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Decades of research underscore the challenges of managing prescribed fire

WHITE MOUNTAINS — Not too hot. Not too cool.

Not too often. Not too rarely.

Turns out, restoring forest health through controlled burns is a lot more complicated than foresters first assumed.

That’s the troubling conclusion that emerges from a sweeping review of decades of tinkering with the formula for controlled burns in the ponderosa pine forests of the Southwest, published jointly by a host of fire research centers operated by the US Forest Service.

The future of the forest and every community in its long shadow hangs on the conclusions emerging from efforts to restore fire to its natural role in the forest ecology over the past 20 years.

Everyone now agrees that tree densities pose a real threat to the forest and forested communities, with an ecosystem adapted to 50 trees per acre now smothered under 1,000 trees per acre. Crown fires have not only consumed whole towns, they’ve also changed the ecosystem so that ponderosa pine forest simply don’t come back.

A century of fire suppression and grazing dramatically reduced the number of fires across millions of acres. This eventually replaced an open, grassy forest with a sickly, overcrowded forest – prone to soil-sterilizing, town-destroying crown fires.

The controlled burns on thousands of acres across Arizona right now attests to the new focus on prescribed burns. However, the proliferation of towns and subdivisions together in a forest burdened with an average of 34 tons of dead and downed wood on every acre means that a random return of fire to the landscape will work devastating changes.

“Naturally occurring fires will likely never play a role in most ecosystems again because of changes that have occurred with Euro-American settlement,” concluded the study authors, which included Stephen Sackett, Sally Haase and Michale Harrington.

However, studies of prescribed fires stretching back 50 years suggests managed fires combined with large scale thinning projects could restore healthy forest conditions. However, every fire also has the potential to get out of control and cause disaster.

The study validates the effort by the Forest Service to use prescribed fires on thousands of acres in the cooler weeks of fall, before winter’s rains and snow make such burns impossible.

However, the researchers concluded “using fire in current forest conditions is much different than fire thinning that occurred naturally years ago.”

Many stands have reached 2,000 trees per acre. Stunted from overcrowding and competition for water, many of the little trees are 80 years old with thick bark that resists low-intensity flames. By contrast, in pre-settlement forest the saplings were 20 years old and thin-barked, which means they burned readily in a low-intensity fire. Few ever survived to become fire-resistant, old growth trees – widely spaced at 50 trees per acre and living to 600 or 800 years.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service/  

Pre-settlement ponderosa pine forests wrer characterized by as few as 50 trees per acre, and frequent natural low-intensity fires. Forest managers are now seeking to replicate thos conditions with thinning and managed fire.

As a result, “one fire does not correct problems associated with more than 100 years of fire exclusion, especially as it applies to thinning,” the researchers concluded.

The researchers noted that “much has been learned within the last 50 years about the use of fire in the Southwest. Many fire experts have developed their skills, learning from failures as well as success. This type of knowledge is difficult to pass on to less experienced individuals.”

The researchers said the best time to burn remains mid-September on into December, although this poses problems with smoke. The cold, dry air can create a cap that traps smoke close to the ground. The most effective fires occur on days with a temperature between 50 and 75 degrees and with fuels containing 9 to 12 percent moisture and humidity below 40 percent.

Ideally, wind speeds should be 3-8 miles an hour – but if they rise to 10 miles an hour the fire becomes erratic. Most controlled burns need to move uphill to burn hot enough to do any good – but that again poses a control problem.

Moreover, even a successful controlled burn will require follow-up burns. Initially, those burns should come every three years. But once the decades of downed wood has burned off and tree densities have been dramatically reduced, the “maintenance burns” can come every seven years or so.

The bottom line: We’re must learn to live with fire. It will take years of calculated risks, irritating smoke and the annual possibility of disaster to fix a problem a century in the making.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

This drone photo was submitted by Blue Ridge High School student Gretchen Knox of the fall colors near Horseshoe Cienega Lake. The forest may look beautiful especially in fall, but tree densities are far above healthy levels in many areas.

Award winners named at annual banquet

SPRINGERVILLE — This year’s Springerville-Eagar Regional Chamber of Commerce Banquet saw some great attendance as business and volunteer nominees and chamber supporters gathered for a dinner and awards ceremony at the VFW in Eagar on October 19.

This year, there were multiple nominees for almost every category, which included “Business of the Year,” “Rookie Business of the Year,” “Citizen of the Year” and “Volunteers of the Year.”

The “Lifetime Service Award,” however, was firmly decided upon. Dave Pulsifer was recognized for “his decades of service to the community of Round Valley.” This service included 45 years of helping to produce the 4th of July Rodeo, serving on the hospital board for 17 years, and starting the Friends and Neighbors picnic back in 1972. The crowd overwhelmingly approved with cheers and loud applause when his name was announced. “I love you all,” Mr. Pulsifer said after receiving his award plaque from Becki Christensen, Director of the Board.

