Roy Sandoval, Gila County school superintendent and past principal of Payson High School, worries Rim Country could face serious problems if it fails to do something about the number of homeless people living in the area.
“I’m a little afraid of what can happen with a lackadaisical attitude toward establishing procedures and policies (about the homeless),” he said.
For weeks, Sandoval watched as squatters set up in the empty lot across the street from his house.
“This illegal squatter was here for about a month,” said Sandoval. “Finally, they left and this is what they left — human and dog feces everywhere! Trash, tents (and) stink!”
After he filled up two trash cans with waste, he called the authorities.
“The police were called but said they could not intervene on private property,” he said.
What upsets Sandoval the most, “there don’t seem to be any procedures or policies in place to deal with the homeless.”
That is something Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey, partnering with Gila County, hopes to remedy.
“Homelessness impacts much more than just these unfortunate people — and the solution to this begins with tackling the source of the problem which in many cases is mental illness and drugs,” said Morrissey.
In Seattle, the ABC news station aired an exposé called “Seattle is Dying.” The hour long special — now on YouTube — examines the hopeless chaos the city experiences — streets that smell like urine, feces everywhere, bags of trash and weapons.
So far, the city of Seattle has decided to decriminalize small amounts of hard drugs and pull back on enforcement.
In 2016, of the 100 reports filed with Seattle police regarding crimes committed by the homeless, only 18 resulted in conviction.
Just as Morrissey has identified addiction as the heart of the issue, so too has Seattle.
Matt Markovitch, a reporter for KOMO, the news station in Seattle, went into the streets to talk to the homeless.
“Many are choosing to stay this way because of all the drug habits they have,” he said.
Markovitch has spoken with the Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes to understand why people get arrested up to 60 times and return to the street. Holmes told him, “You can’t arrest your way out of this problem.”
One state has tried a new approach — intervention.
In Rhode Island, once arrested, authorities put addicts in jail and require them to participate in a rehabilitation program called MAT or Medication Assisted Treatment.
MAT uses three different opiate blockers, methadone, suboxone and vivitrol to help the addict get control of their physical addiction urges. These drugs get people off of opiates, but addicts continue to take the drug for the rest of their lives, just as they would high blood pressure medication.
Then the MAT program provides counselors and tools to help addicts return to society as a contributing member.
Once the addict leaves prison they register for a community program run by the non-profit CODAC.
CODAC gives addicts one place to get their meds, counseling and support.
So far, the program has seen 93 percent of the former addicts return.
Enforcement and intervention has worked in Rhode Island, could it work in Rim Country?
Morrissey hopes so.
“I’m working on getting Doug Stewart as Gila County director of homelessness prevention,” he said. “We have a serious problem and we need to address it.”
Policymakers have refused to create a market for biomass to promote forest thinning.
That leaves the Forest Service with a choice: Fight fire with fire.
The dilemma is no where more evident than on the watershed for the C.C Cragin Reservoir — a key water supply for both Payson and Phoenix.
The Forest Service last year offered a 3,500-acre timber sale on the watershed, hoping logging companies would actually pay to reduce tree densities from about 800 per acre to about 100 per acre.
Not a single company put in a bid — partly because the Forest Service specifications would have required them to haul away low-value biomass composed of saplings, branches and debris.
The decision recently by the Arizona Corporation Commission made things much worse, dashing hopes that the state regulatory agency would require the utilities it oversees to buy 60 megawatts of electricity annually generated from such biomass. Backers hoped non-regulated utilities like the Salt River Project would buy another 30 megawatts.
Now, the Forest Service has regrouped on the C.C. Cragin watershed, contracting with the Wild Turkey Federation to manage the 3,500-acre General Springs timber sale. Officials hope the group can raise money from outside sources to subsidize the thinning project. The Forest Service has already partnered with both Payson, the National Forest Foundation and SRP in an effort to accelerate the thinning of the vulnerable watershed.
In the meantime, the Forest Service remains reliant on a risky alternative to thinning projects — managed wildfires.
The wet winter this year allowed the Forest Service to manage fires across Arizona it would have otherwise put out quickly. Fires burning right now include lightning-caused Castle fire 11 miles north of Jacob Lake, which crew are monitoring within a managed fire planning area of 12,000 acres, the lightning-cased Newman Fire south of Upper Lake Mary near Flagstaff burning in a 22,000-acre planning area.
