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Pine Creek Trail, Tonto Natural Bridge State Park

Man gunned down at Payson gas station

A local businessman is recovering after being shot multiple times at a Payson gas station Tuesday morning.

Around 9 a.m. Tuesday, Cody Wynn Newman, 50, reportedly pulled into the Giant gas station, 910 S. Beeline Highway, in a white Chevrolet Suburban, stopping at a gas pump directly in front of Samuel Michael McDonnell, 35, of Payson.

McDonnell was filling up his white Jeep Cherokee.

Police Chief Don Engler said they are still piecing together what happened next.

Reportedly, the men got into a verbal argument about the gas pumps or something to do with the station.

Witness accounts differ and it is unclear if the men got into a physical fight.

At some point, McDonnell reportedly pulled out a handgun and shot Newman repeatedly. Newman was not armed, Engler said.

McDonnell got into his Jeep headed northbound on the Beeline Highway.

Payson Councilor Steve Smith was sitting in his truck near the gas station at the time of the shooting.

“I was talking to Chris Higgins. We were on the phone and he heard it and he goes, ‘Wow what was that?’ And I said, ‘That was gunshots!’ And he goes ‘What?’ and I said ‘Yeah, call 911.’

Smith ran over and said he was the second person to reach Newman.

Another man, who Smith later learned was a paramedic, was at Newman’s side.

Another witness told the Roundup he had just pulled up the Pinon Cafe across the street from the station when he heard gunshots. He asked the paper not to use his name.

“I turned around and the guy was standing outside his car shooting,” he said. “He hopped back in his car and drove off.”

The man described McDonnell as “going crazy.”

Officers caught up with McDonnell minutes later near East Bonita Street and South Manzanita Street.

Nearby resident Kerri Ford-Clifford said she had just read on Facebook about a shooting at Giant when she and her husband heard someone shouting outside their home, “Put your hands up, hands up!”

“We ran to the door and there were two police guns pointed at a white Jeep Cherokee,” she said. “It was pretty uneventful, he went very peacefully.”

Officers arrested McDonnell around 9:11 a.m., Engler said.

Paramedics took Newman, branch manager of a local propane company, to Banner Payson Medical Center. He was later airlifted to a Mesa hospital where he underwent surgery.

Engler said Newman’s condition had improved considerably as of Tuesday evening.

Detectives are still investigating whether the men knew each other. There is no indication of road rage, Engler said.

“So far, we have not developed anything other than it was a disturbance at the station,” he said.

McDonnell was booked into the Gila County Jail in Payson on charges of attempted homicide and two counts of aggravated assault.

Engler said McDonnell was not cooperating with the investigation and would not give a statement.

On scene Tuesday, Smith consoled a witness who was visibly shaken.

Smith, who served 10 years in the Army (where he received the Bronze Star and Legion of Merit), said that combat experience helped him jump into action Tuesday.

“I dealt with a lot of people that had been shot and hurt real bad,” he said. “I told (emergency personnel), ‘You need to evacuate him.’”

McDonnell’s criminal record includes two traffic violations, according to online court records.

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Higher water rates for Payson Water Company customers

Customers in eight unincorporated communities served by Payson Water Company (PWC) will soon see their water bills jump by 50 percent thanks to a split vote by the Arizona Corporation Commission.

On average, the company’s 1,110 customers will see a 45 to 50 percent increase on their bills.

The ACC estimates the new rates will increase customers’ monthly bills by $15.81 a month in East Verde Estates, Whispering Pines, Gisela, Tonto Basin, Geronimo Estates and other communities.

In Gisela, a ranching community south of Payson, the average bill will increase by about $28.

Customer protests failed to sway the majority of the commissioners.

“The ACC process includes soliciting customer input, but there is little evidence that anyone acts on it,” said Tom Bremer, a PWC customer who intervened in a 2014 water rate case.

The news is worse for customers from Mesa del Caballo. They also face an increase in the surcharge to cover the cost of hooking up to Payson’s C.C. Cragin pipeline. The surcharge will rise from $6.76 a month to $10.37, with the money going to loans and hook-up fees.

PWC officials said they need the rate increase to cover the millions they’ve invested in improving the water supply and service.

Last month, Commissioner Andy Tobin attended a meeting in Payson where several Geronimo Estates PWC customers lodged complaints.

Customer Patricia Durham explained her Social Security income would go up by $27 this year, but the new PWC rate increase “is going to use that up.”

Customer Kelly Cappuccino asked if the commission knows what the median income is in the area.

“At best we are at $45,000 per household and many of our neighbors are below,” she said.

Cappuccino suggested the ACC require that PWC have an option to help “those struggling” with the rate increases as APS does.

Customer Samuel Worthington has lived in Rim Country for 37 years. He said he will have trouble paying any rate increase on his fixed income.

Rate case reasoning

This will be the second rate increase since Jason Williamson bought PWC from Brooke Utilities.