Photo by Amber Shepard 

Greg Was, CEO OF White Mountain Regional Medical Center, received the “Business of the Year” award on behalf of hospital.

White Mountain Regional Medical center took “Business of the Year,” ahead of another community-supporting nominee, Goob’s Pizza. The hospital hosts community events such as the fun run and a health fair and supports many community efforts. The hospital employs 170 workers, and the combined direct and indirect impact of WMRMC on the local economy is $31 million dollars annually. The “Business of the Year” award nominees are chosen from nominated chamber members who have been in business for over 3 years.

“Rookie Business of the Year” is an award much like “Business of the Year,” but for chamber members who have been in business for less than 3 years. The nominees were very diverse, including Springerville RV Park, You Are My Sunshine Daycare, R Lazy J Ranch, and Apache Industries. But in the end, the chamber board voted for Apache Industries, a woman-owned business in Springerville that makes night vision devices and other equipment for police and military needs. The company employs 18-full time workers, and was recently awarded a $9.5 million, five-year contract to build night vision equipment for the Defense Logistics Agency, a major buyer for the Army.

Debbie Williams, winner of the “Citizen of the Year” award, has dedicated much of her life to serving her community. Mrs. Williams has served as a member and officer of Beta Sigma Phi for 29 years. Beta Sigma Phi an international sorority organization that has helped to provide scholarships and other community project funding for residents in Round Valley and the White Mountains. Williams has also been a secretary for the ATV club, and is also a founding member of the White Mountain Community Co-Op.

Two awards are given every year by the chamber for “Volunteers of the Year,” which are nominated by chamber members and chosen by the Board of Directors, for their efforts in making the community better. This year’s awards went to Bob Dyson and Victor Rivard.

Bob Dyson has been retired for 10 years now, after being a public servant for 38 years; he hasn’t slowed down. He maintains the Madonna of the Trail statue in Springerville from April through October, delivers for Meals on Wheels, has worked on the Planning and Zoning committee for Springerville, and constantly does projects around town that need volunteers. He has also served as a choir director for 50 years.

Photo by Amber Shepard 

Victor Rivard also won a “Volunteer of the Year” award for his work with Round Valley Cares, Inc. and his steadfast commitment to volunteer work.

Victor Rivard volunteers “basically anywhere he’s needed.” Mr. Rivard takes care of Round Valley Cares, Inc., which runs a food bank and an emergency financial assistance program. Rivard was described at the ceremony as a person who is the type of volunteer that’s “the first one to show up and last one to leave.”

The evening ended with a silent auction and drawing for door prizes. Attendees enjoyed Italian-styled desserts and spent the last of the evening event congratulating the winners on their well-deserved achievements.

Agewell Expo will offer healthcare resources and ideas for people over 50

SHOW LOW — White Mountain residents aged 50 years and older are invited to the first-ever Agewell Expo at the all new Summit Healthcare Conference Center this Saturday from 10 a.m until 2 p.m. Admission is free. The expo is co-produced by Summit Healthcare and White Mountain Independent.

With the Baby Boomers rolling into the next phase of their lives kicking and screaming, innovative new lifestyles and options are being rolled out. Many people age 50-plus are working in the “gig economy.” That term encompasses workers that are independent contractors and not employees. Those workers need to seek non-traditional healthcare benefits, treatments and flexible options. That is what the Agewell Expo is about.

Angie Fabian, Chief Marketing Officer at Summit Healthcare commented, “We realized that many White Mountain residents needed one place to access resources to help them make informed choices for healthcare, insurance and other services. This Expo enables them to gather information to help them ‘Age Well’,” she explained.

Fabian added, “Our new conference center is centrally located and has room for just this type of event. Vendors love the state-of-the-art space and presenters will be viewable throughout the Expo via our big screen TV’s. We hope to host this Expo for years to come.”

White Mountain Independent General Manager Wiley Acheson is excited about the Expo, “For years I’ve been wanting to put on an event for the 50-plus community in reference to these types of personal services. When I saw the plans for the Summit Healthcare Pavilion, the light came on immediately. I said to Angie, ‘Let’s do a 50-plus event and bring in healthcare and insurance companies’ She agreed, and this Saturday we are launching our first Agewell Expo.”

Care 1st Health Plan Arizona is the presenting sponsor and they will be on hand to provide information on their services in helping attendees work with government-sponsored managed care programs. Other vendors include other insurance providers, medical transportation, hearing aid providers, assisted living facilities, financial service advisors and alternative health care providers.

Special presenters will be sharing 15-minute segments on their services throughout the Expo with keynote speaker, Sue Campbell, from the Alzheimer’s Association. Sue will be talking about the “10 warning signs of Alzheimers.” Summit’s Food Services department will provide light snacks. There will be signs for parking and golf cart transportation for those who need it.

St. Johns Clinic sold to Summit Healthcare

ST. JOHNS – Summit Healthcare Regional Medical Center is moving forward with the purchase of the clinic building in St. Johns that is owned by the White Mountain Communities Special Health Care District (WMCSHCD). The building has been leased by North Country Healthcare for the past 16 years.

