What a difference a year makes.
Last year, as smoke drifted through the Rim Country at the end of April, the 16,000-acre Tinder Fire rampaged through a quiet neighborhood just 1.5 miles northeast of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir. Racing through a closed national forest on a Red Flag fire day, the blaze grew 8,000 acres in one day. Started by an illegal campfire, the Tinder Fire consumed 33 homes, despite the best efforts of 500 firefighters. The fire came after a bone dry winter in the midst of a decade of drought.
This week, smoke once again drifted through Rim Country — this time from the 2,300-acre Coldwater Fire four miles south of Clints Well. Lightning sparked the blaze, which is burning along the drainages of East Clear Creek, moving north toward the C.C. Cragin Reservoir — Payson’s shiny new water supply.
Fire crews are restricting it to a 17,400-acre boundary area — thinning the forest in the process.
About 100 firefighters are creating a perimeter to limit the spread of the well-behaved little fire. An air-attack helicopter is supporting the two Hotshot crews. Crews are setting backfires to keep the fire contained to the “planning area.”
An ADOT pace car is escorting people along Highway 87 through the thick smoke, which during the cool evenings moves off the Rim and through Rim Country and down into the Verde Valley. The nearest communities to the fire are in Happy Jack and Blue Ridge.
So far, fire managers are happy with the blaze, which continues to amble through grasses, brush, samplings and downed wood on the ground, without rising up into the branches of the trees. The area above the Rim received about 130 percent of the normal rainfall this winter, so the trees and even debris on the ground are still full of moisture. The fire’s behaving more like the low-intensity, frequent wildfires to which the region’s forests have long adapted than the high-intensity, soil-searing crown fires that have grown increasingly common.
Moreover, the National Weather Service has just issued its latest fire season outlook, saying there’s a good chance the unusually cool, wet conditions will continue right on through June — thanks to the effects of El Niño in the eastern Pacific, with sea surface temperatures a degree or two above normal.
The cool spring has offered a temporary respite from the increasingly dangerous fire conditions facing the West.
The effort to thin 2 million acres of overgrown forest has faltered, which means that for now the only hope the Forest Service has of preventing devastating ground fires is the management of these natural wildfires during cool, wet months. This year, May qualifies as a manageable fire month — although June now looms.
In May, the Forest Service managed two other fires atop the Rim. That contrasts with last year when the Forest Service closed the forest in April and confronted the ravenous Tinder Fire in May. Several months later, the catastrophe shifted to a parched California, where fires killed 88 people and inflicted billions in damage.
This year, crews actually set a Rim Country fire in May — an 800-acre prescribed burn northeast of Payson near Clay Springs. Mostly they were burning debris piles created during a previous mechanical thinning project intended to help create a 50,000-acre network of buffer zones around Rim Country communities. Some of the piles are still smoldering, but the fire’s mostly out.
Early May also spawned the 500-acre, lightning caused Hoyle Fire, just off Highway 260 near Heber. The fire crews mostly monitored that fire, which burned along through dead and downed fuels on the ground — dampened by several May storms.
The Weather Service remains cautiously optimistic the risk of major wildfires will remain below-normal in June — normally the peak of the fire season in Arizona. Mostly, that’s because the winter banished the drought throughout the state.
That’s reflected in the moisture now stashed in the potential fuels. Fire managers calculate the energy stored in fuels based largely on moisture, the so called Energy Release Component (ERC). For the past three years, the ERC at this time of the year has stood at about 97 percent — meaning the smallest spark can start a fire. This year, the ERC stands at about 55 percent, according to the Weather Service.
The “odds are slightly tilted in favor a wetter than normal June,” said the latest forecast. Moreover, odds are “slightly tilted in favor of a wetter than normal monsoon season” near the Arizona-Utah border and about normal in the rest of the state. The wet monsoon will probably also bring above-normal temperatures throughout the state, according to the forecast.
The major complication remains the lush grasses that have grown across the state as a result of the wet winter and spring. The grasses will dry out in June — especially at lower elevations. This provides plenty of fuel to carry a wildfire.
In summary, “current weather outlooks and ground conditions indicate a trend toward near-normal fire potential this season across most of northern Arizona, with below-normal fire potential across northeastern Arizona. Above-normal fire threats at lower elevations due to abundance of fine fuels. At high elevations, possible delayed threat due to the wet winter and spring.”
