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Two wildfires brought under control in Apache County

APACHE COUNTY — Two small wildfires were discovered Sunday, Oct. 27, in the morning on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (ASNF) near Vernon.

As of Monday morning, both fires were “basically contained,” according to Vernon Fire Chief Dave Niehuis. Wildland fire crews from Vernon Fire District assisted with the fires.

The Antelope Fire was located just a few miles southwest of Vernon, near Forest Service Road 3 and Forest Service Road 4. The fire was at about 81 acres on Monday, and the perimeter of the fire was secured and was being patrolled. Three engines, one hand crew, one water-tender was on site on Monday morning.

Niehuis said Sunday the Antelope Fire was basically under control. “They’ve got a pretty good handle on it,” he said, Sunday afternoon.

A larger fire, the Homestead Fire, was reported at 300 acres at 3:59 p.m., on Sunday, burning near the Whiting Ranch area and Forest Road 117. On Monday morning, this fire was also pulled within a perimeter, although 220 acres were still burning. Two engines, one bulldozer and firefighters were still on scene on Monday.

Air support was assisting with both fires, according to the Forest Service.

The Homestead Fire did affect powerline infrastructure on Greens Peak, according to Niehuis. Some areas of Vernon were experiencing power outages Monday morning, and some communications were on backup-power. Niehuis said the radio communications for his fire district was still on back-up power on Monday morning.

No structures were threatened by the fires, according to the Forest Service.

The fires were discovered during a day of very high winds. Areas of Apache County were under red flag warnings on Sunday, making the fires more dangerous and more difficult to fight. Winds did not die back below 25 mph until well into the evening.

Both fires are beleived to be human-caused.

The ghost of Adair

SHOW LOW — “This is the place,” Brigham Young said when he and his pioneers looked out over the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847. By contrast, in 1878 when Morman pioneer Thomas Jefferson Adair looked over a hollow now in Show Low, he should have said, “There is no way that this is the place.” But he didn’t, and thus began the ill-fated settlement of Adair.

Abandoned in 1906, Adair is now at the bottom of Fool Hollow Lake, two miles northwest of Show Low. Its empty structures fell to the inundation of the hollow in 1957 when the State of Arizona and the Army Corp of Engineers built a dam on Show Low Creek.

Trudy Balcom/The Independent  

Shadows lengthen at the end of a late summer day at Fool Hollow Lake. Some say the lake is haunted by a woman, the Lady in Blue, who some say is a former resident of the community of Adair, which lies at the bottom of the lake.

Life was tough and short in Adair. One of the structures claimed by the lake was called the “smallpox house,” a place to quarantine victims of smallpox, diptheria and scarlet fever — fatal diseases that had no cure and no doctors to treat them.

“There was a lot of death there,” says Clair Thomas, director of the Show Low Historical Museum.

RT Lynch/The Independent  

The resting place of an infant in Adair Cemetery.

The only remnant left of the settlement is the Adair Cemetery off Old Linden Road. The weathered grave markers honor the deceased, some of whom lived only nine years, two years, one day. The names of their descendants now adorn street signs in Show Low.

There were 12 families in total who settled in the hollow in 1879 — all Mormon pioneers tasked with settling the area. For 25 years they eked out a living tending livestock and raising corn, sugar cane, beans and other vegetables, sustained by water that the settlers had to haul from the creek. The treeless, flat bottom of the hollow looked, at first, ideal for crops, but the settlers could not have known at the time that its soil was laced with sand and salt deposits. And the bowl-shaped topography invited early frost, deadly to crops. The name “Fool Hollow” seems now appropriate, and was coined for that very reason.

rt lynch /  RT Lynch The Independent 

Some monuments in Adair cemetery are very specific and helpful to understanding those times.

Food, disease and the elements weren’t the only challenges facing the settlers. Someone named Geronimo showed up now and then on a black horse, with his hungry and untrusting people. In fact, in 1882, Adair inhabitants fled to a nearby fort for refuge against marauding bands of Apache. The fort later became the homesite of Corydon Cooley, who won a card game, and a ranch, by showing a low card. Cooley was neither Mormon nor an Adair settler, but in the spot where his home used to be now stands the downtown Show Low LDS church.

Through toil and faith, the pioneers prevailed —our thriving community attests to that. And the dead of Adair rest in peace. Except one, some say.