Copies of a statement given to patients at the North Country Healthcare in St. Johns stated that: “Our St. Johns location will no longer see patients after Oct. 29. The building, in which we have been a tenant for 16 years, has been sold by the White Mountain Communities Special Health Care District.”

Both Summit Healthcare and North Country Healthcare operate clinics in several area communities, including Springerville and Show Low.

The community should see only a brief lapse in care, according to Ron McArthur CEO of Summit Healthcare. In a telephone interview with the Independent Oct. 18, he said the clinic would re-open no later than Dec. 1.

The clinic building, in which North Country Healthcare has been sole tenant, was built back in 2000 by the White Mountain Communities Special Health Care District. Between construction and maintenance, the WMCSHCD has invested approximately $1.6 million in taxpayer funds into the clinic.

The healthcare district decided to sell the building and get out of property management.

“The board had decided (to sell) about two to two-and-a-half years ago that the building in St. Johns, which is owned by the Healthcare District, for reasons of property management — which the board is not a property manager — and for reasons of long term commitment to the community,” Jerry Campeau, chair of the board for the Special Health Care District, said in an interview.

At that time, the healthcare district got an appraisal, but was disappointed with the results. “… the appraisal came in at a pretty low price and contained some information such as comparables out of Holbrook for some very low-end properties,” Campeau explained.

North Country expressed interest in buying the building at the appraised price of $590,000, but the WMCSHCD board declined. Since then, the healthcare district got another appraisal, which came in at $810,000.

Earlier this year, a physician originally from St. Johns, Dr. Adam Patterson, was completing his residency and decided he wanted to return home to begin his practice. He contacted Summit.

McArthur said that Summit Healthcare wanted to expand to St. Johns, “But we never really had a physician that wanted to practice out of there,” he explained.

Ron McArthur

Getting a full-time physician into the St. Johns clinic was also a primary goal for the healthcare district.

“Over a year ago, we put together a set of requirements, and we sent it to Summit and to North Country. And those requirements said, the healthcare district will give very favorable condition to whoever will bring a doctor to the community,” Mr. Campeau said.

When North Country originally moved into the clinic building, having a full-time physician was, among other things, a provision of their lease. “And for years, they did,” Campeau said. “Up until the last, I believe, 3 or 4 years. They have had no full-time physician there.”

A major question asked of the two buyers, then, was what they planned to offer as far as permanent physicians and long-term care for residents. These questions were sent to each buyer to clarify, and both North Country and Summit answered and gave public presentations to the board on their proposals and plans.

“Both of them proposed virtually identical financial terms and conditions,” Campeau said about the offers, which were both at full-appraised value. “So, it came down to issues of service to the community.”

“We evaluated both proposals based on service to the community and the big difference was that North Country continued to propose a part-time physician. Summit proposed a full-time physician and a full-time mid-level practitioner for that clinic.”

The Independent reached out to offices of North Country Healthcare CEO Dr. Anne Newland for comment, but did not receive a call back by press time.

Members of the St. Johns City Council had also considered the presentations given by Summit and North Country, and they wrote a letter to the board on the issue, Campeau said, stating that their main interest was “in having a physician in the community and continuity of care for the residents.”

Both Summit and North Country made separate presentations before the board of the healthcare district — North Country on Sept. 17, and Summit Sept. 24.

Each WMCSHCD board member had to evaluate the presentations and the proposals, and then cast their vote for one of three options: 1.) Proceed with negotiations with North Country for purchase of the clinic, 2.) Proceed with negotiations with Summit for purchase of the clinic, or 3.) That they should not proceed at all and continue to lease the clinic as they always have.

One board member from St. Johns recused themselves based on their employment connections to Summit. “They did not engage in the conversations of the debate,” Campeau said. “They had no conversations with any other board member because of that recusal. That was handled appropriately by law and per protocol.”

The remaining four board members — one from St. Johns, two from Round Valley, and one from the Alpine and Nutrioso areas — were asked to deliberate and then vote on the issue in a public meeting Sept. 24. The vote was unanimously in favor of selling to Summit, and the reasoning given by voting board members was that Summit had committed to providing a full-time physician and had shown long-term interest in providing care for the residents of St. Johns.

“We see it as a great opportunity for Summit to enter into a new relationship with that community … we’re really excited, that’s the only community where we don’t have a footprint. It will be hugely successful for us,” McArthur said.

Amber Shepard is an local journalist covering municipal governments and other Apache County topics.

Photo by Greg Pyros  

With full-blown Hollywood glamour, actress Janel Tanna accepted her award for Best Supporting Actress in “Intervention,” at the awards ceremony for the Show Low Film Festival Sunday night. Written by Deon van Rooyen and directed by Linda Palmer, the drama starred Julia Silverman. The film won several awards including Best Director for Palmer.