Mike Brandt, a mainstay in the efforts to protect Pine and Strawberry against a devastating wildfire, says relationships have helped make his community and home safe.

Brandt, his wife Janet, and community members, woke up to the danger fire posed to their community when a report in the early 2000s labeled Pine and Strawberry as the most likely communities to burn in a wildfire.

Community members met to figure out ways to survive.

“We interfaced with the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, State Forestry and the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department,” said Mike, who used to work as a firefighter in the community.

The result was the Pine/Strawberry Fuel Reduction Committee.

The group wrote grants, created educational materials, paid for brush pickups, launched a trail building organization and founded a mountain bike race to continue to raise money and awareness of the fuel reduction efforts.

The Pine/Strawberry Fuel Reduction Committee has for years worked tenaciously to protect this unincorporated community from wildfire. One part of that effort included a network of trails, which not only provided firebreaks and access for firefighters — but proved a recreational boon to the community. Photo Michele Nelson
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These efforts have changed the face of Pine and Strawberry.

But the relationships that continue to this day have really made the difference in fuel reduction efforts.

“We always had a partnership,” said Mike, “We have made so many leaps and bounds, the whole community has changed.”

Those partnerships kept the Firewise effort going despite the slashing of state and federal budgets. As a result, many grants have dried up.

But this has not stopped the trail building, education and brush removal.

“You have to take some responsibility,” said Mike. “You have to have stewardship of the forest.”

The Pine-Strawberry Fire Department has taken on the responsibility for inspections of properties, said Brandt. The fire department advises homeowners on how to clear their lots.

The Pine/Strawberry Fuel Reduction Committee gained the blessing of the Forest Service to create trails along the edge of the forest thinning areas. These trails provide access to thinning projects. When a fire does start, the trails allow for easier access for equipment and personnel.

The Pine/Strawberry Fuel Reduction Committee hosts trail building days twice a month with a dedicated cadre of volunteers.

Pine has a brush pit so community members can dump brush for free. Even when threatened with closure because of staffing and funding, community members rallied to keep it open with funding through Gila County and the Town of Payson.

All of these efforts were so impressive, the Pine/Strawberry Fuel Reduction Committee gained national attention in 2005.

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That year, the Brandts and the fuel reduction committee obtained a state grant they then matched with private funds to help remove brush and trees.

Each year grants for brush removal have steadily declined, but the Pine/Strawberry Fuel Reduction Committee and the community continue to advocate for brush removal.

Surrounding the community, the Forest Service has cleared extensively around the two towns.

Mike said the fuel reduction effort has organized the areas into zones.

“Around a home is zone one,” he said. “The firebreak around the community is zone 2 and the forest thinning is zone 3.”

The partnerships the Pine/Strawberry Fuel Reduction Committee, the local fire department, the Forest Service and the community have resulted in a community taking responsibility to live in the wildland-urban interface while preparing for a major fire.

Spark by Pia Wyer

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