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Firefighters handle lightning, fire calls Saturday

With lightning crashing all around them, firefighters stood out in a storm Saturday to stop the spread of flames into a Rim Club home, that was likely hit by lightning.

“It is scary, it is dangerous with the lightning all around,” said a Payson fire battalion chief.

Dispatchers started receiving calls from residents of various lightning strikes around town around 6:30 p.m.

“We had a pretty good storm cell come across the east end of town,” said the fire official.

The first calls came from the area of Ridgeway Street where several residents reported seeing a strike and possible burst of fire. Firefighters scoured the area, but could find no fire. Officials believe the rain likely put any flames out before it spread.

Then around 6:50 p.m., a home in the 1100 block of South Elk Ridge was hit by lightning. The strike was so loud “the entire neighborhood heard it,” the fire official said.

The homeowner reported smelling smoke in the home, which had lightning rods installed.

Firefighters found no smoke in the home, but found the lightning had traveled down the rods, a rain gutter and when it grounded, blew apart a section of concrete. Two outlets in the home were damaged.

“It was such a powerful blast,” the official said.

Firefighters left that home around 7:47 p.m. and at 7:54, the crew at the Tyler Parkway fire station received word from dispatch that residents in The Rim Club smelled smoke.

Security told firefighters where residents were calling from and the crew set off looking for any signs of fire.

“The engine went around a corner and saw the back side of a home on fire,” the official said.

Firefighters put water on the fire as additional firefighters arrived and the battalion chief called for a second-alarm, which brought in resources from Christopher Kohls, Water Wheel and the Hellsgate fire departments.

“They made a good attack,” the official said. “The guys really did a phenomenal job.”

Firefighters contained the fire to a deck and the home, some 5,500 square feet, was undamaged.

No one was home and no one was injured.

The fire was under control just before 9 p.m.

The fire is still under investigation, but lightning is likely the cause.

The official said with the amount of lightning in the area crews had to be extra careful they were not struck as well.

“We manage the risk as much as we can,” he said. “You just have to be smart about it.”

Man rescued at Tonto Natural Bridge

A man found himself needing rescue Saturday afternoon after climbing into a cave at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and being unable to get back out.

The man had reportedly watched a group of children climb up and into an upper cave on the north side of the travertine bridge and decided to follow suit, said Bill Pitterle, Tonto Rim Search and Rescue commander.

The man, a former Marine and semi pro football player, climbed up into the cave by going through a small opening toward the rear of another cave, Pitterle said.

However, when he tried to leave, the man found he could not fit back through the opening, he said.

“It was unidirectional,” he said.

The children meanwhile were small enough to go back through the opening.

It was too far to jump off the 20-foot cliff so park rangers called for help. The volunteer-based TRSAR responded and attached a rope system to one of the member’s vehicles.

“We train frequently for these kinds of rescues,” he said. “I would like to thank my team for establishing the fall line, quickly rigging and then executing flawlessly.”

Pitterle rappelled to the man and helped him rappel to the ground safely. The man was uninjured.

“He was very appreciative,” Pitterle said.

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Forest Service talks turkey about Craigin

High hopes hit hard reality when the U.S. Forest Service last year sought bidders for a 3,500-acre timber sale on the watershed of the C.C. Cragin watershed — a reservoir that supplies both Payson and Phoenix with drinking water.

Blue Ridge District Head Ranger Linda Wadleigh said the Forest Service calculated the value of the saw timber at maybe $3.5 million. But mostly, forest managers wanted to get rid of the saplings, branches, brush and biomass that could carry a ground fire up into the tops of the centuries-old ponderosa pines and firs. The resulting crown fire could easily sear the soil, resulting in devastating floods that would fill the reservoir with mud.

That’s exactly what happened to Denver, which spent hundreds of millions dredging a vital reservoir after post-fire mudflows.

Only catch: Not a single logging company put in a bid.

The Forest Service has now regrouped, which may turn out to be one of those back to the future solutions.

The Forest Service has contracted with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) to undertake a stewardship contract, starting with the 3,500-acre General Springs timber sale. The Forest Service hopes the NWTF can find a logging company to cut the marketable trees and then use outside money to deal with the small trees and biomass. The Forest Service also has an existing agreement with the Salt River Project, Payson and the National Forest Foundation to plan and support restoration of the 64,000-acre watershed.

