Arizona: Forest Service forcing forest plans into shovel ready stimulus status as fast as possible

The thinning projects started with some small communities along the
East Verde, shifted to Pine and Strawberry, and in the past year, have
focused on creating a buffer zone around Payson — especially to the
south where prevailing winds can push fires into the thickly forested
town. “We’ve completed three-quarters of the projects that address an
immediate threat,” said Ed Armenta, head district ranger of Payson
Ranger District. Armenta said the Forest Service nationally got an
infusion of about $2 billion to undertake thinning and forest health
projects as part of the stimulus package.

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The Payson Ranger District has completed environmental studies for
many thinning projects it can’t yet fund to be sure it has “shovel
ready” projects should money become available. For years, Rim
communities have lived in fear of a wildfire starting in the doghair
thickets of little trees that would then climb up into the treetops
and sweep through forest communities with devastating effects. So the
Forest Service has been struggling in recent years to clear a buffer
zone around Rim communities.

“So as it relates to fuel reduction and thinning projects, we have a pretty good track record.” district officials are hoping to finish the environmental assessment for the Christopher Creek project within the next month. With some luck, the district could get a fresh infusion of money to undertake additional thinning this summer. The Ellison Creek area also faces immediate danger and is in line for a thinning project as soon as funds come through. Crews generally hand-thin areas close to settlements.

The fire crews pile up the debris to dry out and await the damp winter months, when they can torch the piles with less fear of touching off a  fire in the surrounding woods.

That’s exactly what crews were doing  north of Payson this week, rushing to burn off the slash piles before  rising temperatures dry out the forest and makes it too dangerous.  “Every time we put some smoke into Payson, we get the calls,” said Armenta.

He said people in Pine, Strawberry and other deeper forest
communities now rarely complain about controlled burns, since they’ve
become aware of the critical danger facing their communities. But many
Payson residents still complain about the smoke.

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