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Catching up on prescribed burns

The Forest Service is in a race with the clock to reach its prescribed burn quota before the fire season starts.

“To date we are a little behind schedule, but mainly due to the wet weather. We have not been able to burn as much as we would like, but we have been able to treat roughly 5,000 acres so far,” said Acting Payson District Ranger Jeremy Plain.

The federal government has mandated forest treatment goals.

“Our targets are a combination of burning and mechanical treatment. Our target for this year is roughly 22,000,” said Plain. “We have some burns planned for spring, but will just have to wait and see what the weather brings us.”

Last year’s drought put a damper on burning brush piles, but Plain said the Payson Ranger District fire crews have picked up the pace on prescribed burns of brush piles and broadcast burns during the dry periods between storms.

Recently, fire personnel burned brush piles in Beaver Valley.

Resident Bing Brown grabbed his camera to catch some photos of what he called a textbook prescribed burn of brush piles next to Beaver Valley homes a few weeks ago.

“The Forest Service did a wonderful job,” he said. “There wasn’t any smoke that blew into our community.”

Plain said with the right conditions and wind direction, the Forest Service can burn close to homes.

“That particular pile burn was close to the private boundary at Beaver Valley,” said Plain. “We typically try and wait one to two years after the piles have been cut/created before we burn them. We wait that long to make sure the piled material is cured.”

When first cut, wood has too much moisture to burn easily. Residents often complain about piles of brush out in the forest, but until the moisture in the brush dries out, the piles cannot be burned.

Once cured, it’s a waiting game for the right weather. Sometimes the wait can be years.

The Forest Service has about 39 million acres of forest mostly in the “interior West and Atlantic coastal states that are at high risk from catastrophic fires.”

Every year the Forest Service seeks to treat 1.5 million acres through prescribed burning and mechanical treatment done by hand crews and machination.

Ultimately, the Forest Service hopes to treat at least 3 million acres per year.

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First responders honored

“Service above self.”

It is the motto of Rim Country Rotary of Payson and three local public safety employees who exemplify this creed were honored Wednesday night during the group’s 20th Annual Public Safety Awards Banquet.

Joseph Oldeschulte was named Officer of the Year; Christopher Krohn, Firefighter of the Year; and Celena West, Support Services Employee of the Year.

These employees have gone above and beyond their job descriptions, said Scott Jones, Rotary president.

Peers from the Payson fire and police departments nominated who they thought should win, with supervisors selecting among the nominees.

As each walked up to receive their plaque Wednesday night in the Chaparral Pines dining room, they were greeted with cheers from nearly every off-duty Payson firefighter and police officer and their spouses.

For all three, the honor came as a shock.

Police Chief Don Engler and Fire Chief David Staub said it was no surprise these individuals had been nominated as they continually raise the bar.

“This is the best group of people, across the board, that I have worked with,” said Staub, speaking of both the winners and to the entire room of first responders.

It was a special moment for Engler, who noted this would be the last time he would attend the event, as he is retiring in July. He took the opportunity to thank everyone who had worked with him, including the firefighters. For one year, Engler served as both police and fire chief while the town looked for a new fire chief. Staub would ultimately take that position.

“You are the reason I have been successful in my position,” Engler said. “Each of you has an outstanding servant’s heart.”

He added, “You have been amazing. You have made me very, very proud.”

Officer of the Year

For the police department, Engler said they chose Oldeschulte because of his work ethic and the way he approaches each person he meets.

“Officer Oldeschulte is selfless and looks out for the best interest of his squad and the department,” one peer wrote in their nomination. “His compassion for his squad and the department as a whole is seen throughout his interactions with those around him, but even more so is the compassion he has for the community and specifically, the teens within our community.”

Oldeschulte, 25, joined the department two years ago.

Oldeschulte grew up in Payson and after high school, went to work at an ammunition manufacturing facility. After four years, he lost his job when the company folded.

Lt. Jason Hazelo suggested Oldeschulte apply to the police department. Oldeschulte said he laughed at the suggestion.

“I had zero desire to ever be a police officer,” he said.

Still, the next day, Oldeschulte applied.

Today, Oldeschulte said he loves his job and cannot imagine doing anything else.

“My favorite thing about it is being able to be out driving around and interacting with the community,” he said.

Last year, Oldeschulte led in traffic stops thanks to his “gung-ho” attitude.

“I don’t like to sit behind a desk too often,” he said.

Receiving the award meant a lot, he said.

“It is really nice to be recognized.”

Support Services Employee of the Year

One person who wears many hats at the PPD is West.

As the training coordinator she is responsible for making sure officers complete their training hours every year. She also assists Engler with the annual budget and purchases; is responsible for record retention; monthly and end-of-year crime reporting; helps with hiring and gives input on ways to improve operational efficiency.

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed.

One peer wrote that West is “incredibly valuable to the function, efficiency and enhancement of this department. Celena always seems to be 10 steps ahead of everyone on what needs to be done and how to handle it ... she does not settle on doing a mediocre job.”

Another person said she stays positive even when stressed.

West started with the PPD in June of 2007. She worked in dispatch three years then records for six years and has been with administration the last three years.

“I love the variety of tasks that I handle every day. Every day is different,” she said. “I love the people that I work with. We work hard, but at times we have fun. It makes work enjoyable.”