When Williamson purchased the eight, private Rim Country water systems in 2013, he inherited a dilapidated system. Brooke Utilities charged about $15 a month for water, but that left no money to keep the system maintained.

In Pine, that resulted in a 10-year building moratorium.

In Mesa del, some customers struggled to pay the costly water hauling fees that Brooke charged when the wells dried up in the summer months.

The ACC granted a rate increase to PWC in 2014, who said it would require a second rate case five years later.

During that time, PWC officials said they discovered the extent of the upgrades and repairs the system required. The rates granted in the first rate hearing did not cover those needs, said Williamson.

“Unfortunately, the new rates approved in 2014 did not bring in even close to the revenue requirement that was promised when the ACC set those rates,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we asked our investors to commit to an additional $1.6 million of capital for upgrades, which include new meters for every Payson Water Company customer, multiple new or replacement storage tanks, new efficient pressure pumps (VFDs), well upgrades, new SCADA and control systems, replacements of leaking service and main lines, etc.”

Split vote

ACC commissioners Tobin and Justin Olson both voted against the increase in PWC water rates.

Olson and Tobin said they favored phasing in the rate increase over several years.

But Water Utilities Association Director Ray Jones opposed the added conditions.

“It would probably devastate a company ... (and) ... it would send a signal to the industry that investment in these water companies would be unprofitable.”

Tobin said the rate increase would have a big impact on customers.

“I don’t think anywhere along the line when we were working on the rate structure ... We ... talk(ed) about the significant rate shock,” he said.

He asked for a five- to 10-year phase-in plan.

The commission voted 3-2 to allow the rate increase to take effect immediately.

Commissioner Sandra Kennedy voted against Olson and Tobin’s amendments, but then added one of her own.

That amendment will require PWC to “file tariffs for bill reductions for qualified low income and deployed service member customers of the utility.”

The commission unanimously supported that amendment.

Deer Creek house burns

No one was injured in a house fire in Deer Creek Village Wednesday night, but there was little that could be done to save the home as the area is without fire protection.

The manufactured home caught fire around 5 p.m. in an area of the community visible from State Route 87, said a Payson Fire Department official.

While Payson, along with other fire departments, has no obligation to send help, Payson firefighters responded to stop the fire from spreading to neighboring properties and possibly endangering lives.

“Our primary role is life safety when we go out of jurisdiction,” said Lewis Noble, a battalion chief with Payson Fire. “Then we limit the exposure to other properties.”

The Tonto Basin Fire Department also sent a water tender truck.

Gila County Sheriff’s Office Det. Sgt. David Hornung said it appears the fire started in a woodworking shed and extended to the rest of the property.

Hornung spoke to the homeowner who said he had been working in the shed and went inside to shower so he could go into town.

When he got out of the shower, he noticed smoke coming from the shed. The man reportedly cut off power to the building and neighbors brought over a hose, but with combustible materials in the shed, like paint thinner, the fire quickly spread.

“There was no stopping it,” Hornung said.

The fire spread to the home and other items in the yard.

While neighbors tried to help contain it with hoses, the GCSO moved everyone back after it reached a propane tank. Ammunition in the home was also heard going off.

Payson firefighters kept the fire from spreading to a neighbor’s home, which had started to smoke from to the heat.

“The neighbors are very, very thankful because had they not shown up we probably would have lost two or three homes,” Hornung said.

Once there was no threat of the fire spreading, firefighters told community members how to manage it, such as posting a fire watch and checking for hot spots.

Because it is out of jurisdiction, Payson Fire will not conduct an investigation.

Deer Creek remains one of a handful of communities without fire coverage and one of the largest that has not established its own department.

After a house fire in 2012, the community talked about rounding up volunteers and equipment to establish some fire protection, but it appears those efforts stalled.

Fire crews scramble to use low-intensity fires

Fire officials are taking advantage of a wet winter and a cool spring to use managed fires and controlled burns to blunt the fire danger throughout the region.

The Forest Service worked last week to turn a 500-acre lightning-caused fire to good advantage by establishing fire line boundaries and letting the slow-moving flames clear out the downed wood and debris left almost two decades ago by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire near Heber.

In addition, Tonto National Forest fire specialists this week burned off piles left from thinning projects on 820 acres along the road to Young. The controlled burns off Forest Road 512 between Young and Colcord Estates sent smoke drifting through Forest Lakes, Haigler Creek, Ellinwood Ranch, Ponderosa Springs and Colcord Estates.

Meanwhile, crews worked to contain the 503-acre Hoyle Fire, some three miles from Heber and visible from State Route 260 between milepost 296 and 299 as well as off the Black Canyon Road (FR 86).

That fire is burning through an area charred by the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which nearly destroyed Show Low as it rampaged across 500,000 acres in the hot, dry month of June.

The Rodeo-Chediski left behind enough charred wood to sustain the Hoyle Fire, which sent smoke drifting through Heber and Overgaard atop the Rim.

