Here’s the terrible truth.

A wildfire doesn’t have to actually roar through Payson or Show Low to inflict devastation.

The Highline Fire burned below the Mogollon Rim outside the community of Bonita Creek in 2017. The federal government spent millions to contain the 7,000-acre blaze. But that was only the down payment on its tragic toll.

While no homes burned, extreme post-fire flooding claimed 10 lives. A wall of debris washed off the burned area during a monsoon cloudburst and swept away a family celebrating a birthday at Water Wheel, miles downstream.

Flagstaff too has seen the after-effects of a wildfire.

The 15,000-acre Schultz Fire in 2010 burned on the east side of the San Francisco Peaks in full view of the community. The flames didn’t reach any homes, but they seared the soil — causing it to repel water. The resulting floods killed one girl and destroyed houses, aquifers and infrastructure. The fire cost $12 million to suppress, but in the three years after the fire, inflicted an additional $140 million in costs, according to a study by the Northern Arizona University Ecological Restoration Institute.

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A later study found that the same fire on the Dry Lake Hills and Lake Mary watersheds would have caused $600 million to $1.2 billion in damages — and flooded downtown Flagstaff.

Large-scale, long-range forest restoration projects are the No. 1 way to improve firefighter safety, according to a Wildland Firefighter Safety Awareness Study.

“Small isolated treatments, such as those within a few feet of a structure, or in the middle of a surrounding untreated area, do not provide the level of protection necessary in today’s world of megafire,” wrote Paul Summerfelt of the Flagstaff Fire Department.

In Flagstaff, the threat of a billion-dollar fire spurred community leaders to act.

While the community has led the state in adopting wildland fire codes and clearing land of brush, two watersheds remained terribly vulnerable.

Flooding is the main risk Flagstaff faces from a large fire similar to Schultz closer to town. An estimated $811 million in structures lie in the floodplain. A 100-year event could cause $132 million in damages to structures, $11 million in damages to the railway tracks, result in a 6.7 percent loss of property value, $17 million in damage to Flagstaff’s water supply, millions to replace communication towers and cause huge drops in sales tax revenue.

Fires also drive visitors away.

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Following the 2014 Slide Fire in Oak Creek Canyon, north of Sedona, the chamber of commerce reported a $100 million loss, as visitors avoided areas even miles downstream.

Flagstaff voters overwhelmingly approved a $10 million bond in 2012 to help reduce the risk of a wildfires that could trigger flooding on the area’s watersheds.

It was the first voter-approved bond initiative for this type of work in the country.

The money will go toward prescribed burns to clear 15,000 acres of unnaturally dense land, most of it federal, in the next 10 years. Since the bond passed, the Forest Service has contributed an additional $2 million. Already, crews have treated more than 1,000 acres.

Flagstaff’s city manager advocated for a bond instead of a water utility fee or sales tax for several reasons. A levy, for example, is spread across the entire community, which would acquire a vested interest in the outcome of the project. A bond also meant the city would have the funds upfront.

In Payson, a wildfire could have a huge impact on tourism and sales tax dollars. If the fire burned near the C.C Cragin Reservoir, it could impact the water supply of both Payson and Phoenix.

Yet the community has been resistant to take action.

“Too often, action doesn’t take place until there is smoke in the air or flames on the horizon. And then it’s generally too late,” Summerfelt wrote. “Too often, decision makers and policy-setters have the opportunity to take meaningful action before a fire starts, but either pass altogether, make symbolic pronouncements. Wildland-urban interface code standards and land-use planning needs are left unaddressed, firefighters are left with little comfort knowing that they are ‘supported,’ partnership opportunities are lost, and forests are left unprotected as finger-pointing, blame and demands fly.”

Spark by Pia Wyer

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