Despite the loss of grant money, Pine-Strawberry will still hold brush pick-ups this year after a community group, residents and the fire department rallied to save the program.
While they only have enough money to run the program for 10 weeks, supporters say it is a huge win.
“All the experts are calling for an extreme fire season this year so removing as much flammable material as we possibly can is imperative,” said Janet Brandt, P-S resident. “The brush pick-up removes around 20 tons of brush, needles and slash each week, so even if we only have the funds for 10 weeks, removing that 200 tons could make the difference to Pine-Strawberry.”
There was some question if the program could continue without the grants.
The Pine Strawberry Fuel Reduction Inc. (PSFR) formed in 2004 as an advisory committee to the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department, which was developing a fuels management program. Brandt and her husband Mike, the district’s fuels management officer, helped write grants to get the district money to purchase and maintain brush removal equipment. The program started making pick-ups year-round, said Mel Palmer, president of PSFR, at a community meeting Saturday.
The fire department funded and implemented the program until last year when the grants were exhausted.
With no money, PSFR met with the fire district to find a way to keep it going.
The PSFR learned it would need to raise funds from the community and then contract with the district for service. After the funds were raised, however, the fire board objected to the project because of liability concerns, Brandt said.
PSFR then found a firm that could handle insurance and worker’s compensation, although it meant a 25 percent increase in payroll costs.
On Wednesday, the P-S fire board voted 3 to 1 to support the project, agreeing to lease PSFR the brush pickup equipment for a nominal fee. The board also agreed to pay up to $7,500 for gas, equipment maintenance and legal fees to draw up a contract.
PSFR is then responsible for payroll, insurance, mailings and any additional costs.
With money donated by local residents, the fire district and PSFR, the program can now run for 10 weeks.
Residents asked Palmer if the brush pits would also re-open. Palmer said he did not know. Both the Blattner and Pine pits closed indefinitely after the county said it could no longer fund them through the Regional Payson Area Project, since it’s not a non-profit entity. Officials are reportedly working to find another 501c3 that they can run the funding through to get the pits back open.
Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch said the pits will re-open, but he doesn’t know when.
Residents then asked how they could encourage residents with dangerously overgrown properties to clean up.
Palmer and Ron Calderon, PSFR committee member, explained that since P-S is unincorporated, only the county can provide enforcement. While Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin has long supported fuel reduction and forest thinning, she said she can’t do much on an enforcement level without the adoption of a county Firewise code.
Several communities in P-S have voluntarily adopted Firewise standards, including Portals I, II & IV. The board encouraged other communities to follow suit until such a code is adopted.
PSFR has already been working aggressively to thin thickets on private land that abuts fuel breaks cut by the Forest Service.
The PSFR has already thinned 500 acres, Brandt said.
PSFR has worked particularly hard along Pine Creek Canyon on the northern side of Pine, thinning 200 acres at Camp Lo Mia and in Portals I, II and IV.
South of Pine, where several canyons funnel directly into Pine, PSFR thinned 30 acres of private land in Arrowhead Estates in addition to raising funds and working with the USFS.
On the south side of Pine, against the existing fuel break, an 65 acres of land was thinned.