West previously won this award in 2010 and 2012.

Firefighter of the Year

Among five nominees, Staub chose Krohn as the PFD’s Firefighter of the Year.

Krohn, 28, just finished his first year with the department and is among the newest employees.

“I was really surprised. It caught me off guard,” Krohn said of the honor.

Krohn first became interested in firefighting when he was in high school and saw firefighters working a house fire.

He took a fire sciences class in high school and continued taking classes at a community college.

He tested several times at other departments and was finally picked up by the PFD.

“The team in Payson has given me every opportunity to succeed,” he said. “They welcomed me into the department since day one. If it was not for them and their help, I would not have gotten this award.”

When not working a 48-hour shift in Payson, Krohn is a welder for an aerospace company in the Valley.

See the list of sponsors for this year’s dinner at

Gila County narrows unemployment gap

Gila County’s unemployment figures in February finally narrowed the longstanding gap with the statewide average.

The county’s unemployment rate dropped to 5.6 percent, compared to 7 percent in January and 6.4 percent a year ago.

That’s still worse than the statewide average — but lots better than many other rural counties.

Statewide, the unemployment rate stood at 4.7 percent — compared to 5.7 percent in January and 4.7 percent a year ago. Nationally, the rate stood at 3.8 percent in February, 4 percent in January and 4.1 percent a year ago.

The unemployment rate in northern Gila County was likely lower than the countywide average. Southern Gila County includes the San Carlos Apache Reservation, where the unemployment rate often approaches 50 percent. The mining-dependent communities of southern Gila County have also struggled with relatively high unemployment since before the recession.

Statewide, the seemingly stalled unemployment rate actually obscures the effects of a steadily expanding workforce. The state added 18,500 private sector jobs between January and February. The workforce has grown 3.1 percent in the past year to 2.4 million.

Construction led the way statewide, with 1,900 jobs added from January to February — a 10 percent increase over the same period a year ago. Still, only 168,000 people are working in the state’s construction industry, compared to 244,000 at the pre-recession peak. At that time, construction accounted for 11 percent of the jobs in the state, with a flood of people moving into the state from elsewhere and buying homes.

The health care sector remained strong — but then, the recession barely touched that industry. A steady rise in the state’s elderly population has helped drive an increase in health employment — including a 7.5 percent increase in nursing care and residential facility jobs.

The one bleak spot in the report for February remained the still dwindling number of jobs in the retail industry. That’s critical for towns like Payson, which depend on retail sales taxes for most of their income. The retail trade sector lost 2,400 jobs last month, but has gained a total of 1,900 workers compared to a year ago.

Although Gila County’s unemployment rate remains almost 1 percent above the overall state average, that’s still a lot better than the almost 2 percent gap last February.

Moreover, Gila County continues to fare much better than some other rural communities in the state. Navajo County’s rate was 8.2 percent, Yuma County was 12.3 percent and Apache County was at 10.1 percent.

Other rural counties were much closer to Gila County’s 5.6 percent, including Coconino, Mohave, Cochise, La Paz and Pinal.

On the other hand, Gila County continues to lag well behind the two big, urban counties. The unemployment rates in the urban counties included 4.1 percent in Maricopa County and 4.5 percent in Pima County.

Recent storm damage blocks Fossil Creek Road

Gila County Sheriff’s Office deputies narrowly missed getting covered by a landslide on the Strawberry side of the Fossil Creek Road recently.

After GCSO deputies Matt Binney and Cole LaBonte went down Fossil Creek Road March 17 and the next day when Sergeant Dennis Newman attempted to go down, rocks had covered the road.

The deputies were attempting to help Rex Ferguson, an itinerant cowboy who lives in the woods.

Ferguson had two horses, one to ride and one to carry his belongings. During the snowstorm in late February, while camping in Fossil Creek, his older horse went colic and Ferguson had to put her down. This left him without a packhorse.

The GCSO decided to help. They didn’t know the danger they faced until Newman drove down the road on March 18.

“Rod Barnes of CERT and I rode down in a side-by-side. We got no more than 400 feet when we hit the wall,” said Newman. “As soon as Rod and I went around a corner, we were done.”

The last spate of storms caused the instability, which caused the rockslide.

Now rocks completely block the road to Fossil Springs from the Strawberry side.

The snow and freezing temperatures loosened the rocks.

When the three-day rainstorm hit March 12-14, any remaining soil to support the rocks washed away, said Newman.

The rocks have now tumbled onto the Fossil Creek Road blocking passage.

Newman said the rocks extend out to the edge of the road making passage by foot almost impossible.

Local first responder agencies from the Pine-Strawberry Fire District to Tonto Rim Search and Rescue rely on that stretch of the Fossil Creek Road to utilize all-wheel-drive vehicles for rescues.

Now, not even a 4x4 can pass by the large pile of boulders and debris covering the road.

The Payson Ranger District, the agency managing the Strawberry side of the Fossil Creek Road, has little to no money in the budget to maintain the road.

Not only are rescues hampered, but also any efforts to reach the exposed CenturyLink telecommunications cable will require major equipment.

Newman said Rim Country first responders rely heavily on Yavapai search and rescue teams to save the numerous people who suffer accidents while visiting Fossil Creek.

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