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They fled Paradise to Payson

Just 15 minutes after Gil and Gail Prince evacuated their home in Paradise, Calif., flames engulfed it.

Fortunately, the town had spent years practicing an evacuation plan so detailed that police knew which intersections required an armed officer to direct panicked residents.

Perhaps that’s why a fire that defied all predictions and consumed one acre every second didn’t wipe out an entire community. Sadly, 86 people died, but experts say many more lives could have been lost.

“Had the Camp Fire been confined to a relatively small portion of our community, the Paradise fire evacuation plan might have worked,” said Gil. “But dealing with the unique conditions, the only viable option was to flee — no defense was possible.”

After losing everything, the couple retreated to Payson to live in their vacation home purchased when their daughter, Mary Prince-McMullen and grandchildren lived in Payson. McMullen worked for the Town of Payson and her two children both graduated as valedictorians from Payson High School.

McMullen grew up in Paradise. The loss of her childhood home leaves a hole in her heart.

“It’s very difficult to describe how I feel about my hometown burning,” she said. “It’s a terrible, terrible loss. They lived there 46 years and it’s the only childhood home I remember.”

McMullen laments the loss of a town full of “a bevy of friends and acquaintances who would do anything to help in a time of need.”

Ironically enough, Payson also sits in the midst of a thick, overgrown, tinder-dry forest — although it’s done far less than Paradise to prepare.

The Camp Fire has alarmed fire officials across the country because of its intensity and extreme behavior, including top fire officials in Rim Country. Where the Princes and fire officials agree — without Paradise’s planning and preparation for a large-scale evacuation, many more people would have died.

In fact, most of those who did die, had decided to stay rather than evacuate. But Paradise had not done nearly enough to create places where people could “shelter in place” when disaster struck.

“They had been urged to evacuate by family (or) they received contact from officials,” said David Hawks, the Paradise and CalFire Division Fire Chief. “We also know that a majority were elderly.”

The eerie parallels between Paradise and Payson have locals jittery imagining what could happen if such a wildfire hit town — especially since Payson shares so much of the same topography as Paradise.

“What Paradise wasn’t prepared for — no community could possibly be — was the malign hand of Mother Nature,” said Gil. “She decided to withhold rain from late April until the middle of November, in addition to sending 40 to 50 mile-per-hour winds.”

Gil said he and his wife heard about the fire’s start on their local National Public Radio station.

“The fire had started in Pulga, a small community some eight or nine miles from Paradise,” said Gil. “Even with the wind. Gail and I were not overly concerned because of the distance.”

The Camp Fire broke out about 6:30 a.m., yet Gil said by 9:30 a.m., things had turned.

“I went out on our deck and saw a plume of smoke down in our canyon some miles or so diametrically opposite Pulga,” he said.

He called 911.

“The operator said, ‘If you’re in Paradise, get out now!’”

Even that didn’t prompt them to flee.

But 15 minutes later, the Princes’ world blew up.

Hawks said no fire officials ever dreamed the fire would jump the Feather River Canyon — but it did.

“At about 9:45 a.m., I again went out on our deck and immediately saw a veritable explosion of flames on the opposite side of our canyon, maybe an eighth of a mile from us,” he said.

Gil’s report echoes what Hawks, said about the Camp Fire’s extreme behavior.

“This fire outgunned us from the beginning,” said Hawks. “I never thought fire would sweep through town. I thought there was too much space in town.”

Hawks agrees with Gil that the fuels were painfully dry, but he said weather, the slope of the canyon walls and Paradise’s unlucky position whipped the conflagration into an out of control situation.

“We categorize fire in four rates of spread,” said Hawks. “Critical (the most intense category) is anything over three miles per hour. The Camp Fire moved 6.7 miles in an hour and a half. Who could be ready for something like this?”

He said it was humbling to have to call the town manager just an hour after telling her it was too far away to worry.

“In an hour, I called her and said it has reached Paradise,” he said. “It just moved too rapidly onto a large population.”

Hawks did say intense preparation with drills allowed first responders to evacuate 45,000 in a short time.

