Water system on the Tonto needs pre-season fire help

A longstanding wildfire safety collaboration between the Tonto National Forest and Arizona’s Gila County officials needs updating. The county began collaborating with the USFS and local fire districts back in 2006 when it installed 14 water tanks, bladders, and storage systems in helicopter-accessible areas on the forest. The intent, according to a recent Gila County Board of Supervisors meeting, was to put fires out as soon as they were detected in the Rim Country area near Payson. The water sites were positioned where helicopter turnaround time would be less than five minutes.

2019 Woodbury Fire
The Woodbury Fire, Superstition Wilderness on the Tonto, photo (c)2019 Daisy Mountain Fire Department

But those water systems are now falling apart. Gila County Emergency Services Coordinator Carl Melford told the Board of Supervisors that the average lifespan of a water bladder is five to seven years, and many of the sites have old bladders with deteriorating water storage tanks.

Melford hopes to use a $609,000 congressionally directed earmark grant through the USFS to fix the deteriorating system. The funds would have to be matched from Gila County for a total of $1.2 million.

“This funding provides the opportunity for the evaluation and purchase of new water tank storage systems to replace the dilapidated tanks and old bladders and to hire a qualified contractor to transport and install 56 tanks of 5000-gallon capacity at the 14 locations,” Melford said in his proposal to the board. “This will increase the capability of fire suppression efforts, which is vital to the protection of Gila County residents’ life and property in areas prone to wildfires.”

East Verde River trail on the Tonto National Forest
East Verde River trail on the Tonto National Forest — photo ©2023 Joey Cavaleri

Bids for the project are due by May 14, just in time for what used to be the start of Arizona’s wildfire season from late April to the beginning of monsoon in June. That “season,” however, looks to mostly be a thing of the past as wildfires burn 100 days more than they did 50 years ago.

“We really don’t say we have a ‘fire season’ because we can have activity throughout the state year-round,” Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management spokesperson Tiffany Davila told the Arizona Republic last year. “We can see fire activity increase during the end of April, beginning of May.”

The Tonto National Forest’s most recent wildfire, the Valentine Fire, started on August 16 last year, nearly caused evacuations, and burned nearly 10,000 acres.


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11 thoughts on “Water system on the Tonto needs pre-season fire help”

  1. It is not uncommon for the Forest Service to start or develop a project and then not continue to provide maintenance or a plan to keep it going. Having helicopter and engine water points in fire prone areas seems like a no-brainer and a great idea. Continued maintenance and upgrades of these tanks would have cost probably only thousands of dollars a year, and now it will be hundreds of thousands of dollars to make these repairs. Likely there will be cost over runs or changes requiring more money. Funds that could have been used for other projects like employee housing, hiring more staff, or more prescribed fire. It seems with the US Forest Service that with limited funds comes limited planning and foresight.

    1. I can’t find where it is that you’ve read that the bladder tanks weren’t “maintained.” These aren’t concrete tanks. They’re Army surplus tanks and their lifespan’s 5 to 7 years.

      Payson Roundup photo of bladder tanks


  2. Leave it to the federal government to spend $1 million on infrastructure only for it to be condemned for use 18 years later unless another million is invested into it.

    1. Titto, it’s the feds and Gila County and local fire districts.

      Gila County authorized a grant application to the USFS for a Congressionally directed earmark award of $609,000 for water storage systems for wildfire protection in Gila County.

      The county’s Emergency Management Department asked the Board of Supervisors about allocating funds … the grant comes with a 1:1 match of $609,000 for Gila County — that can be cash, in-kind, or a combination — for the period of March 2022 to September 2025. During fire season, a ready water supply can be unreliable, so a secondary source of water in key locations (such as a bladder tank for emergencies) can make a critical difference in protecting properties within Gila County. You have a better idea?

      1. I think what Titto is saying is that the Forest Service and the fire districts helped fund the system, put it in place and then did no maintenance or upgrades for over 15 years. It’s like buying a car, never changing the oil and then wondering why it breaks down. With regular maintenance and upgrades the system could have lasted another 20 years at a low cost. Now they are having to rebuild the entire system for $1.2 million, which is excessive given the lack of funding for other projects. What is that saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”?

        1. “The average lifespan of a water bladder tank is five to seven years. Gila County currently has 14 high-priority water tanks and storage systems locations throughout high-risk wildfire areas. Many of these sites have old water bladders with deteriorating water storage tanks. This funding provides the opportunity for the evaluation and purchase of new water tank storage systems to replace the dilapidated tanks and old bladders and to hire a qualified contractor to transport and install 56-5,000 Gallon water storage tanks to the 14 locations.”
          ~ from the Gila County contract administration

          1. I should bid on this contract. Putting in steel tanks that require little to no maintenance would last 30 plus years, only requiring inspection, paint and plumbing repairs and at one tenth the cost. It sounds like they are using rubber liners and heli-wells which are lucky to last 3 to 5 years, are susceptible to tearing, mold/algae and sun damage. Steel tanks could be utilized by wildlife (with a small modification/addition of a spring box and float) and fire. I wonder if they are going to make the same mistake twice?

  3. The Valentine fire got that big because they kept lighting it. It got rained out more than once. I guess that is the new way of “managing”?

    1. Reports say, after nearby communities were found to no longer be in danger, fire managers let it continue burning to reintroduce fire into the landscape that hadn’t seen it in over 50 years. Considering the forest is largely made up of ponderosa pine, which need periodic fire to live healthy lives, it isn’t at all a “new way of ‘managing’.” From the USFS:

      “In the early 1900s, land managers began putting out fires, leading to almost no natural wildfires. After more than one hundred years of fire suppression, ponderosa pine forests have changed. Where there used to be trees of different ages, there are now many seedlings and midstory trees. Large diameter ponderosa pines are now competing for resources, such as nutrients, light, and water.

      “With more trees, the forests more at risk from diseases and insects, causing trees to die. The forests no longer have an open canopy structure. Light cannot easily reach the forest floor and there is less plant cover. Surface fuels are building to high levels. These changes in forests’ makeup have changed how fires burn in them. Fires now burn larger areas at a higher temperature and intensity instead of with low intensity on the ground. Prescribed fires and thinning can help restore the natural balance. Land managers can remove vegetation and restore the frequent, low intensity surface fires ponderosa pine forests need.”

      Source: https://www.nps.gov/articles/wildland-fire-in-ponderosa-pine.htm

      1. I’m not saying that it was a bad thing to burn that country–I worked on that unit for several years. It definitely needs low intensity fires to run through it on a regular basis. I’m just saying it used to be that a managed fire was allowed to do it’s own thing, not be re-lit once it went out. That seems more like it ought to be a RX fire, with the appropriate NEPA and Air Quality compliances- and funding source.


What do you think?