That would be the Blue Lady, or as some call her, the Lady of the Lake. She is said to be the ghost of a young woman, dressed in blue, illuminated with ghostly blue light, who floats a little above the surface of the lake, above the doomed settlement of Adair. Fool Hollow Lake Park Ranger Jacob Mills says that he knows campers who have been coming to the area for 50 years and talk about her. Clair Thomas reports that as a child in the 1960’s she and her young friends would go to the lake in part to catch a glimpse of the sprite. The older kids would go there to “neck,” she says.

Legend says the Blue Lady was once a resident of Adair, and like so many others, died young there. But that’s where the stories diverge, starting with the cemetery. Some say that where the cemetery is now was not its original site; that it was moved, bodies and all, before the flood. Others say only the monuments were moved, not the bodies. One version says that the monuments and bodies were moved, but that one lady of ill repute was not moved with the others and her spirit is not at rest for that reason.

Others claim that the cemetery is in its original place, on a hill, looking over a pleasant vista where Adair residents could look up and see their departed — typical of plots then and now. Moreover, the cemetery is somewhat distant from where Adair was, a distance appropriate for the remains of those who died from infectious diseases, they assert. And don’t forget the grim practice which arose among the settlers: when a child was quarantined to the smallpox house, a parent or sibling would tend to the stricken child there exposing themselves to infection. The historical record actually documents a father who did that, and died. Could a mother or sister have met the same fate?

Another record recounts a pregnant woman who, along with her family, contracted a strange head-swelling disease. Sick for four weeks, the woman and her baby died. Any one of these tragedies could explain the Lady in Blue, some argue.

Skeptics say the temperature inversion causes mists and fog to swirl over the lake and when the moonlight is just right, people imagine things. That’s the real answer here, they say. But whether the Lady in Blue exists or not, who she was and why she haunts, are questions that have lasted a long time. Longer than the doomed community of Adair. Rest in peace.

Forest Service offers sweeping plan to save our endangered forests

WHITE MOUNTAINS — What a mess. And what a challenge.

That’s what jumps out from the Forest Service’s newly released study of the environmental impacts of a proposal to thin and burn 1.4 million acres in Rim Country and the White Mountains.

Across that vast landscape, the trees are stunted, potential crown fires and mistletoe infestations threaten 75 percent of the forest, streams, springs and meadows have dried up, species face extinction, aspen are vanishing and forested towns face catastrophe, according to the just-released environmental impact statement on the Rim Country and White Mountains 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI).

The analysis focuses on the plan to log and thin 900,000 acres and reintroduce low-intensity, managed fire on about 1 million acres, with some of those categories overlapping. The Forest Service hopes to play God, restoring the wildly out-of-balance ecosystems of a once stately, fire-adapted forest. The release this month of the 700-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) starts a 90-day comment period, with the hope the Forest Service can award thinning contracts in the spring.

Widely spaced mature ponderosa pine forests resist fire better and conserve groundwater, according to studies.

It’s the second phase of the landscape-scale 4-Forests Restoration Initiative. The first portion completed a million-acre analysis five years ago — mostly focused on the forests around Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon.

The Rim Country project includes millions of acres along the Mogollon Rim and near the communities of Happy Jack, Payson, Young, Heber-Overgaard, Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside. But the project has more than local significance.

Forest managers and communities across the West are keeping their eye on 4FRI because the approach represents the best chance of keeping forests from burning to the ground and destroying communities. The massive assessment streamlines the process without waiving or gutting environmental protections. As a result, it offers a model for saving sickly, overgrown, drought-plagued, fire-prone beetle-infested forests everywhere.

But 4FRI’s accomplishments to date are less inspiring.

The Forest Service has previously awarded contracts to thin 300,000 acres to a succession of contractors. Those logging companies come gusting in with big plans – like making jet fuel from wood chips. But their business models splintered on the roughly 30 tons of wood scrap, saplings and brush the plan requires them to remove on almost every acre. Loggers can make money on small trees – but not on the biomass. As a result, they’ve only thinned about 15,000 acres so far.

The Forest Service hopes a more flexible and realistic approach on the latest installment of 1.4 million acres will attract industry. The Forest Service has already convened a conference for logging companies interested in bidding on the 900,000 acres worth of thinning projects cleared for sale in the Rim Country EIS.

So the economics of thinning remain problematic.