Once we get into July, the forecast map shows above normal fire danger in southern Arizona, normal danger in the mid-highlands including Rim Country and below-normal in the northern third of the state.
Even so, June remains a white-knuckle month for fire managers. The Rodeo-Chediski, Schultz, Wallow, Gladiator, Yarnell Hill, Slide, Goodwin and Tinder fires all came at this time of year — although all started in drought conditions.
As the number of measles cases approaches 1,000 throughout the country, Gila County has had no cases reported, according Michael O’Driscoll, director of the county’s health and emergency services department.
A recent report shows 91.4 percent of Gila County kindergarten students have been vaccinated against measles, with the percentages sitting between 95 and 100 percent for the reservations within the county. There is a nearly 6 percent personal exemption rate for kindergartners in the county. Gila County is among nine counties in the state with a vaccination rate below what is necessary to stop an epidemic.
Gov. Doug Ducey won’t support eliminating the ability of parents to claim a personal exemption for their children from vaccines despite a new published study showing the state’s largest county is at risk for a measles epidemic.
“Ultimately, decisions are going to be left to parents,” he recently told a group of business journalists in Phoenix.
The governor insisted that Arizona has been “pretty good” at using education to encourage vaccinations.
But the numbers from his own health department tell a different story.
State Health Director Cara Christ has reported that the percentage of kindergartners who claim a “personal belief exemption” from one or more vaccines has increased from 1.4 percent in 2000 to 5.4 percent last year. And there was a big jump in the past 12 months, with the exemption level now at 5.9 percent.
And for sixth-graders, the parents of 6.1 percent of children have a personal exemption compared to 1 percent at the turn of the decade and 5.4 percent just a year ago.
In mid May, the Lancet Infectious Disease journal said Maricopa County is one of 25 in the entire country where there is the greatest chance of an outbreak. Factors analyzed by the journal range from the prevalence of international travel to the rate of non-medical exemptions to laws requiring that children be vaccinated.
Ducey said he supports immunizations — he said his own three sons have been vaccinated — but he wants to focus instead on educating parents about the benefits. And he specifically ruled out overriding their preferences.
Ducey could not unilaterally eliminate personal exemptions. That would require legislative approval. Actually asking lawmakers to eliminate the personal exemption, however, is something the governor won’t do.
“I think a lot of this is about public awareness and public education,” the governor said, noting “there are things that have been put out on the internet” that he believes are misleading.
“Parents are concerned, especially with newborns and infants,” he said.
But Ducey said it’s not his role as governor to impose mandates — or to tell people who read anti-vaccination materials online that they must get their children inoculated. Instead, he said, it’s public education.
“What I want to do is get above the noise and this conflict and make sure that people have the facts that these vaccinations are safe and effective,” the governor said. “And I’d like to see their kids be vaccinated.”
Yet with all of that, Christ said the current rate of immunization of kindergartners statewide is 93 percent. That, she said is below the 95 percent level to create “herd immunity” which health professionals say is necessary to stop an epidemic should there be an outbreak of measles in the community.
In some areas, it’s far below that threshold.
Yavapai County, for example, has an MMR immunization rate of just 83.3 percent. There, according to state figures, one kindergartner out of every eight has claimed a personal exemption.
Mohave and Navajo counties are slightly better with an 88.4 percent immunization rate, with a personal exemption rate for kindergartners of 10.3 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively.
Part of what public health officials say makes the issue of herd immunity so crucial is that there are children who cannot be vaccinated.
Some of these have medical conditions. But some of that group includes newborns who are too young to get the MMR vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends the first dose at 12 through 15 months of age, with a second dose between the ages of 4 and 6 years old.
Teresa McQuerrey contributed to this story.
The Payson Town Council this week moved money around to add $560,000 for a splash pad and other capital projects to the town’s budget for 2019.
The council voted 4 to 3 to add a $260,000 splash pad in Green Valley Park to the proposed budget for fiscal 2019-20. The money for that project will come from a delay in the purchase of a new fire truck.
The council also added $90,000 to do a study of a new road connecting Main Street to the event center. The town will transfer money for that study out of the roads budget.