“We were absolutely ready as any public safety entity ... we met routinely to go over our community evacuation plan,” said Hawks. “We had practiced the evacuation drill ... just a couple of months ago, so we kinda knew what to do. It was ... muscle memory and it paid off.”

He said none of the 86 people who died were on primary evacuation routes.

In a stroke of luck, the Princes lived off of Skyway, the main road into town.

With the flames just yards from their home, the Princes grabbed what they could in a matter of minutes, threw it into their car and headed toward Skyway.

“After waiting a minute or two for someone to let us into the bumper-to-bumper traffic, we made it to Chico to stay with friends,” said Gil.

Then the couple learned a terrible truth.

“Another friend of ours passed our place about 15 minutes later. He told us ... it was fully engulfed in flames,” said Gil.

Despite losing a house they lived in for 42 years, Gil feels lucky.

“We were fortunate to live on Skyway, one of the fire exit routes out of town,” Gil said. “Most of our friends and other Paradise residents were not so fortunate. At best they were bogged down in horrendous traffic jams, at worst they simply didn’t make it out.”

Hawks said emergency personnel never envisioned they would have to evacuate the town all at once. If it weren’t for the attention to detail on the evacuation plan, things would have gone so much worse.

“It was the fifth generation of the plan,” said Hawks. “The original plan came out in 1998. We spent a lot of time educating the residents — but that was only as good as the people who wanted to step up and listen.”

Hawks said turning roads into one way on all lanes getting out of town, increased the flow.

Focusing the flow of traffic sat at the core of the evacuation plan — as well as breaking up the town into evacuation zones.

Information on city and county websites explained what media outlets emergency responders would use to spread information.

Other information explained what to do if living along an evacuation route, maps of the 14 evacuation zones and assembly points.

“I’d like to reiterate my opinion that the Town of Paradise did a credible job of preparing for wildfires. But no preparation, no matter how thorough, could withstand the fury of Mother Nature.” said Gil.

The fire chief agrees.

“If you think of the magnitude of that fire. there could have been a greater loss of life,” said Hawk.

Congress boosts forest thinning projects

Efforts to salvage the stalled Four Forest Restoration Initiative got a modest boost in the lame duck session of Congress, before the partial government shutdown.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) sponsored a provision in the Farm Bill that would make it easier for the Forest Service to strike a deal with local counties to thin dangerously overgrown forests.

A second provision would make it easier for the Forest Service to allow loggers to cut down trees killed by fires, bark beetles or other pests.

President Donald Trump quickly signed the bipartisan H.R. 2, the “Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018,” expanding the Good Neighbor Authority for counties to contract with the Forest Service to manage key areas of the forest to reduce wildfire risk as well as hire contractors to undertake some salvage logging projects.

“Following one of the most devastating wildfire seasons in our nation’s history, it is critical that we do everything in our power to provide the Forest Service and public land management agencies with the tools they need to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires,” said Gosar. “One life lost is too many, let alone 88 like we saw in California’s Camp Fire. Years of mismanagement have left our forests

vulnerable to insects and disease and ripe for catastrophic wildfires.”

The measure could help boost the efforts by Coconino, Gila, Apache and Navajo counties to help push forward the most ambitious forest restoration project in the history of the country. 4FRI has languished for the past decade for lack of a contractor that could undertake large-scale forest thinning work.

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin, immediate past president of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization (EaCO), has helped organize a “stakeholders” group of loggers, environmentalists and local officials who have pushed the Forest Service to provide long-term logging contracts.

The 4FRI area includes more than 2 million acres of overgrown ponderosa pine and pinyon-juniper across an area that stretches from the Grand Canyon to the White Mountains and includes all of Rim Country.

However, the Forest Service is now on its third contractor, without having come anywhere near the 50,000 acres-per-year pace needed to make a dent in the tree thickets.

Such overgrown forests have spawned deadly, town-destroying fires like the Camp Fire in California, which last year consumed the town of Paradise, killed 88 people and destroyed 15,000 structures.