However, simply completing a 1.4-million-acre environmental analysis represents a huge change for the Forest Service. The old system could require a year of study for a single thousand-acre timber sale. The new system can clear a million acres for bids all at once and guarantee a steady, 20-year wood supply for industry willing to invest in new mills and wood processing operations.

As the EIS shows: That had better work because the forest’s in rough shape after a century of fire suppression, grazing and big-tree logging that has converted a fire-adapted forest into a thicket of matchsticks.

The 2003 Rodeo-Chediski Fire devastated some home in Overgaard. 4FRI represents an effort to prevent fire and to restore a healthy forest through thinning and controlled fire.

Almost the entire forest is vulnerable to crown fires, with flames leaping from treetop to treetop as fast as a man can run. About 20 to 50 percent of the forest could generate an “active crown fire” — a continuous wall of flame so hot it generates its own weather. Such a fire swallowed up Paradise, California, last year, killing 85 people before they could flee.

The project aims to dramatically reduce the risk of crown fires by creating a forest dominated by widely spaced, old-growth trees.

Currently, the forest has about 1,000 trees per acre, compared to the target of 10 to 250. Worse yet, about 90 percent of the trees now are less than 12 inches in diameter – saplings that spread a ground fire into the lower branches of the big trees like a matchstick. Historically, the forest was dominated by giant trees that could easily survive frequent ground fires. Now, trees greater than 24 inches in diameter account for just three trees per acre – they should average about eight.

In addition to thinning those dangerous thickets, the project hopes to restore streams, springs, meadows and wildlife habitat.

Only about a quarter of the 900 miles of streams are healthy. Most have dried up, silted up or eroded. However, about 90 percent of the wildlife in the forest depends critically on the survival of those streams and springs.

So the project hopes to restore 13,000 acres of riparian areas, 184 springs, 36,000 acres of grassland, 6,400 acres of wet meadows and 777 miles of streams. Some of that will follow naturally from dramatically reducing tree densities. Some of it will require extra restoration projects.

4FRI represents not only the best hope to reduce crown fires and restore forest health, but a sweeping effort to reinvent the logging industry and bolster the economy of local communities. The environmental analysis lays the groundwork for a new kind of logging and a new relationship to fire. It also demonstrates the enormous challenges of playing God with an ecosystem.

Granted, it’s complicated and full of pitfalls – but the long-term survival of every community in Rim Country and the White Mountains depends on how it all works out.

This special series will dive into the findings of the EIS for Rim Country and the White Mountains when it comes to fire danger, watersheds, wildlife, recreation and economics.

To read the plan yourself and provide comments, go to https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/4fri/planning/?cid=stelprd3837085. To submit comments go to: https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/CommentInput?project=48210

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

Barbara Bruce / Barbara Bruce//The Independent  

Decorating cakes and cookies at Eddie’s Country Store in Pinetop-Lakeside has become an annual event at Halloween. Kids came in to trick or treat throughout the departments of the store and to purchase a cake or cookie and make it their own special treat. See additional photos of Halloween events, Page 2.

Nutrioso Fire District consolidates with Alpine FD

ALPINE – Big changes have occurred for the fire districts of Nutrioso and Alpine. As of October 16, the districts have consolidated into one: the Alpine Fire District. The decision, approved by both fire district boards, should improve services in the two communities and maybe even lower costs for residents.

The consolidation process began about three years ago, when several seats on the Nutrioso board turned over during a contentious period for the district during the 2016 election. The election occured just months after an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) was made with Alpine Fire District to receive “operational management.”

“Basically, the Alpine fire department was our fire department,” Ed Coleman, fomer chairman for the Nutrioso Fire District Board of Directors said in an interview. But, while the district firefighters and staff worked together under Alpine’s Fire Chief, Travis Noth, each department still maintained their own contracts for attorneys, auditors, and they maintained separate tax bases and board of directors.

“Our fire stations are only 9 miles apart. Our districts share a common border,” Coleman said. Having already combined their operations, the newly-elected board of Nutrioso began to explore a possible merger or consolidation with Alpine.

“At that time, Alpine was not in favor of it. There was too much history and too many unknowns with the status of the Nutrioso fire district. So, we kept working on it over the course of a couple years,” Coleman said. “Last year, both boards voted to explore it in more detail.”