The town’s general fund operating budget will increase by 9 percent to about $18 million when compared to the estimated year-end spending of $16 million.
However, the budget will barely budge when compared to last year’s adopted $18 million general fund operating budget, according to an email from Deborah Barber, the town’s chief financial officer.
The council will vote on whether to adopt the preliminary budget on June 13.
The draft budget features a big increase in the reserves, broad pay raises, partial repayment of a water department loan and a big increase in police and fire retirement contributions.
The town budget has jumped in the past several years, spurred by a $3 million increase in the town sales tax in fiscal year 2017-18. Sales tax revenue rose by $400,000 in the current fiscal year, said Barber.
The discussion at a May 16 council budget session focused on capital projects, like a splash pad at Green Valley Park and a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study on the extension of Green Valley Parkway.
During the May 30 meeting, the council not only added the splash pad and NEPA study to the upcoming budget, but $100,000 for streets, $80,000 for new restrooms in Rumsey Park and $60,000 in operating expenses. Shifting money from other budget categories will cover most of that cost, with $200,000 in additional spending.
The NEPA study would lay the groundwork for extending Green Valley Parkway from Main Street to the Payson Event Center.
Supporters said it will provide an emergency evacuation route.
The splash pad would provide a new amenity for tourists and visitors in Green Valley Park. Several council members supported a splash pad in part because they’re afraid Payson can’t afford to upgrade the aging Tyler Pool.
Mayor Tom Morrissey did not take any public comments during the special budget meeting garnering Facebook comments from Councilors Chris Higgins and Steve Smith after the meeting.
“At last night’s town council meeting, the public was not allowed to make comments or talk to the town council. Last I heard we work for you??? Not according to our mayor last night,” wrote Smith.
Higgins expressed disappointment the public could not speak about a request to include a line item placeholder to help provide redundant internet service to the community.
“If you believe we need redundant internet in Payson you need to come to this (June 13) meeting. Hopefully, the mayor will allow comments from the public at this meeting. They were not allowed at last night’s meeting,” wrote Higgins.
Morrissey had the authority to decide whether to open the meeting to comments from the public or not.
“The public does not have a right to speak or disrupt the meeting; however, the public body may allow comment from the public via a call to the public,” according to the Arizona Ombudsman Open Meeting Law booklet.
Mostly, councilors struggled with the capital budget.
“The wish list and the priorities of these departments” should be taken into account first, said Councilor Barbara Underwood.
Councilor Jim Ferris advocated for both the NEPA study along with the splash pad.
“Regarding the NEPA study ... we are looking at an ingress-egress road. If we have a wildfire, everything else we talk about is moot,” he said. “It also provides a catalyst for what Main Street could be.”
He also supported the splash pad.
“With the splash pad, if the pool does go down, having another water feature would be great,” said Ferris. “I wouldn’t want to put hundreds of thousands of dollars in an old pool that will not last long.”
Councilor Suzy Tubbs-Avakian advocated for the splash pad.
“We have to listen to our taxpayers. They are screaming they want something positive,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of things for little kids.”
Higgins said they need to prioritize.
He agreed the splash pad would be a great addition to Payson, but he also advocated spending an extra $100,000 to fix up streets.
The council will meet at 3 p.m. on June 13 to discuss adding a placeholder line item for broadband as well as possibly approving the preliminary budget.
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With too many inexperienced and ill-equipped hikers making the hike into Fossil Creek during the hot summer months, the Forest Service announced last week it is closing the trail from Strawberry entirely.
From July 1 through Aug. 31 there will be no access to Fossil Creek from Strawberry. If you want to cool down in the clear, travertine water you will have to drive to Camp Verde and head down Forest Service Road 708.
Tonto National Forest officials said the closure is “needed to address the high risk of heat-related illness and injury experienced by hikers unprepared for the arduous hike from Fossil Springs trailhead to Fossil Creek along Trail 18 during hot summer months.”
When a hiker runs out of water or their shoes break, it is emergency responders, like those from Pine-Strawberry Fire Department, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office and Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, who head down and help. This often entails giving hikers water, electrolytes and the encouragement to hike out. In one recent case, a deputy even fashioned a pair of temporary sandals out of medical tape so a woman could hike out.
Each call pulls resources away from the community with rescues lasting several hours. So far this year, the GCSO has rescued nine people from Fossil Creek and recovered one body (a drowning).