Forested communities like Payson and Show Low remain vulnerable to a similar disaster, thanks to tree densities that have risen from about 50 per acre to more like 800 per acre.

Much of the 4FRI thinning work that has been done in the past decade has occurred as a result of efforts by the EaCO in the White Mountains, thanks to a cluster of small-scale mills, a biomass-burning plant and local contractors operating in Show Low and Snowflake.

Those remnants of the logging industry were nurtured by an earlier, small-scale forest restoration effort called the White Mountains Stewardship Project.

In that case, the Forest Service paid about $800 per acre off and on for 10 years, spurring the clearing of about 50,000 acres and the development of wood processing operations that could make money on the small thickets of trees that pose the biggest problems.

Henry Provincio, a Forest Service analyst for 4FRI, said the eastern Arizona group has done about 70 percent of the 4FRI work completed so far.

“We would not be where we are today with everything we’ve done on planning and mechanical treatments without the efforts of our stakeholders,” said Provincio.

The Forest Service has started doing environmental analysis for 4FRI sales that cover hundreds of thousands of acres at a time. That should mean projects will move forward much more quickly once the Forest Service finds a contractor who can work on the necessary scale.

“We’re expecting by 2021 to have somewhere in the neighborhood of a million acres ready to go for mechanical treatment and close to 2 million acres available for restoration — including prescribed fire and other types of activities.”

The Forest Service has already completed the environmental analysis on 1 million acres, with the second 1.2 million-acre “Rim Country” analysis underway.

Moreover, the Forest Service has recently doubled the potential length of a thinning contract — from 10 years to 20 years. Loggers have argued only such a long-term contract with its guarantee of enough wood will justify an investment in new mills.

Still, Provincio conceded the actual thinning work has lagged far behind schedule, mostly for lack of mills, logging contractors and industry able to handle the 50 tons per acre generated by a thinning project.

That includes about 25 tons of small logs and about 25 tons of biomass, for which little market currently exists.

That could change if the Arizona Corporation Commission follows through on a plan to require utilities to buy power generated from burning biomass.

“I think 4FRI is heralded as a model nationwide. The struggle is to get those mechanical treatments to where we want them to be. It’s pretty hard. There’s a massive financial investment that needs to take place up front. When you’re talking about a low-value product, it’s difficult to justify that investment.”

He noted that last year 4FRI thinning projects totaled just 16,000 acres, not nearly enough to significantly reduce wildfire risk across an area covering more than 2 million acres.

“It’s about having industry. Right now we don’t have enough consumers of the product we’re trying to put out,” said Provincio. “The east side (White Mountains) industry has made excellent progress, but we’re still struggling on the west side (Flagstaff).”

He said none of the 4FRI contractors the Forest Service has turned to so far have managed to build the kind of mills and wood-processing operations needed.

Exotic proposals to do things like turning biomass into jet fuel have largely floundered.

“It costs $30 million for the size of mill we’re talking about. You have to have a large quantity of wood to make those investments,” he said.

Officially, the 4FRI effort has treated 628,000 acres. However, 442,000 of that involved prescribed or managed fires — often naturally sparked fires during the cool wet months the Forest Service has managed within a certain area.

The 186,000 acres of “mechanically thinned” forest includes lots of previously approved timber sale projects — including some 20,000 acres thinned by the White Mountains Stewardship contractors.

In fiscal year 2019, the project has thinned just 14,000 acres — compared to the 50,000 per year target included in the first 4FRI contract awarded in 2010.

So congressional action to allow local counties to get involved could boost efforts like the White Mountain Stewardship Project’s. However, the action won’t create the kind of large-scale logging, biomass burning and wood processing operations needed to have an impact.

The Forest Service spends about $2.5 billion annually fighting wildfires, but far less on restoration projects.

“The issue is the lack of industry — it’s the market,” said Provincio. “When we talk about the market, it’s not the national market. It’s the local market.”

Arizona increases the minimum wage to $11 an hour

Local workers making minimum wage were thrilled to see their hourly rate jump 50 cents with the start of the new year. For many, the extra $1,040 a year makes a huge difference.