Although fire danger is rising steadily with the temperatures, fire crews are taking advantage of the last few weeks of cool conditions to work on using fire to thin and restore forests.

For decades, the Forest Service put out most fires as quickly as possible. But in the past decade a whole new strategy has developed, based on intensive planning to determine when a fire can be contained and allowed to burn safely within a certain area.

Such low intensity fires reduce the risk of subsequent, high-intensity crown fires and help an unhealthy, overcrowded forest return to more natural conditions.

For instance, the pile burns near Young are part of a decade-long effort by the Forest Service to thin some 50,000 acres around Payson, Young, Pine and other Rim Country communities. Those buffer zones make it more likely a crown fire like the Rodeo-Chediski will drop to the ground, giving fire crews a fighting chance to save towns like Payson.

A growing body of research suggests such buffer zones and managed fires during the cool, moist months offer one of the few strategies likely to save forested communities from a rising number of megafires — like the Rodeo-Chediski or the blaze that destroyed Paradise, Calif., killing 85 people.

For instance, scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric research recently published a study in the Geophysical Union suggesting the current warming trend will magnify the already sizable effects of the La Niña and El Niño warming and cooling cycles in the Pacific Ocean.

The El Niño pattern involving sea surface temperatures in the Eastern Pacific has a variety of effects, including winter snowfall in California and Arizona. It’s also associated with drought years and fire risk. In El Niño patterns, sea surface temperatures rise above normal — often causing wet winters in Arizona. In La Niña patterns, the sea surface cools — often producing dry winters in the Southwest. The heating and cooling has different effects all across the globe.

The researchers considered a whole array of factors and checked the predictions on wildfire patterns for a host of climate models. As the average global temperature rises, the effects of El Niño will grow more extreme, concluded Samantha Stevenson, a UC Santa Barbara faculty researcher who participated in the study.

Changes in the ocean temperature in turn affect the atmosphere, often shifting the position of the storm-steering jet stream, said Stevenson. “These changes in atmospheric circulation patterns in turn cause shifts in things like wind patterns, cloud cover, atmospheric temperature and precipitation,” she noted. “This just really highlights the importance of getting future projections of El Niño impacts and magnitudes correct.”

This year’s wet winter brought about 130 percent of the normal winter rain and snowfall to Rim Country and was linked to El Niño conditions in the Pacific.

Another study came to similar conclusions about the rising number of megafires in the future, according to a summary of the research by Utah State University researchers published in the peer-reviewed Earth’s Future, published by the American Geophysical Union.

The researchers noted the number of fires and the total acreage burned has actually dropped dramatically in the past 100 or 200 years — but the nature of the fires has changed even more dramatically.

The researchers concluded that before Europeans arrived in the Southwest, 4 to 12 percent of the landscape burned each year — perhaps helped along by fires intentionally set by Native Americans, presumably to restore the forest and improve conditions for the animals they hunted.

Starting in the 1900s, the U.S. Forest Service instituted a policy of putting out fires within the first 24 hours, which for decades dramatically reduced the number of fires and the acres burned.

In the past decade, the number of acres burned has increased dramatically. Researchers blame the fires mostly on the dramatic increase in tree densities and the downed and dead wood accumulating on every acre of ground. The decade-long drought and a small rise in average temperatures combined to create a perfect storm of wildfires, with repeated records for damage caused, lives lost and acres burned in the past decade.

Those fires are high-intensity crown fires, which often destroy every tree and sear the soil, causing massive subsequent floods and erosion.

That has prompted forest managers to scramble to use natural fires to thin the forest and clear out debris on the forest floor whenever possible.

“If we hope to predict the future risks wildfires pose to water resources and more effectively manage our ecosystems, then it is critical we give other wildfire attributes, specifically burn severity, more consideration,” said Brendan Murphy, lead author of the Utah State study.

Last week’s Hoyle Fire near Heber demonstrated that even a big fire like the Rodeo-Chediski leaves behind enough debris to fuel several subsequent wildfires.

However, even with the new Forest Service policy on fire management, the managed fires and controlled burns still don’t come close to burning enough acreage to approach the 10 percent figure documented in the historical records.

Unfortunately, the Forest Service’s use of managed fires is severely limited by the presence of so many communities like Payson and Show Low that don’t have cleared buffer zones, wildland-urban interface building codes and vegetation codes. Even the close approach of a wildfire — or even a managed fire — can set such poorly prepared communities on fire.

The most ambitious forest thinning project ever devised — the Four Forest Restoration Initiative — has a target of about 50,000 acres annually in a forested area that covers more than 4 million acres. That represents about 1 percent of the area in need of a return to a more natural fire frequency. Even at that, the project has lagged far behind its goals.

However, in order to substitute for the natural number of low-intensity fires, the project would have to thin or burn 400,000 acres annually, just to return to natural, healthy conditions.