century of grazing and fire suppression.
The Wallow Fire ranks as the biggest wildfire in recorded Arizona history, but it was just one of 2,000 wildfires that last summer burned a million acres throughout the state as the drought made its return.
After a bone-dry winter, forest managers fear another frightening wildfire season. The Forest Service has already warned it may have to shut down the whole forest early this spring unless the rains resume.
Mismanagement of the forest has allowed tree densities to increase from 30 to 50 per acre to 600 to 1,500 per acre across millions of acres of ponderosa pine forests in central Arizona, including almost all of Rim Country.
The shift has turned the naturally fire-resistant ponderosa pine ecosystem into a firetrap.
Before humans monkey-wrenched the natural cycles, low-intensity ground fires burned through the forest every five years or so. But when burning through decades of accumulated growth, wildfires now produce runaway crown fires that jump from one treetop to the next. They often burn so hot they virtually sterilize the soil.
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Fortunately, cleared buffer zones can make such roaring crown fires drop to the ground where firefighters can stop them before they burn on into town. That’s what saved both Alpine and Springerville last summer from the advance of the Wallow Fire.
The Payson Ranger District has proved adept at snagging year-end Forest Service money to carry out thinning projects in the past few years. The Payson Ranger District completed environmental analysis on tens of thousands of acres ahead of time, which put the local district in position to apply for year-end Forest Service money earmarked for fire prevention and forest restoration.
Various local communities and fire districts have also contributed to the comprehensive, expensive effort with manpower as well as funds.
For instance, the community-supported Pine Strawberry Fuel Reduction, Inc. (PSFR) this February raised the money to thin 77 acres south of Pine, in partnership with the Forest Service. The resulting Arrowhead Canyon Fuel Break will prevent fires from roaring out of the steep canyon and straight into thickly forested Pine, rated as one of the most fire-menaced communities in the country.
“PSFR and the Payson Ranger District fire specialists have an enviable history of partnership dating back to 2005 when PSFR raised funds to provide desperately needed maintenance on the 71-acre fuel break surrounding Pine and Strawberry,” said PSFR Project Manager Mike Brandt.
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The group also treated 225 acres of private land next to the fuel break and another 200 acres of private land at the mouth of Pine Creek Canyon.
The group also raised money to build the Pine ramada, made from pressed-wood products milled from the smaller diameter trees now crowding the forests.
The historic 4-FRI project hopes to enlist loggers to thin millions of acres at no cost to the taxpayers by selling the wood to new mills that produced products from brush and saplings.
Previously, mills focused on using only the largest trees, which helped unhinge the complex forest ecosystem.
The Christopher/Hunter analysis area will help test that approach, since the Forest Service has included it in the first batch of contracts for the 4-FRI plan. The Payson Ranger District has already completed the environmental analysis for 12,000 acres of thinning and controlled burns that will cover another 20,000 acres. The project will be included in a batch of contracts mostly centered on the Flagstaff area, since the small trees and brush in the Christopher Creek area won’t yield as much profit as larger trees close to Flagstaff.