A Long Journey, A Single Step

Photo by Andy Towle. |

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It took a century of blind blundering to create the deadly conditions that face almost every forested community in the West.

So it will take years of far-sighted focus to set things right.

But with the searing deaths of 19 firefighters fresh in our hearts, we’re relieved to note a few, tentative signs of progress.

For starters, we agree whole-heartedly with the effort by Arizona Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain to convince Congress to renew legislation that will let the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management enter into long-term partnerships with local governments and private companies.

Of course, Congress should have acted long ago. Moreover, simply reauthorizing the stewardship legislation simply maintains the current, dangerous status quo. But heck – it’s something.

The stewardship legislation allows the Forest Service to enter into 10-year contracts to undertake things like forest thinning projects. The White Mountain Stewardship Project saved Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire several years ago, although the Forest Service had crippled the initiative by chronic underfunding. Meanwhile, the even more ambitious Four Forest Restoration Initiative remains hobbled by Forest Service fumbling in the choice of contractors.

So we hope Congress will not only immediately re-authorize the stewardship legislation proposed by Flake and McCain, but add funding and longer-term contracting options.

In the meantime, we residents of Rim Country must stop waiting for politicians in far-off Washington to protect our communities.

Some residents made a start in Gisela on Saturday, when they sought action from Gila County Supervisor Mike Pastor. Recent fires in Deer Creek and Rye provided a wakeup call for residents in that area when they learned that many have no fire protection at all. Crews from Payson and the Forest Service did rush to the fires — but mostly to keep the flames from spreading into the surrounding, tinder-dry forest.

Make no mistake: We’re in this together. A campfire in the White Mountains started a fire that consumed 840 square miles — nearly destroying distant towns. Payson cannot sit smugly by and let Rye and Gisela burn. Never mind that the fire will come roaring up the hillside toward the all-too-vulnerable homes of Payson, with our definitely-not-firewise building code. We must act now so that no heroic young firefighters must face those flames to atone for our inexcusable lack of planning and shared sacrifice now.

Gila County did quickly move to place a surplus military water storage bladder in Rye, so fire trucks won’t have to shuttle to Payson to avert the next disaster. But that’s just a down payment on the search for solutions that must now consume the attention of every elected official in Rim Country — and far beyond.

We can’t set things right overnight. By some measures, 80 percent of Forest Service lands now stand in danger of disaster. But the journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step. So as a first step, let Congress reauthorize the stewardship authority and let Gila County find a way to protect the frighteningly vulnerable subdivisions it placed in the path of tragedy.

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