If that sounds familiar, you’re not imagining it.

The Forest Service tried a similar approach in eastern Arizona, where for 15 years it administered the White Mountain Stewardship Project. However, in that case the federal government kicked in about $1,000 per acre to offset the cost of dealing with the biomass. The approach thinned 50,000 acres in the course of 15 years, although the Forest Service never provided enough of a subsidy to get anywhere close to the planned 15,000 acres a year.

Nonetheless, the thinning projects completed are credited with saving Alpine and perhaps Springerville from the Wallow Fire.

“It should be the most important thing for folks in the Southwest to think about and be proactive for their source of water,” said NWTF biologist and stewardship contract manager Scott Lerich.“If it’s not, then I don’t know what our elected officials are doing. I can’t think of anything more important for everybody as a whole.”

The prospects for such a thinning project dimmed when the Arizona Corporation Commission rejected a proposal to require utilities to buy power generated by biomass.

Environmentalists, conservationist groups and local officials have all united behind the idea of thinning the forest to not only reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires, but improve conditions for wildlife. The ponderosa pine forest of northern Arizona are adapted to frequent, low-intensity wildfires. But a century of fire suppression, grazing and logging have left them dangerously overcrowded with trees. Decades without regular, low-intensity fires have allowed millions of tons of biomass to build up on every acre of the forest floor.

Lerich said the C.C. Cragin watershed has excellent turkey habitat already — all of it threatened by a megafire. However, a stewardship approach would seek to create a habitat patchwork, including some thick stands of trees, open meadows, healthy riparian areas and a more open, grassy forest. Such a mix benefits most wildlife species, including both turkeys and endangered Mexican spotted owls.

“We’re involved in 114 stewardship projects around the country. I would like to see it expand to the entire C.C. Cragin watershed project area,” said Lerich. “It could take five or 10 years to get it done, but the agreement allows the flexibility to enlarge the project beyond General Springs as we add money or partners.”

He said despite the political support for the landmark Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), little real help has been forthcoming from the state or federal governments.

The 4FRI project grew out of the White Mountain Stewardship Project, which spawned a nascent, small-tree logging industry in the White Mountains, supported by the biomass electrical generating plant operated by Novo Power in Snowflake.

The Forest Service then launched 4FRI, on the theory that selling the timber could pay for the thinning. So far, 4FRI has proven disappointing — with a succession of contractors thinning just 15,000 in almost eight years, thanks in large measure to the lack of a market for the biomass — which accounts for half of the material removed.

By contrast, a coalition of contractors in small-wood industry operations in the White Mountains has managed to thin an additional 50,000 acres or so in the same time.

Lerich said he’s frustrated at the lack of support from the state, the Forest Service and other agencies.

“Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what folks are doing on the federal level — just funding in general.”

The Trump administration proposed a nearly $1 billion cut in the Forest Service’s $5.1 billion budget.

The budget included a 16 percent cut in grants for state wildfire action plans as well as eliminating the $45 million Land and Water Conservation Fund.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen told a Senate committee that fire experts estimate the Forest Service will have to spend between $1.6 and $2.8 billion just fighting fires this year. However, the budget includes just $1.7 billion for fire operations.

Congress last year did set up a nearly $2 billion fire suppression fund the Forest Service to access in an emergency — just like FEMA has an account for dealing with damage from hurricanes and flooding. This could reduce the budget chaos of “fire borrowing,” which for years has forced the Forest Service to delay or cancel vital projects to move money over into the firefighting budget.

However, the budget cuts leave the Forest Service without the money to undertake the thinning and forest restoration projects that would make it possible to return fire to its natural role and cycle — ultimately reducing money spent fighting the fires.

Lerich said he’s mystified at the lack of priority for thinning projects that could avert much more expensive wildfires.

A subsidy of $1,000 per acre would cost about $2 billion to accelerate the thinning of the more than 2 million acres in the footprint of 4FRI. This includes a swath of land from the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico border, including all of the White Mountains and Rim Country. The project would protect hundreds of billions in property values and a population base of about 400,000.

“It should be the most important thing for folks in the Southwest to think about and be proactive for their source of water.”

