The Gila Community College board last week approved a $100,000 contract to thin 32 thickly overgrown acres surrounded by vulnerable neighborhoods.
State and federal Firewise grants will cover roughly 70% of the cost.
The project will remove a serious potential wildfire threat to the surrounding neighborhoods, since a discarded cigarette or embers from even a distant wildfire could start in the thickets and spread quickly to nearby homes.
The five bids for the work ranged from $98,000 to $160,000.
The board ranked a local Payson firm — Lee and Sons — as its first choice. However, Payson Fuels Manager Kevin McCully will negotiate the final details with one of the three lowest bidders, including a Globe firm.
McCully is overseeing a major grant that can cover the bulk of the cost of Firewising private property throughout town.
The state and federal grants will pay a maximum of $2,800 per acre for the thinning work — which includes removal of the tons of brush, branches and small trees that have accumulated on every acre. All told, the grant will cover about $62,000 — leaving the college to come up with about $36,000, said Board President Jan Brocker.
The project will remove most of the small trees — and some of the larger trees that have been infested with bark beetles. The college has just completed an earlier project removing most of the bark beetle infested trees, although the pandemic caused a long delay in completing that project.
“The vegetation is very heavy and hasn’t been looked at for some time,” said McCully of the forested parcel northeast of the campus. The college maintains a hiking trail through the parcel, which will eventually give the college room to expand. “We’re very excited to get some work done here. It will help us put out a fire more easily if one were to start in there.”
McCully noted that the project will mostly focus on the brush, saplings and lower branches of the bigger trees — to prevent a ground fire from spreading into the lower branches of the big trees. The project will likely remove about 20 larger trees, either because they’re dead or infested with bark beetles. He will work with the contractors to determine how much of the material they run through a wood chipper and leave on the ground and how much they’ll haul away to the brush pits.
“Chipping the material gives nourishment to the soil as it degrades,” he noted.
Brocker said the college should also look into selling or giving away juniper or other material that would make good firewood.
Payson recently adopted a Firewise ordinance, which requires people to clear thick brush or trees that pose a potential danger to the whole neighborhood. Studies have shown that Firewise brush thinning dramatically decreases the odds that the radiant heat from a house fire will spread through brush on one lot to set the neighbor’s house on fire.
Moreover, clearing the brush, saplings and trimming the lower branches of the bigger trees reduces the odds an ember storm from a nearby wildfire will set whole neighborhoods on fire — starting on an overgrown lot then spreading from house to house.
Payson adopted its Firewise code after years of debate and study. It has not yet adopted a companion fire-hardening building code for new construction — which studies show can also save a community from wildfires.