Short term.

Half measures.

That sums up the response of Gila County and many Rim Country communities to the increasingly dire threat of a megafire.

Back in 2005-2006, District 1 Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin began weekly meetings with fire officials from throughout the Rim Country after the Edge Complex Fire burned more than 70,000 acres in the Punkin Center area near the Beeline Highway.

The shadow of the devastation from the 119,500-acre Willow Fire in June 2004 and the 468,638-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire of 2002 still hung heavy and dark in the hearts and minds of Rim Country residents.

Those meetings in 2005 led to several communities moving toward taking steps to Firewise their properties. The innovative bladder placements for water to fight fires also resulted, Martin said.

Unfortunately, Gila County has done almost nothing to upgrade its fire codes, with things like fire-resistant roofing and siding and other changes to reduce the danger from embers from an approaching fire.

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Moreover, the county left it up to individual neighborhoods to pursue the protective actions. The county has provided reduced-cost brush disposal at the landfill for some of those community programs, but no sustained support.

Martin said starting in 2006 the region had some of the first designated Firewise communities in the state. The residents put in a tremendous effort to make their neighborhoods safe, armed with education and encouragement from Lee Ann Berry, with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

Among these were Chaparral Pines, Pine, Strawberry, Payson Pines, The Rim Club, Kohl’s Ranch and Beaver Valley.

Payson Pines

Most homeowners have created a Zone 1 defense around their property by clearing a 30-foot buffer around their homes, trimmed up trees to reduce ladder fuels, kept roof and gutters clean of debris and maintained a clean yard next to structures.

Unfortunately, the neighborhood still has a few pockets of homes that have not cleaned up the vegetation, which poses a risk to neighboring homes.

The Rim Club

The 554-acre Rim Club community includes a 164-acre golf course. The 319 lots range from .3 to 1 acre. Fire danger is a tremendous concern during the hot and dry period of May to July, just prior to the monsoon rains. Payson does not have any recorded history of any major fires within the last 100 years, which means fuels have reached dangerous levels.

Major fires elsewhere in 2005 and 2006 prompted the community to become a Firewise USA Community.

Residents worked closely with both the Payson Fire Department and the Diamond Star Fire Department (now Hellsgate) to improve fire protection.

The fuel reduction program covered about 65 acres and cleared a 330-foot firebreak.

Members of the community also worked closely with the Fire Management Division of the Arizona State Land Department to complete a Firewise Community USA Assessment in June 2006.

The majority of the property owners are working to Firewise their homes.

Kohl’s Ranch

Kohl’s Tonto Creek Subdivision Inc. Homeowners Association is a rural community of 121 homes 18 miles east of Payson.

The area’s dense vegetation includes towering ponderosa pine trees, juniper, oak and riparian vegetation. The Christopher-Kohls Fire Department, a volunteer fire district, provides fire protection. Approximately 90 percent of the homes are recreational, secondary residences.

The Kohl’s Tonto Creek Subdivision Homeowners Association, Inc. is a voluntary organization lacking the authority to enforce rules.

After the nearby Rodeo-Chediski Fire of 2002 destroyed more than 500,000 acres, a small group of Kohl’s Ranch residents began initial Firewise education in the community. During the following two years, Firewise education was expanded with the addition of a community website and guest speakers at the homeowner meetings.

In July 2005, the homeowners voted overwhelmingly to pursue a Firewise Communities/USA designation. Six months and hundreds of “people hours” later, 75 percent of the homeowners (90 properties) had received wildfire risk assessments.

Several homeowners were initially reluctant to remove some of their vegetation, but afterward, they were amazed at how their safety and views had improved.

To quote one resident, “I can now see the forest through the trees!”

Beaver Valley

Beaver Valley adopted a Firewise approach in 2008.

Fire Chief Tom Zelkovitch strongly supported establishment of the committee, according to one of the residents who participated in getting the program started.

Gary Roberts of Tonto National Forest also helped.

Since Beaver Valley became a Firewise community, the Forest Service has thinned the adjacent area several times.

Efforts to Firewise remain isolated

While several communities have worked to limit their risk, the county and incorporated towns of Payson and Star Valley have put Firewise on the back burner.

Supervisor Martin has said the Firewise discussion is going on in the background. Those meetings on preparedness eventually resulted in the bladder and tank placement.

Those early meetings also led to roll-off dumpsters being placed in communities around the Rim Country to dispose of trimmings.

The dumpsters then evolved into the creation of the brush pits off the Control Road south of Pine and off East Highway 260 east of Star Valley.

The meetings are now held twice a year. Martin said all the stakeholders are involved.

Discussing the county’s two big fires of 2017, the Pinal Fire in southern Gila County and the Highline Fire in northern Gila County, Martin said the difference in the county’s response to the two was the fact that the Pinal Fire burned so close to private land. The county could work directly with the property owners to get in and clean out the waterways that might flood.

This is what was left after the waters receded from a recent flood (Aug. 12, 2017) on the East Verde River at the First Crossing on Flowing Springs Road. Storms this year nearly filled SRP reservoirs for the first time in six years. A flash flood on the still smoldering burn scar of the Highline Fire unleashed a debris flow that killed 10 people. Above, an air tanker attacks the Highline Fire. Photo courtesy of Kathy Morgan
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Since the Highline Fire burned on Forest Service land, the county didn’t have the same freedom.

“They don’t take into consideration when these fires are burning or the consequences in their management formula,” Martin said.

She said the Forest Service knows the most efficient, cost-effective way to thin the forests is with fire. The planned thinning process takes years of planning.

“NEPA is not a process for timely action. It’s ‘while we fiddle, Rome (the Rim Country) burns,’” Martin said.

Scott Buzan, director of the Gila County Community Development office said the county has not adopted any version of the wildland-urban interface building code.

“It is left to the property owner, HOAs, subdivisions, and communities to Firewise their properties and for those who are located within a fire district, to adhere to any Firewise regulations that may have been adopted by that fire district,” he said.

He noted, “I am not aware of the Planning and Zoning Commission having discussed previously the mitigation of wildland fire in the unincorporated areas of Gila County.”

Star Valley

When Star Valley incorporated a decade ago, the town simply adopted the county’s building code, said town manager Tim Grier.

Those codes have not been changed and the council has not even discussed the WUI code or a Firewise approach.

Grier, who spent more than a dozen years with the Forest Service and was trained in fire behavior, thinks the possibility of a forest fire threatening the town is fairly remote as Highway 260 would provide a substantial firebreak, he said.

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Spark by Pia Wyer

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