But not even last year’s disasters in California, which consumed the town of Paradise, killed 88 people and caused more than $12 billion in damages has galvanized state or federal action

“The Wallow Fire cost $100 million to fight,” said Lerich. “And 90 percent of that money left the state of Arizona. That did not contribute to the economy of the local area at all. The Schultz Fire cost maybe $100 million to suppress and the flooding afterwards killed a little girl. Just the aftermath of that fire has cost $100 million. It caused the city of Flagstaff to finally get proactive about protecting its watershed.”

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Rim author believes she was always meant to write

Karen Randau believes she was always meant to write. From the time she learned to print in block letters she says she processed life events by putting them in writing.

Randau’s most recent book, “Deadly Payload,” was selected as a finalist in the Book Excellence Awards for thrillers, sponsored by Literary Excellence, Inc., and the Beverly Hills Book Awards. Both recognize excellence in writing, design and marketability.

The novel is the fourth in her series, Rim Country Mysteries, published by Short on Time Books of Florence, Ariz.

The series is supplemented by a novella, “Deadly Reception,” Randau was invited to write as part of the Tawnee Mountain Mysteries series, also published by Short on Time Books.

A resident of Payson for 16 years, Randau earned a degree in journalism and worked in public relations. Until her retirement in February 2018 she was with an international nonprofit based in the Valley for 28 years.

The demands of corporate public relations writing did not squeeze away her creativity though. Her first attempt at writing a novel arose from a story her son told her on his return from a Boy Scout camp.

“From what he said, it sounded like they had seen Bigfoot and my reaction was, ‘Why don’t moms ever see Bigfoot?’” And that gave her an idea for a novel.

It started as a novel for adults, but after eight edits it turned into something for young adults.

Six years ago, when Randau was director of the international nonprofit’s public relations department, she confided to one of the writers that she had “crazy ideas swimming around” in her head. Her friend said that meant there was a novel trying to get out. So, she became a novelist by night and a corporate P.R. director by day.

It took about a year to write her first book, “Deadly Deceit,” which Short on Time Books was willing to publish if it were part of a series. Randau says she learned about the publishing company by networking.

She says she struggled with the oft-repeated message of finding a strong voice for your writing and admits it is still hard for her to explain it to other writers.

“I think it is creating a protagonist that has a strong sound to them, the reader knows their voice.”

Randau’s protagonist is Rita Avery and she is introduced in a story built around a mass shooting in a movie theater and the discovery that everything she thought she knew about her husband was a lie. The subsequent books in the series each took about six months to write.

In addition to the previously mentioned titles, the series includes “Deadly Inheritance” and “Deadly Choices.” She says while all the books, including the novella, are chronological, they also stand on their own. The books are available through Amazon.

She is starting a new series and is looking for an agent. While her experience with Short on Time Books was wonderful, her goal with the new series is to find a publisher with a larger catalog and more marketing support. She says marketing is difficult; she especially struggles with speaking engagements. A friend and fellow novelist is adept at speaking to groups and as a result sells at least twice as many books as Randau. Still, she is willing to speak to groups. Contact her at

Her advice to other writers:

• Have a desire to write and know it is going to be a lot of work

• Write every day — practice makes perfect

• Decide what works for your writing — using an outline or being a “pantser” (writing from the seat of the pants) or working from somewhere in the middle

• Stretch your boundaries

• Write what you know, but remember there are lots of opportunities to “know” more thanks to research

• Write the best product you can, but don’t rely on your own judgment to determine if it’s ready to send to a publisher

• Family and friends are not the best choices for checks and balances on your writing; find a developmental editor — she had two — who will tell you if the work is ready or not and also tell you why it isn’t ready

• Find a group of published writers willing to critique your work

• Educate yourself on the publishing industry — developmental editors; line editors, who help with sentence structure and grammatical issues; proofreaders; etc.

• Network with local writers or join larger groups, she is a member of the Sisters in Crime Arizona chapter, Desert Sleuths, which meets every month in Phoenix; attend writer conferences

Networking options

Arizona Professional Writers, Rim Country Chapter

The next meeting of this local group is at 1 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 14 at Majestic Rim on Tyler Parkway, Payson.

Come and share your current work with the members. If you are struggling with new ideas or are a seasoned writer and want some feedback, this is the meeting for you.

Anyone in the community who wants to explore writing is welcome.