Steven Ridings is retired and works part-time at Big Lots in Payson. He’s happy to have the extra money, and that others will have more to support their families.

Arizona’s minimum wage increased 50 cents to $11 an hour Jan. 1. Arizona workers now earn at least $3.75 more than the federal minimum wage.

It’s the second of three 50 cent increases with the minimum wage topping out at $12 by 2020.

The increases were mandated by a statewide ballot measure, Proposition 206, that passed in 2016 that also required that larger companies offer employees paid sick leave, starting in July 2017.

This is good news for workers struggling to meet the increasing financial demands of housing, child care, food and other necessities. It will yield an additional $1,040 a year gross pay for full-time workers.

It also helps those working part-time.

Ridings said he understands the balance between paying higher wages and potentially higher product and service prices.

“Increased rents and other costs make it more difficult for people to make a living, especially in Payson,” he said, “but it all goes into the cost of doing business. It’s a yin/yang thing.”

Not all employees automatically benefit from this increase to $11. Tipped employees (wait staff, bartenders, hairstylists etc.) may be paid a lower cash minimum wage but must average at least $11 including tips every hour they work.

Cynthia Ivey, owner of The Mad Hatter’s Tea Room, said she makes sure all her employees start above the minimum wage. Her employees are paid a combination of hourly wage, tips and commission on boutique sales.

“They should be able to survive,” she said. “I’ll treat them like gold, but it’s a two-way street.”

Ivey stressed the importance of an interdependent relationship between employers and employees, each being responsible for holding up their end of the bargain.

Public opinion is divided on the minimum wage increase.

Some claim that an increase in the minimum wage will prompt businesses to hire less people and increase prices across the board.

Critics also decry the fact that Proposition 206 mandates 40 hours of paid sick time to employees of large businesses and 24 hours to those of small businesses.

Supporters of the minimum wage increase say these criticisms approach the issue from solely a financial, utilitarian perspective.

They do not factor in a more humanitarian and balanced business philosophy that understands the value of employees as individuals and their contribution to the bottom line.

They advocate that businesses willing to pay their employees more and recognize their value to the organization experience better productivity and retention. Employees are healthier and happier. Customers and the organizations benefit in the long run.

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Body near Barnhardt identified

More than a year after hunters discovered the remains of a man lying under a tree near a trailhead south of Rye, investigators say they have pieced together who he was.

The Gila County Sheriff’s Office believes Daniel M. Andrews, of the Valley, died under a juniper tree near the Barnhardt Trail. His body lay there for at least two years before hunters found it on Dec. 17, 2017, south of Forest Road 419, a short distance from the popular trailhead. He would have been 63 years old this year.

The skeletal remains were still clothed. Besides the clothing, there was a backpack nearby, various mementos inside, a holstered gun and water bottles, but no identification.

They sent the bones to a lab for testing and searched reports to see if any abandoned vehicles had been reported on the Beeline Highway around the time of Andrews’ death.

No luck.

So, Det. Sgt. David Hornung examined the items in the man’s backpack closer. There was a small urn and items relating to a fraternity and a sorority. A University of Arizona sorority pin in the bag had a number on the back. Hornung called the sorority and asked if they had records on such items. They did and it traced back to a woman with the last name of Andrews.

There were several other items that connected the body to the Andrews family. He reached out to the family and spoke to a woman who said she had not spoken to her brother for at least four years. The last time anyone had seen him he was homeless.

She agreed to provide a DNA sample and lab results confirmed she was related to the body.

She said the urn was similar to one she had, which contained remains of their mother.

Hornung said they would likely never know how Andrews died, but there were no signs of trauma.

He believes Andrews crawled under the tree and died either from the weather, dehydration or some other natural cause.

“It feels good to bring closure to the family,” he said.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service  

President Donald Trump recently signed a bipartisan bill that expands the Good Neighbor Authority for counties to contract with the Forest Service for fuels management.

Alexis Bechman / Alexis Bechman/Roundup  

Det. Sgt. David Hornung