The two fire district boards decided that a third-party expert would be the best option to assess whether a merger or consolidation would work. They hired John Flynn of Policy Logic, LLC in October 2018 to begin studying the two districts to see if it was possible. Flynn’s work was instrumental in Timber-Mesa Fire and Medical District’s consolidation in 2014, and he has served on the board of the Arizona Fire District Association for 10 years and been a consultant to many cities and towns. Flynn produced a feasibility study on the two districts, which studied their finances, assets, operations, and more. The lengthy study concluded that consolidation would be favorable for both communities.

A consolidation between Alpine and Nutrioso was a unique situation, however, in that neither entity was in any financial distress.

“It’s rare to have a consolidation when both districts are healthy and stable,” Coleman said. Usually, consolidations are brought about because one of the entities has fallen into financial distress and needs help to survive. The main goal was not to avoid a financial crisis, but rather to provide stability for both communities and reduce redundancies and costs from running two separate fire districts that, operationally, served both communities together.

“There was overwhelming community support, in both communities,” Coleman said of the public participation during the open meetings on the consolidation, which were held October 1 in Nutrioso and October 2 in Alpine. That same overwhelming support also extended to the two boards, who both voted unanimously in favor of the consolidation. “By statute, if both boards vote unanimously to consolidate, then the consolidation may proceed without a public election,” Coleman said. “And that’s what happened in our case.”

When asked how he felt about voting for his own board’s dissolution, Coleman said, “I put myself out of a job, but it was a good thing.” Although the current Alpine Fire District Boards operates the entire, newly expanded district, candidates from Nutrioso will be able to run for seats as they become available in upcoming elections.

“We have better equipment in both stations now, better manpower in both stations. Response time has improved, and the Nutrioso station, when it’s manned, is manned by a certified EMT.” Nutrioso has not always had an EMT available on staff at their fire station, but they will in the future, thanks in part to the consolidation. “Most of the calls the fire department takes are for public assistance – usually medical,” Coleman explained. “There are far more of those [calls] than for fire or rescue.”

“Since we’ve pulled everybody into one [district], we definitely have more resources available, and that includes EMS,” Chief Noth said. “More personnel than equipment per say, but it did expand how we provide service. Along with all of this, we also signed an agreement with White Mountain Ambulance in June of this year, and now we have an ambulance in Alpine that we staff and operate.” Ambulance service to Nutrioso used to run a 20-30 minute response time, as they came from Eagar. With an ambulance on site in Alpine, Nutrioso will now see response times closer to 10 or 15 minutes.

An added bonus to this consolidation may eventually appear in increased savings in insurance rates for area residents. An Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating for fire is what the insurance industry uses to assess an area’s fire risk and response ability. Under Chief Noth’s efforts over the years, Alpine’s ISO rating is now 4/4y, and Nutrioso’s, which was a 10, is now an 8b. ISO ratings range from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best possible rating and 10 not even meeting minimum requirements. Fifty percent of this score comes from the area’s fire district, which is judged on staffing, training, and proximity to a firehouse. Another forty percent comes from the availability of water in the area and prevalence of fire hydrants, which will be a struggle for Nutrioso going forward, as they lack water infrastructure.

For now, however, just the seemingly small change in rating from 10 to 8b has been saving many residents hundreds of dollars. “I was shocked when people were coming up and thanking us for getting that iso rating,” Chief Noth said. “I had one lady who came up and she told me, ‘We saved $984 dollars on our premium.’ I about fell over. I couldn’t believe it. That’s amazing.” ISO ratings are redone every five years, and Nutrioso will be reevaluated again in 2021.“We’re hoping that, with some work, we can get Nutrioso down,” Chief Noth said. “They’re currently at an 8b. We’re trying to work on some equipment ideas right now and some other [ideas]. By the time the next rating comes up, we should be able to provide a better rating for that community.”

“We’re happy it finally went through,” Alpine’s Assistant Fire Chief, Jarret Jensen said when asked about the staff’s opinions on the consolidation. “To have it under one roof, so to speak, feels really nice.” Like many of the firefighters and staff in the newly formed district, ties to both Alpine and Nutrioso run deep with Jensen.

“Now, they can serve everyone with a little less worry about how to do it. Purchasing needed equipment, for example, used to require asking two separate boards in two separate meetings for permission under the IGA between Alpine and Nutrioso. Now, the process is streamlined and more efficient, which means firefighters and EMT’s can receive the supplies they need, faster, and focus their energy instead on people rather than paperwork.”

“At the end of the day, everyone just wants what’s best for the community,” Jensen said. “And that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

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