The 64,000-acre C.C. Cragin watershed offers a perfect illustration of the challenges facing the Forest Service in trying to integrate fire into its plan to restore millions of acres of forest now subject to devastating, town-destroying crown fires.
Forest managers say that a high-intensity crown fire on the dense thickets of trees on the slopes above the reservoir would cause flooding that could fill the long, narrow reservoir with mud. Such a fire could also destroy the infrastructure of the $54 million pipeline serving Payson as well as moving water to the Verde River where it supplies Phoenix.
So far, several low-intensity fires during the cooler months have burned through portions of the watershed without climbing into the treetops.
In June of 2018, the Bear Fire burned on top of the Mogollon Rim in the burn scar left by the Dude Fire. The fire ambled through dead and downed wood and burned off pine duff without jumping up into the bigger trees. It effectively created a buffer zone on the edge of the C.C. Cragin watershed — and just in time.
Weeks later, in more dangerous conditions, a presumably human-caused fire started at the base of the Mogollon Rim. The Highline Fire roared up the face of the Rim. Some 450 firefighters supported by air tankers made a stand along Control Road 300 to keep it from spreading into the forest beyond. The fire burned into the still smoldering scar of the Bear Fire.
Most recently, the Coldwater Fire burned some 17,000 acres on the edge of the watershed, some four miles from Clints Well. The fire proved a blessing, remaining on the ground and eating through pine duff, downed wood and saplings. The fire burned close to Highway 87. This allowed crews to actually set backfires along the highway, which moved towards the main body of the fire – creating a needed buffer zone along the highway.
The fire never gained enough energy to escape control thanks to a wet winter, said Blue Ridge Ranger District Head Ranger Linda Wadleigh.
“The fire started from a lightning strike in one tree that was about midway up a slope — not a very steep slope.”
The Coldwater Fire did a lot of the work that thinning crews would have done.
“In some areas, it removed a lot of the smaller trees — we call them doghair,” said Wadleigh. “It was a mixed severity fire, which is really good. That’s what we’re after, we don’t want to have the whole forest in one condition,” whether you’re talking about the behavior of wildfire or the needs of wildlife,” she said.
The fire managers got a break when the fire burned into an area where they’d already planned a controlled burn. That means they had already worked out where to create buffer zones and containment lines to keep the fire confined to the area that could most benefit.
So the Forest Service has shifted decisively from its 100-year effort to put out almost all wildfires as quickly as possible. That policy actually helped create the current danger, by changing natural fire cycles and allowing tree densities to increase tenfold or 100-fold across millions of acres.
But the Forest Service has tried to shift to a reliance on managed fire before, as retired Arizona State University fire ecologist Stephen Pyne detailed in his book, “The Southwest, A Fire Survey.”
Forest ecologists have warned for decades that relying entirely on fire suppression will inevitably end in catastrophe, when a megafire finally gets loose on a landscape piled high with fuel. The Forest Service has periodically shifted to taking the risk of allowing some fires to burn when conditions seem right. Inevitably, one of those managed fires eventually gets out of control and consumes homes or causes fatalities. That always causes a political backlash. The Forest Service has then repeatedly backed away from managing fire, returning to an emphasis on suppression.
The Four Forest Restoration Initiative approach was supposed to change that dynamic, mechanically thinning forests enough that fire could return to its natural cycle in Arizona — with frequent low intensity fires creating a landscape mosaic of thicker patches, meadows and open, grassy, low-density ponderosa pine forests.
“We have to come up with another way to do this,” said Wadleigh. “We’ve got a whole suite of tools and we don’t want to abandon any of those ideas. We’ve got to look at what we’re trying to do — and that’s remove the smaller fuels that are going to create a crown fire. That’s the most important thing we do, is remove the smaller stuff.”
And that’s what makes the recent ACC decision to not create a market for biomass such a body blow to those efforts — not only to save the C.C. Cragin watershed, but to prevent the next Rodeo-Chediski or Wallow Fire from burning straight through vulnerable forest communities like Show Low and Springerville.
“It’s important what we do as a state as a whole. Finding a market for the biomass is incredibly important,” concluded Wadleigh.
Next: Can the Wild Turkey Federation save the C.C. Cragin watershed — and maybe forested communities as well?
Another solution has been proposed to bring resilient broadband to Payson and northern Gila County.
At a Gila County Board of Supervisors work session July 16, APS said it is working on a plan that both benefits the company and could help put a stop to the frequent and extended broadband outages that have plagued Rim Country.
