The tiny, unincorporated community of Vernon, Ariz. doesn’t want to be Paradise.
As in burning to the ground, like Paradise, Calif.
So they’re doing what Payson so far has not — protecting themselves by clearing brush throughout the area and becoming a Firewise community.
Of course, they’ve had some help — from Apache County, the state and federal governments and the local fire department.
That help has helped land a $176,000 state/federal grant to thin the thick brush and small trees on 200 acres of private property in the Vernon area. The clearing will take place mostly on private land — with the property owners footing only 10% of the bill.
Payson could apply for the same kind of grant. The fire department here is reportedly working on it — but still lags behind the efforts of many much smaller communities.
Like many communities in Gila County, Vernon faces a greater fire risk than did Paradise, which burned to the ground when a raging wildfire destroyed 19,000 buildings and killed 85 people.
The fire roared through brush and small trees that hadn’t seen a wildfire in decades, outrunning attempts to evacuate the small California town.
A recent study concluded Paradise had a 3.8-point wildfire risk on a 5-point scale, based on overgrowth, past fire history, evacuation routes and things like the number of elderly and disabled people who face challenges in a rapid evacuation.
Turns out, on the same scale Vernon faces a 4.2-point risk rating.
In fact, a survey of 5,000 communities in the West found 525 faced a greater fire risk than did Paradise.
In Rim Country, virtually every community scored above 4.5 on the same scale. That includes Pine (4.7), Payson (4.4), Star Valley (4.6), Strawberry (4.6), Young (4.6), Tonto Village (4.8), Christopher Creek (4.8), Kohl’s Ranch (4.8), Haigler Creek (4.7) Round Valley (4.7), East Verde Estates (4.6), Flowing Springs (4.7), Freedom Acres (4.8), Beaver Valley (4.7), Washington Park (4.7), and Geronimo Estates (4.6).
The 2010 Census listed the population of Vernon at 122, mostly women with a household income of $32,000 and an average home value of $50,000.
Vernon got a wakeup call in the form of the San Juan Fire in 2014. The blaze burned more than 5,000 acres in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests just south of Vernon. The fire got close enough to Vernon to force evacuations and threatened homes. But a shift in the winds and the efforts of 500 firefighters saved the community.
Vernon has since been working toward becoming a Firewise community, where people create thinned safe zones around their houses where they seek to reduce the burden of brush and trees on vacant property that can easily carry a fire through a community. A wildfire in the forest even a mile away can create violent updrafts that cause a rain of burning embers, some fist-sized. Those embers can rain down on pine-needle-covered roofs and dense clusters of brush and trees pressing up against homes. Once a house catches fire within a neighborhood, those same layers of brush and branches can quickly carry the flames from house to house. Most of the homes that burned in Paradise caught fire because of the heat and flames from a neighboring house fire.
Protecting a community in wildfire country requires both such Firewise brush thinning and a wildland-urban interface (WUI) building code. Such a code requires fire-resistant building materials and other changes to prevent that rain of embers from setting a house on fire, including things like overhanging wooden eaves, porches with an opening on the underside that allow embers to waft in under the house and other changes. Gila County has not adopted such a WUI code, unlike Flagstaff and Prescott — both of which have suffered near destruction from wildfires. Neither have Payson or Star Valley.
However, Vernon’s at least working hard to thin the decades of accumulated brush and small trees that would allow a wildfire to rush into town and spread from house to house before people could evacuate.
Some 45 residents who own some 550 acres of property joined together in 2016 to undertake fuels treatments, investigate becoming a Firewise community and work with county, state and federal officials to find money to help residents prepare.
The effort bore fruit this month when the Apache County fuels mitigation specialist closed in on a $176,000 state and federal grant, which will cover 90% of the cost of thinning some 200 acres of critically overgrown terrain. The county will provide a match valued at about $24,000, including labor by people on probation working off fines through community service in cooperation with crews from the Vernon Fire Department.
The work started last year and will resume in April. Overall, the thinning projects will cost about $1,200 per acre — substantially more than the federal subsidy that was provided for the long-running White Mountain Stewardship Project on Forest Service lands.
The project will yield an additional benefit, since workers will turn the dangerous overgrowth into firewood for the community.
“Vernon Fire will help to conduct site assessments and perform fuels treatments. Apache County Probation Services will partner in chipping and hauling off debris as well as hauling and distributing firewood throughout the county. Sites have already been identified for firewood distribution including local churches, Navajo Nation chapter houses and local senior centers.”
The organizers hope much of the wood will go to people who have trouble paying to heat their homes, with fresh increases in utility rates compounding their struggles.
The backers hope to use the grant and the thinning projects to educate homeowners, so they can maintain the treatments and not let the problem return to crisis levels.
“The fire department and local forestry agencies can work with neighbors/homeowner groups to hold annual ‘cleanup’ days as a way to share the costs of thinning, hauling and burning. The Vernon Fire Department will serve as the catalyst to keep property owners informed and involved. Periodic checks of treated properties by Apache County and the fire department will identify any issues such as tree mortality or insect infestation that would warrant a removal of trees,” according to the grant summary.
The county will need to get homeowner participation, since homeowners will get a bill for 10% of the cost of the work once it’s finished.
Fortunately, the Forest Service has already created buffer zones to the south of the community — the direction from which wind-driven summer fires usually come. The White Mountain Stewardship Project fostered such thinning projects for roughly 15 years, creating the buffer zones that saved Alpine and Springerville from the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.
The effort continues throughout Rim Country and the White Mountains, although it’s now hobbled by doubts about the future of the biomass-burning plant near Snowflake, which made the clearing of some 60,000 acres possible. The Four Forest Restoration Project remains the largest forest thinning and restoration project in the history of the country, but has been hobbled by the lack of a market for the brush, small trees and biomass that represents at least half of the material contractors must remove.
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