Sisters in Crime

The group has more than 3,500 members in 51 chapters worldwide. It offers networking, advice and support to mystery authors. Members are authors, readers, publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians bound by affection for the mystery genre and support of women who write mysteries.

The Sisters in Crime Desert Sleuths Chapter is located in the Phoenix area and serves members throughout the Arizona. It meets the third Wednesday of each month at The Newton (same building as the Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix), 300 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix. No RSVPs needed. Attendees pay for their own meals and drinks. Arrive at 6 p.m. for dinner and networking; the business meeting is at 6:30 p.m.; with a speaker or program from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The meeting is Aug. 21 and the program will have members writing a short story mystery together.

Writer conferences

• Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2019 Colorado Gold Conference is Sept. 6-8 at the Denver Renaissance Stapleton Hotel, Denver, Colo. Find details at

• The Sisters in Crime Desert Sleuths Chapter’s 2019 WriteNow! Conference, “Becoming the Writer You Were Meant to Be” is Sept. 27-28 at Embassy Suites by Hilton, 4415 E. Paradise Valley Parkway South, Phoenix

It is a full day of internationally acclaimed, award-winning authors and industry insiders sharing their secrets to success in seminars, hands-on workshops and panel discussions.

For more go to

• Bouchercon Dallas 2019 is the world’s premier annual crime fiction event. Join the mystery community — from authors, fans, and publishers to reviewers, booksellers, and editors — for four days of panels, parties, and pure mystery fun Oct. 31 through Nov. 3; for details go to

Arizona schools
Study finds Arizona schools still rank near the bottom

Despite recent funding increases, Arizona still has one of the weakest school systems in the country, according to ratings by WalletHub, a financial website.

Arizona ranks 49th nationally when it comes to a broad range of educational measurements, including test scores, funding, school safety, class size, teacher salaries and qualifications and other measurements.

The ratings feed into the political debate, with incumbents like state Sen. Sylvia Allen insisting Arizona schools have plenty of money and touting the state’s many options — with state support for public charter schools, private schools, home schooling and school vouchers.

On the other hand, her would-be Democratic opponent — retired Army Col. Felicia French — has called for increased public school funding, more regulation of public charter schools and decreased taxpayer support for vouchers, private schools.

Allen heads the senate education committee and voted for the nation’s deepest cuts in school spending right through the recession.

Incumbent District 6 Representative Walt Blackman has been in office for less than two years and has voted for the recent increases, including a 15 percent teacher pay raise. The other incumbent lawmaker — Rep. Bob Thorpe — also supported the deep cuts in education. However, he’s term-limited now and is running for the senate, which means he has to unseat Allen in the Republican primary.

The WalletHub numbers would seem to undercut the defense of the deep spending cuts during the recession, with only a modest down payment on restoring the cuts in the past three years.

The national study compared 50 states and the District of Columbia on 29 different measurements of school quality and performance. Only Louisiana (50th) and New Mexico (51st) scored lower than Arizona.

Among the grim indicators for Arizona:

• 37th for math test scores

• 38th for reading test scores

• 51st for the student-teacher ratio

• 18 on Median SAT score, which is a college entrance test

• 44th on Median ACT scores, another college entrance test

• 40th in the percentage of teachers who have certification or credentials

• 48th for the dropout rate

• 17th in the incidence of school bullying

• 35th in the number of threatened or injured high school students

Overall, Arizona ranked 50th on the “quality” measurements and 34th on the school safety measurements.

Colorado ranked 17th overall, 17th on quality and 10th on school safety.

Utah ranked 23rd overall, 24th for quality and 13th for school safety.

Arizona ranked poorly on some indicators researchers link to school performance — and funding. Perhaps the two starkest measures were the state’s high dropout rate and Arizona’s much larger than average class sizes. Large class sizes — especially in the elementary school years — are strongly linked to poor performance on math and reading tests, where Arizona also suffers. Studies suggest that a high school dropout will make $200,000 less over their careers than a high school graduate and $1 million less than a college graduate. One study concluded that boosting the high school graduation rate from 83 percent to 90 percent nationally would generate an extra $5.7 billion in economic growth and 14,000 jobs nationally.

Arizona’s dropout rate is more than three times as high as Iowa’s, the state with the lowest rate.