Neil Traver, division manager for APS, serving Gila and Navajo counties, told the supervisors the company has decided to run fiber optic lines from Phoenix to Payson and from Prescott to Flagstaff in 2019-20. The lines will run at the top of the large electricity towers already in place.
Where there is now “static neutral” wiring on the top of the towers, crews, via helicopter, will remove it and replace it with fiber line conduit.
APS will use some of the fiber optic strands for secure, closed broadband access to its substations, but the majority will be available to lease to other vendors — internet service providers.
“Broadband is part of every economic development conversation I have been a part of for years — and what APS can do to help,” Traver said.
He said APS is very active in advancing the economic development of the rural areas it serves and it needs to have its own internal internet available to keep the system secure and accessible.
The expansion of the APS fiber project will provide the necessary infrastructure for better broadband service in rural areas.
Traver said the project into Payson and Flagstaff — Phase 1 — should be completed by this time next year. Following that, the plan is to expand the line from the Payson area to the White Mountains in 2021 — Phase 2 — and then create a loop between Flagstaff and the White Mountains in 2022 — Phase 3.
“I’m really excited about it. Phase 1 is approved and it’s happening. When the loop is completed, there will be enough capacity to never have another issue,” Traver told the supervisors.
Jeff Christensen, president of EntryPoint Networks, which helped the small community of Ammon, Idaho become an internet provider, also attended the recent supervisors meeting.
Christensen explained the idea of better broadband access by comparing it to two “road models” — the model that does not work is to have the likes of UPS and FedEx exclusively use different roads. The better model is to have a single road on which both can travel, along with any other business.
“Communication (broadband) is the economy. Control over access to the public internet is broken,” he said.
Christensen told the supervisors in five years there would be a new internet — a private internet, built for security and accessibility.
“We need accessible networks that are radically open. We need a second internet.”
His company, EntryPoint Networks, was founded with the vision to separate network infrastructure from services to make it possible to increase the number of services available to a user. He explained as things stand now, the owner of the infrastructure decides the services to which customers have access.
“Counties and cities should have local control of the infrastructure as a utility,” he said. Christensen added with local control, subscribers could become the focus, providing affordable access so everyone can get it.
“Build a plan for the future and that starts with the middle mile (which the APS fiber line project could provide),” he said.
That leaves the last mile to be reached by service providers. “Make it easy for service providers. It lowers cost.”
Homero Vela, assistant county manager, coordinated the work session. He said the need to explore broadband options for the county was based on just a few main points:
• It is not reliable; there have been at least three significant outages that lasted more than eight hours
• Broadband is not a luxury, it is an essential utility — it is used by everyone and we depend on it and use will only increase
• Any decisions made must be based on future needs, not what we need now
• It needs to be affordable and available to homes as well as businesses — rural areas need broadband more than urban areas
In addition to the APS and EntryPoint representatives, the supervisors also heard from Mac Feezor, a member of the county’s broadband consortium.
A motorcyclist was killed three miles south of Payson on Highway 87 Saturday, the third fatal motorcycle wreck in recent weeks.
Robert Frank Welch, 50, and his girlfriend were riding northbound on State Route 87 just after 10 a.m. in the passing lane. A Chevrolet Suburban reportedly pulled out in front of their motorcycle from the median crossover, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Welch, known as “Gnome,” was vice president of the Old Bastards Motorcycle Club Salt River. He and his girlfriend were on their way to Payson to participate in the club’s annual Runnin’ with the Pups fundraiser for the Humane Society of Central Arizona.
“They were near the Jim Jones Shooting Range area,” said Dan “Coyote” Shover, president of the Old Bastards Motorcycle Club Payson. “The white SUV T-boned him — he had nowhere to go. His girlfriend, “Tumbles,” went through the vehicle and ended up inside. She is still in ICU.”
Welch died on scene. His girlfriend was airlifted to Scottsdale Memorial Hospital Osborn, according to a DPS spokesperson.
“He’s been a brother of ours for over four years,” said Shover. “He will be missed.”
The driver of the Chevrolet SUV was cited for failure to yield. There was no evidence of impairment, according to DPS.
On the afternoon of July 6, Harry Daniel Lajoie, 74, of Camp Verde, died on State Route 260 between Payson and Camp Verde, according to DPS.
Lajoie’s Honda motorcycle reportedly went off the roadway near milepost 237. He was thrown 30 feet down an embankment. He died on scene.
And at 9 a.m. on June 29, Joseph Graci, 65, of Apache Junction, died on State Route 87 at milepost 232.