“The short-term goal is to reduce the burden on emergency responders and be responsive to safety concerns in a way that is environmentally and culturally responsible at this special place,” the Forest Service said in a press release.
Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd said while the rescues do put a strain on his office, he is against the closure.
“We have never advocated for (a closure),” he said. “We have been trying to work with (the Forest Service) to improve conditions for rescue workers.”
The Forest Service is working on the Fossil Creek Management Plan to manage recreation long-term and in February, after more than three years of study, the Forest Service released five options.
Plan E, which the Forest Service designated as the “preferred alternative” allows ATVs to eventually use an improved road from Strawberry to the creek as well as increases the number of cars allowed into the area from the present 148 to about 270 cars per day during the peak use periods.
The plan would also allow limited camping in developed campgrounds along the creek and add trails throughout the canyon.
It also envisions the addition of parking and visitor facilities at Cactus Flat, Heinrich and Irvine to handle the big increase in car traffic.
The preferred alternative would also develop a new trailhead for the existing Fossil Springs Trail, which would connect with the existing Mail Trail and the existing Flume Trail in the bottom of the canyon. It would also include nine recreation sites with parking along the creek.
None of this would happen right away, since the plan doesn’t include money for making such improvements.
In the meantime, local officials are trying to get improvements made more quickly.
Next week, local officials, including several Gila County supervisors, are meeting with Tonto Forest officials to discuss solutions.
This is after Ehab Hanna, the Agriculture Department’s acting director of engineering, technology and geospatial services, in a March 6 letter supported a meeting to discuss solutions, including working with Gila County to assist with emergency access maintenance needs on FR 708 if funding can be secured to repair the road.
A Forest Service study found, as part of its Fossil Creek Management Plan, that it would cost some $6 million to stabilize the slopes above FR 708 and roughly $100,000 annually to maintain the road.
Pending next week’s meeting, P-S Fire Chief Gary Morris said he could not comment on the Fossil Creek closure. He would say he is encouraged to see that the FS is ready to talk solutions.
“I will say, that based on the positive comments and the stated willingness in the letter to work with local public safety agencies (at least from the perspective of USDA), I believe we’ll see some positive movement with options toward solutions,” Morris wrote the Roundup in an email. “In addition to discussing how to prevent rescues, the discussion will also look at how to reduce response times to the victim and more rapid extraction. Presently, it takes nearly two hours just to reach the victim on the lower portions of the Upper Springs Trail and another five hours to get the victim to the trailhead and an awaiting ambulance.”
GCSO Deputy Cole LaBonte said he did not agree with the temporary closure. So far this year, LaBonte is often the person called on to hike in and rescue people.
“I don’t think we should be prohibiting the hikers who are properly prepared and able to make the hike because a few people can’t follow big, bold warnings on a sign,” he said. “The feds need to allow us to maintain (FR 708) so we can, in a timely manner, rescue the folks who need rescuing. With a maintained road we can quickly and safely deploy minimal and cost-effective resources.”
Shepherd said closing Fossil Creek is “an oversimplification of the problem.”
He would like to see the road improved and the Fossil Creek Trail widened so rescuers can drive quads down.
“The Tonto National Forest thoughtfully considered options before making the decision to temporarily close the Fossil Springs Trail, during July and August, typically the hottest time of the year.
“The amount of rescues that occur in the Fossil Springs area and the pressure on local first responders and search and rescue were both considerations,” said Carrie Templin, a public affairs officer with the Tonto National Forest.
Access to Fossil Creek during the closure will be limited to the Camp Verde side. And parking reservations are still required from May 1 through Oct. 1. They can be made through https://www.recreation.gov.
At the Strawberry Inn, which sits just a few miles away from the Fossil Creek trailhead, the owners say they understand the need for a closure.
“We completely support the proactive closure of the trail in anticipation of the high temperatures,” said Carson Eilers, the Strawberry Inn co-owner. “We appreciate all of the hard work that the Forest Service and first responders have to endure, and hopefully the forethought that they have shown will help drastically reduce the number of heat-related rescues.”
Eilers said they don’t believe the closure will impact business and “we are certain that our adventure-minded guests will still be able to enjoy other local trails during their stays.”