Tonto National Forest this week launched a 5,200-acre thinning project to protect Pine, Strawberry, Whispering Pines, Washington Park and a host of other communities from wildfire.

The project will continue for five months, with mechanical thinning intended to create buffer zones around forested communities in the hopes of lessening the danger of the kinds of catastrophic fires that have consumed more than 10,000 homes this year in California.

“These scheduled mechanical treatments are a vital component of our long-range, landscape-scale, three-pronged fuels reduction and Robust Forest Strategy that we began successfully implementing in 2001,” fire managers said in a news release. “This strategy has attracted national attention and recognition and seeks to reduce catastrophic wildfire danger in Rim Country, to initiate the restoration of natural landscapes and ecological systems, and to foster and develop sustainable forest conditions, wildlife habitat, and watersheds.”

Last week, the effort started with thinning projects in the Ellison Creek Summer Homes and La Cienega Ranch areas.

Over the past decade, the Tonto National Forest has thinned more than 50,000 acres on the outskirts of Rim Country communities, including Payson and Star Valley. The thinned buffer zones are intended to give firefighters a chance to stop a wildfire that comes roaring out of the woods before it can sweep through neighborhoods.

The thinning projects over the next five months will maintain or create additional buffer zones to protect, Pine, Strawberry, Arrowhead Estates, the Randall Place, Bonita Creek Estates, Ellison Creek Estates, Ellison Creek Summer Homes, Round Valley, Washington Park, Rim Trail, Shadow Rim Girl Scout Ranch, Whispering Pines, and Zane Grey Cabins.

Ironically, the Forest Service is launching the latest large-scale thinning project when the forest is usually too wet – and even snow covered – to allow easy operations.

Arizona’s in the grip of one of the worst droughts on record, with less than half the normal rainfall and temperatures well above average – although the weather forecast calls for a 10 or 15 degree drop in temperatures this weekend.

The Forest Service has launched the world’s most ambitious forest restoration and thinning project in Northern Arizona, but the Four-Forests Restoration Initiative has all but stalled in the last decade. Thinning projects have been hobbled by the lack of either a Forest Service subsidy and the lack of a market for wood from the small trees that make up most of the material removed in a forest thinning project.

The refusal of the Arizona Corporation Commission to support a mandate that would create and maintain a market for biomass from small trees has ensured 4FRI has thinned only a fraction of the 50,000-acre annual goal. In the meantime, the Tonto, Coconino and Apache Sitgreaves forests have scrambled every year to find enough money to undertake small-scale projects that will at least create buffer zones around forested communities. The effort has proved most successful in the White Mountains, thanks to the presence of the NovoPower biomass burning electrical plant in Snowflake and the presence of several sawmills and wood processing plants.

Buffer zones from previous thinning projects are widely credited with preventing the Wallow Fire from destroying Alpine and Springerville in the White Mountains.

The amount of forest burned each year has doubled in the past decade, thanks to record drought and a century of fire suppression and cattle grazing that has allowed a massive increase in tree densities and the buildup of now bone-dry fuels on the forest floor.

The Tonto Forest has proved adept at finishing the environmental studies of thinning projects, then snagging year-end surplus forest restoration funding from the Forest Service.

However, the doubling of the cost of fighting the increasing number of crown fires to more than $2 billion annually has repeatedly drained the forest service budget, often not leaving enough money to consider large-scale thinning efforts to prevent the forest-destroying megafires.

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