For unknown reasons, the black 2014 Harley-Davidson motorcycle Graci was on with another rider went down. Graci died at Banner Payson Medical Center. The condition of the other rider is unknown.
Editor Alexis Bechman contributed to this story
With nowhere else to go, Justin and his wife Norma moved to Payson recently, living out of their vehicle in the forest.
They came to Ponderosa Bible Church’s Outreach to the Homeless July 15 seeking help.
Volunteers at the event offered free haircuts, clothing, food and support.
The couple has no access to running water, clothing or everyday basic items.
In spite of their circumstances, they remain positive things will get better.
“It could be so much worse,” said Justin. “Many people are in worse situations than we are and I have my wife with me. She’s everything to me, without her I wouldn’t have made it at all.”
Justin arrived at the church with a mop of thick hair and a beard. He left clean-shaven. He said he liked the cooler look. His wife agreed. She also had her hair trimmed.
Kenny, a tall man with reddish hair, emerged shyly from the makeshift salon with a haircut and shave. Gina, who works at Payson Care Center and asked that we not use her last name, donated her time for the event giving free haircuts.
Kenny was wearing a pair of ill-fitting shoes that were chaffing his heels so he wore them half on, half off.
He said he had been camping in the Roosevelt area, but when the fire evacuation order came he didn’t have enough time to retrieve his belongings. He said he lost everything, including photographs of his parents and other family members. Now camping out in the forest near Payson, he said he needed ice and propane, but there was no way to keep ice in the forest.
“Plus I have cancer and COPD,” said Kenny, “and nowhere to go. I can’t get any medical help. I feel very depressed, I just don’t know what to do.”
Outreach to the Homeless offered clothing, food, haircuts, shaves, hygiene bags, and bags of dog food for the homeless who came. Church vans provided transportation every 30 minutes to/from the Walmart parking lot and Circle K south.
Church members and other volunteers from the community were on hand to help people choose clothing from the tables full of shirts, jeans, pants, and other items.
Margaret Kroegen, Donna Turner and Barbara Renouf, members of Ponderosa Bible Church, were folding clothes since 9 a.m. They said they were happy the church was hosting the event and planned to host another in October. Maria Salas joined them to volunteer.
Senior Pastor Joe Falkner and his wife Sharon served meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans. Pastor Allen Mann and his wife Sheree welcomed people and helped them with information.
Drew Filer, a new youth pastor at the church, and Nathan Mann, served chili and salad.
Jamil Calero, Spanish ministry pastor, also participated.
Stephanie Mann, Wanda Boggs and Sandee Cunningham served tacos. Tom Lampkin was their first customer.
The food was prepared by Catfish Annie’s chef Chet Dugas. Meals were available to everyone who attended.
The homeless population in Rim Country fluctuates according to the time of year, said Elsa Bobier with Gila County Community Services Division Community Action Program (CAP). She had a table at the event filled with handouts on where people can find income-based support from food banks to utility payment/deposit assistance, rental assistance, low income housing, cell phones, senior programs and community services.
The group was prepared for a large number of people but estimated there were about 20 homeless who attended.
“It’s a trust issue,” said Allen Mann, pastor of worship, evangelism and outreach at Ponderosa Bible Church. “The more we do these outreach programs, the easier it will be for people to come forward.”
Homeless people often don’t know about these events and once some come, the word will spread to others. This is the first event the group has organized with the support of Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey, who handed out fliers around town before to the event.
Shirley Dye came and brought lyrics to the song “Fear is a Liar,” which she sang for people at her table. She sang it again for Kenny to cheer him up.
Once a person is homeless, it is often difficult to overcome their circumstances.
Organizers said it is a challenge to find a job when someone doesn’t even have clean clothes or running water to wash in.
Many companies rely on online applications and without a cell phone or internet connection, the homeless cannot apply.
Some homeless have substance abuse and mental health issues and could benefit from local mobile crisis teams that provide assistance and referrals through Northern Arizona Crisis Line, 877-756-4090.
Many homeless are unaware of available programs or that they are eligible, so events like Outreach to the Homeless help get the word out, said Bobier.
Morrissey said he supports events like Outreach to the Homeless and hopes to eventually see a warming station in Payson opened.
The last attempt was squashed when neighbors worried the homeless would move into their neighborhood.
Justin, Norma and Kenny left with bags of clean clothes, toiletries, food and information.
There was only one pair of shoes available. They fit Kenny perfectly.