With the fire season already looming, fire departments throughout the region are working feverishly to reopen the brush pits where homeowners can drop off brush cleared from their property.
“The pits are the most important thing we have up here” to help homeowners clear dangerously overgrown lots, said Hellsgate Fire Department Chief Gary Hatch.
“They keep people doing what they need to do: If anything, we’re in worse shape right now than we have been.”
The chiefs of the Hellsgate, Christopher-Kohl’s, Pine-Strawberry and Houston Mesa fire departments agreed to seek a joint solution to finding about $35,000 annually to operate the pits.
The chiefs have been meeting regularly to discuss a plan to form a single, regional fire department — although Payson has so far rebuffed the effort. The merger of the separate departments would save money spent on administrative overhead and share manpower and resources among the small departments, which rely mostly on volunteer firefighters.
However, the brush pit crisis prompted the chiefs to set aside the regional fire department discussion to focus on the immediate crisis, said Hatch.
Gila County has provided the bulk of the money in the past, but recently determined that it can’t continue to give money to the Regional Payson Area Project, since it’s not a non-profit entity.
Hatch said that the community faces a grave danger because many property owners haven’t cleared the brush and interlocking trees from around structures. Only a handful of Rim Country communities operate as “firewise” areas, committed to keep lots clear.
The lack of clearing could have the same tragic consequences here as it had in Yarnell, where last summer 19 firefighters died trying to protect an unincorporated community sitting in the middle of a sea of uncleared brush that hadn’t burned in half a century.
“A lot of people don’t believe in firewise,” said Hatch. “We don’t hear it as much as we used to. We hear people saying firewise doesn’t matter. When I was in Yarnell the day after the firefighters died — every home that I saw burned over there had not done their firewise. And every home that I saw that survived it had; they were sitting right next to each other. I’ve been doing this for 32 years, and I guarantee you — firewise works.”
Hatch said state and federal grants that previously supported thinning programs and brush pickups have declined.
“We did get some grants to do some thinning in common areas and that has made a tremendous difference,” said Hatch. “We did 80 acres in one subdivision, then the homeowners came in and cleared their lots. Ellison Creek Summer Homes is going for firewise community status — we’ve really pushed it hard.”
The U.S. Forest Service has cleared buffer zones around most Rim Country communities over the past several years. However, those buffer zones aren’t complete and require re-thinning every three to five years.
Worse yet, neither Payson nor Gila County have adopted a firewise building code to regulate things like roof materials to minimize that chance that a distant fire will rain down embers that can set houses on fire. So few homeowners have cleared brush and trees from around their houses that once a fire gets started in Payson it can move through the treetops from house to house.
Hatch said the chiefs hope to get the brush pits re-opened in the next few weeks by channeling the county money through one of the existing departments or perhaps through the Mogollon Health Alliance, already designated as a tax-exempt, 401c3 organization.
Hatch noted that Hellsgate two years ago had federal money to pick up brush cleared by property owners and left at the curb. “In 12 months, we picked up 3,000 tons of brush just in our area. I would estimate that due to the brush pits we’re getting about 2,000 acres cleared annually — that’s just an estimate, but it shows how efficient the brush pits have been.”
He noted that the Forest Service would impose heavy penalties on anyone clearing brush on private property and dumping it on Forest Service land.
“We’ve got a big problem getting this brush cleared. People will say, ‘well, I got my lot cleared.’ But that was three years ago — and this stuff grows back. You’ve got to maintain it.”
Meanwhile, the four departments continue to work on a plan to merge their operations, despite Payson’s decision to pull back from the discussion about four months ago — in part because its operating without a fire chief.
All of the small fire departments depend heavily on property taxes and have faced serious budget problems with the fall in assessed values since the recession.
A regional fire department would not only likely improve services, but also save each department considerable overhead costs, said Hatch.
“All the chiefs agree that being one fire department up here would be advantageous to the future. You’ve got to look at it this way. If we were in Phoenix right now — to say every one to three fire stations needs its own administration, its own board — everyone would look at you and say that’s crazy. We believe that to sustain us in the future — the only way to survive it is to all get together and operate as one department.”