Advocates for charter schools and private school vouchers have long argued that offering more parent choices will not only empower parents to meet the needs of their children — but will also improve schools overall by making public schools compete for students.

The national numbers show no sign of that happening, although Arizona not only has perhaps the most extensive charter school network in the country, but among the most generous taxpayer subsidies for private school tuition through its expanding school voucher system.

The study attempted to figure out whether the states that spent the most money got the best results.

Generally, spending did correlate with outcomes — but not always.

States that spent more than average but had worse than average academic results included Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Hawaii, California, Oregon and Washington.

On the other hand, some low-spending states got relatively good academic results, including Wisconsin, Kentucky, Kansas. Colorado, South Dakota and Utah.

Arizona fell right in the middle.

The study included comments from experts.

University of Connecticut professor Joseph Renzulli said schools are lagging when it comes to preparing students for the modern, high-tech economy, which demands critical thinking skills. “Because of the rigid standards and test-prep driven instruction most of our schools are designed to prepare students for the industrial revolution. Education needs to prepare students to develop learning-how-to-learn skills for jobs that don’t exist and the ability to use creativity, thinking skills, executive function skills and the application of these skills to meaningful projects.”

Howard University professor Leslie Fenwick said the study documented the lack of results from a dramatic increase in charter schools nationally, which have mostly tended to increase school segregation by race. “This amounts to a voucher scheme designed to use public tax dollars for private, for-profit charter and online K-12 schools. The focus on charter schools and vouchers siphons money from public schools and offers no abiding solution to what ails public schools serving students of color and students experiencing poverty. The districts and schools serving these students need more — not fewer — fiscal and human resources.”

Eastern Connecticut State University Professor Mark Fabrizi said the stress on charter schools and vouchers won’t improve public education, but added that “given that per-pupil expenditure has comparatively less impact on student learning than, say, parental involvement or teacher expertise, this policy is not likely to have a great impact on education across the U.S. Research has demonstrated that one of the most significant factors in predicting student learning is the socioeconomic status of the student and their family.”

Flashy end to the 2019 Food Truck Festival

More than 800 to a 1,000 people came every hour to party with food and drink, but they ended up dancing in the rain before the town pulled the plug on the 2019 Food Truck Festival three hours early.

The storm watch started at 4 p.m., said Courtney Spawn, the parks and recreation director for the Town of Payson.

“Any outdoor event threatened by lightning within 10 miles, we have to shut it down due to safety,” she said.

If lightning gets within 10 miles of a softball tournament, the town delays the game by at least half an hour to see which way the storm will move. The town continues to delay the start, until the storm moves away or it just gets too late.

Angie Prock had just ordered her lobster from the Cousin’s Maine Lobster Truck around 4 p.m. when the town told the vendors to stop selling to the crowd.

“People in line who hadn’t ordered got mad,” she said. “Then they took orders again.”

By 5 p.m., bounce houses lay deflated on the grass, the band listlessly wandered the stage and nervous town staff watched black clouds march toward Green Valley Park. Most of the crowd moved under the larger-than-ever beer and wine garden canopy.

Spawn commented, “We told them to all take cover — and well — they’re still here saying, ‘I just want to have fun!’”

Mike and Janet Brandt, who manned the entrance to the beer garden said, “at least we’re down low.”

Mike retired from the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department a few years ago, but still spearheads the community’s Firewise program. Janet looked up at the canopy they sat under and said, “This is just a huge lightning rod.”

Inside the tent, James Bruzzi of Bruzzi Vineyard reported he had better than ever success at this Food Truck Festival.

“Two hours in, I had to send for another delivery from Young,” he said.

His winery is off of Highway 288 in Young — hard to miss with its iconic windmill.

Next door, That Brewery staff reported they had fabulous success as well. That Brewery is located at the southern entrance to Pine.

Meanwhile, the food trucks still selling quietly said, “We have to make money.”

Town Councilor Chris Higgins had sympathy for the vendors.

“It is disappointing when you come and can’t sell. The food trucks want to be out here,” he said. “But we can’t be encouraging people to put themselves in danger.”

By 6 p.m. the storm decided to unleash its fury right over Green Valley Park. Instead of the band using the microphone, town staff announced the 2019 Food Truck Festival officially over.

Everybody took it in stride, the event having taken on the overtones of a hurricane party.

Especially in the beer tent.