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.