It’s wildfire season and the Payson Fire Department has its wildfire preparations ready to go — whether the fire comes from the forest or the town itself.
The fires now burning near Flagstaff are a reminder of the critical role preparation plays in whether a town survives a wildfire.
Payson Fire Chief David Staub, along with other partners, made a presentation to the council in May on the wildfire outlook, evacuations and how APS has worked diligently to protect its poles and lines strewn for thousands of miles through the fire-prone forest. Many of the devastating California wildfires that burned down towns started after winds knocked down power lines coursing with high-powered electricity. The sparks started wildfires that moved so quickly firefighters didn’t have a name for that type of fire.
As June progresses, the area has seen days of fire weather with triple-digit temperatures and wicked winds. Flagstaff already had a significant fire in May by the time the Pipeline and Haywire fires started north of town on June 12 and 13, respectively.
The fires caused evacuations immediately as more than 20,000 acres burned in two days. Warm and windy conditions continue to push the two fires toward the east and Schultz Pass, reports the Forest Service on its Inciweb website. The website keeps the public regularly updated on the progress of fires.
Staub hopes everyone is in the “ready” stage with a to-go bag packed with enough essentials to survive a two-week evacuation from home. Residents from Pine and Strawberry reported they had about 13 minutes between the “set” and “go” orders during their evacuation due to the Backbone Fire.
The dry winter has made this fire season especially dangerous, said Staub and the Forest Service staff. The forests have gone into Stage 2 fire restrictions which make lighting a fire, dragging a chain, smoking, or using a device that creates sparks illegal.
Lightning starts 55% fires in Rim Country, versus 45% human caused. Most of the human caused fires start along major highways in the northern Tonto Forest, such as the 2020 Bush Fire started by a car fire off Bush Highway south of Rim Country.
Staub reported the National Weather Service believes the monsoon will arrive in a “timely” manner and with “average to above average” precipitation. Traditionally, the monsoon season starts around the first week of July.
But Rim Country still must get through the dry lightning portion of the monsoon in June. Forest Service investigators believe a dry lightning strike started the Haywire Fire.
Staub and the fellow presenters explained the numerous programs and preparations before a wildfire include removing brush and debris from the property, moving wood piles away from the side of homes, and clearing away vegetation at least six feet from the base of the home.
The officials presenting to the council, including Sgt. Mike Varga from the Payson Police Department, urged residents to sign up for Everbridge, Gila County Health and Emergency Management’s communications platform.
Everbridge contacts residents through text, email, and phone calls to make sure they have up to date information on an emergency. Gila County can focus the message so tightly only those on a street affected by an emergency receive a notice.
The council learned officials will use Everbridge, the radio and social media to get out notifications on what the emergency is, who it affects and what the resident needs to do to remain safe.
To back up the notifications, police will drive down streets with their sirens and PA systems blaring to make announcements, along with officers who will go door to door to establish who will go, who will stay and who is not home.
The PPD will send out two-officer teams into the various areas to be evacuated. These two-officer teams will make door-to-door contact to notify residents of the reason for evacuation, evacuation routes, and shelter locations for both humans and their animals.
The officers will mark whether the resident remains or leaves so they know who needs help if the fire threatens the town or which houses to check on if empty.
Staub said the town will not make any predetermined evacuation routes because an emergency can come from anywhere and officials need flexibility to provide the broadest response to an emergency.