Wildfire

Still the greatest danger facing region

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Only one thing threatens the survival of Rim Count: Wildfire.

And we made more progress towards sharply reducing the threat of a community-consuming wildfire this year than probably any single year in a century.

Unless, of course, it all fall apart in a choking black cloud of confusion and recrimination.

Last year the US Forest Service embraced the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative, an ambitions plan to reverse a century of muddle to use a re-invented timber industry as a tool to restore forest health. Moreover, after years of lip service and study, the Forest Service actually awarded a 10-year contract to a logging company to thin some 300,000 acres stretching from Rim Country to the Grand Canyon.

Pop a cork. Pour the champagne. We’re saved. Well. Maybe.

Unless maybe the Forest Service picked the wrong contractor, doesn’t know a thing about business and came up with a prescription for a restored forest that will unravel the hard-won consensus on which 4-FRI relies.

Still, the past five years have wrought marvelous changes.

First, just about everyone agrees that with tree densities 100 times greater than natural conditions, the forest is not only a dangerous tinderbox – it’s unhealthy.

Second, just about everyone agrees on the need to create a diverse forest with some thick bits and lots of open stretches – with more meadows, aspen groves, healthy riparian areas, grasslands. That means clearing out millions of little pines in stunted thickets and shifting back to an open, grassy forest dominated by old growth trees – greater than 18 inches in diameter.

Third, only a restored timber industry that can make a profit on those missions of small trees seems likely to restore the forest at a cost taxpayers can afford.

Fourth, the US Forest Service must shift from a simple urge to stamp out forest fires to policies that restore fire to its natural role in maintaining these fire-adapted ecosystems.

Fifth, we can’t just stand back and let it burn – as the Wallow Fire and the Rodeo Chedeski Fire demonstrated. Both turned into raging crown fires that swept across half a million acres each, burning so hot they inflicted long-term damage on the landscape. In many areas, Ponderosa Pines may never return. With the size and severity of fires setting new records almost every year, we’ve run out of time to debate the necessary changes.

Still, despite this broad consensus progress towards implementing the necessary changes in land use policy and fire management remain surprisingly fitful and incomplete.

That certainly applies at the local level, few planning jurisdictions have yet adopted a firewise building code – or implemented comprehensive programs of thinning and fire break creation.

Gila County remains perhaps the most worrisome no-show when it comes to adopting codes that will keep isolated subdivisions in thickly forested areas from burning to the ground in even a modest wildfire. Studies have shown that building codes that require the use of fire-resistant materials – especially on roofs – dramatically increase the resistance of subdivisions to fires. A big wildfire can throw out glowing embers a mile or two ahead of the fire line, readily setting a normal roof on fire long before the wall of flames arrives – and regardless of any buffer zones on the edge of town.

Despite all those studies, Gila County hasn’t even considered a firewise building code. The county building standards apply in many Rim Communities, including Pine, which sits nestled in thick forests. Payson has been talking about overhauling its building codes to reduce fire risks for several years, but hasn’t put forward a proposal.

Moreover, despite years of protests, pleadings and worry – many isolated communities in Rim Country still don’t even have an adequate escape route should a wildfire sweep down on their largely unprotected settlements. After the Water Wheel Fire several years ago, Gila County pleaded with the US Forest Service to quickly approve projects to create additional escape routes for fire-menaced communities like Beaver Valley with only one way in and one way out. The Tonto National Forest responded that approval of such emergency escape routes would have to wait at least a year for the approval of its forest-wide travel management plan.

On the other hand, Gila County has taken the lead in helping provide the resources the Forest Service needs should a wildfire threaten settled areas. The county has built and maintains a series of stations where firefighting helicopters can quickly take on a load of water. During the tinder dry months of May and June when most of the big fires take place, such pre-positioned water bladders and tanks can mean the difference between holding a fire to half an acre and facing another monster.

Moreover, the Payson Ranger District has proven adept at snagging year-end forest thinning money from the national Forest Service budget. For the past five years, the Tonto National Forest has consistently won millions in such year-end thinning projects, enabling Forest Service contractors to complete a thinned buffer zone around Pine, Strawberry, Payson, Star Valley and other communities. The district hopes to include in the 4-FRI project area at least a portion of the 27,000-acre Mrytle Project along the Control Road. That thinning project will protect vulnerable communities like Tonto Village and Christopher Creek.

However, only the 4-FRI thinning approach promises a solution that begins to match the scale of the problem.

Unfortunately, the Forest Service’s selection of Pioneer Forest Products as the contractor for the first 300,000 acres last year spurred concerns from the broad-based group that developed the 4-FRI approach.

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin — one of the driving forces in the 4FRI movement — was among those openly questioning whether Pioneer had the financing or expertise to undertake the massive thinning project, which depend on the contractor building bio-fuel plants and mills that could turn a profit on millions of saplings and small trees.

It costs up to $1,000 per acre to thin and burn off the slash piles, which means it would cost taxpayers about $6 billion annually to thin the tree-choked forests of Northern Arizona by hand. The 4FRI approach would give private contractors a guaranteed 10- or 20-year supply of mostly small-diameter trees as an inducement to invest millions in building mills and power plants that could turn a profit on the vast oversupply of small trees.

As it happens, Payson officials hope that the Forest Service will schedule the watershed above the Blue Ridge Reservoir for a 4FRI thinning project as quickly as possible. A crown fire on the small, thickly forested watershed could easily heat the soils enough to make them “hydrophobic,” which would dramatically increase runoff and silting in the reservoir.

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