Firefighters poised for action, the rapid response of air support and strategic fire operations were part of the success of firefighting efforts on this summer’s 1,961-acre Museum Fire. Aircraft from around the Southwest filled Flagstaff’s skies, dumping water and retardant on the fire within hours of initial reports.
“The arrival of air support was quick – as quick as it could be,” said Coconino National Forest Flagstaff Ranger District Battalion Chief True Brown. “Everyone knew the gravity of the situation. It was a very good response.”
Knowing the area and hearing the description of the smoke, he ordered air attack as soon as the lookout called in the report. “Once that gets ordered, that process starts pretty darn quickly,” continued Brown, assistant fire officer for the national forest.
Elden Lookout was the first tower to call in the fire on Sunday, July 21, at about 11:15 a.m. Fire spotters at East Pocket, Turkey Butte and Volunteer [on the Navajo Army Depot and staffed by Kaibab National Forest] Lookout Towers also reported the smoke. Spotters typically take compass readings toward the smoke plume and then estimate the location of the fire by triangulation, which helps reduce the amount of time to get to the fire.
“Type 1 help and orders had to go through our regional office [in Albuquerque], and that was prioritized. Rotors started turning as soon as those orders go in. A lot of people – retardant mixers, pilots, and mechanics – get busy really quickly,” said Brown. Type 1 Incident Management Teams (IMTs) are deployed to manage incidents like the Museum fire that require resources from local, regional, state and federal agencies.
Soon helicopters, fixed-wing airplanes, lead aircraft and a DC-10 Very Large Airtanker (VLAT) were flying into smoke-filled skies around the San Francisco Peaks. According to Brown, because of the weight and size of VLATs, they can fill up in only two airports in the southwest – Mesa Gateway and Albuquerque. Other large airtankers, smaller than the DC 10, filled in Prescott and Mesa Gateway airports where fire retardant is stored and mixed. The single-engine airtankers fill at Winslow–Lindbergh Regional Airport. “The time it takes for the turnarounds is very quick due to the faster jet aircraft that we are using these days,” said Brown. “We have a lot newer aircraft than we did before.”
By the time Southwest Area (SWA) Type 1 IMT 2 assumed command of the fire Monday, July 22 at 6 p.m., aircraft included three Type-1 helicopters, two Type-III helicopters, four heavy fixed-wing aircraft, four single-engine air tankers, an air attack aircraft, three lead aircraft and the VLAT. Already on the ground were seven engines, four fuels hand crews, three Interagency Hotshot Crews, six patrols and miscellaneous overhead personnel, for a total workforce of approximately 200 people.
That day, crews built and fortified the designated fire control line of Mount Elden Lookout Road not far from the wooded neighborhood that lies just east of the Museum of Northern Arizona, the fire’s namesake.
“This is as much about resource protection as it is about community protection. There are all those houses right down the road,” said Joe Zwizerzchowski later that week during a media fireline tour on Mount Elden Lookout Road. Zwizerzchowski, an SWA Type 1 IMT Public Information Officer (PIO) and Safety Manager John Morlock described the firefighting strategy called “burnout” that removes fuels from the forest floor.
Fighting Fire Strategically
“We wanted to breach the ladder fuels, so we don’t put fire into the canopies – the tops of the tree. We’d have higher tree mortality if the wind were to catch it up there. That would be very intense,” explained Morlock, safety boss for the area at the Mount Elden Lookout Road fireline. Ladder fuels include tall grasses, shrubs and tree branches that enable the fire to climb from the forest floor to the forest canopy where there is additional fuel. “Burnout,” a more strategic, methodical fire operation than “backburn,” occurs next to the fire control line as opposed to “backburn,” which backs the fire into the primary fire.
With the goal of increasing containment each day, but challenged with steep terrain near the fire perimeter, hand crews and ground equipment continued to reduce firefighting hazards like standing dead trees.
Later containment came south of Schultz Tank and north of Dry Lake Hills on the north edge of the fire. The scar from the Radio Fire, which burned 4,600 acres in 1977, helped contain the east side of the fire, northeast of Elden Mountain.
Working Around Illegal Drone Activity
On Wednesday, July 24, a drone stopped helicopters that were dropping water on hotspots, and caused them to relocate to other filling areas. For the safety of the helicopter operators and personnel on the ground, operations were moved from the Flagstaff City Reservoir to Schultz Tank. “The drone stopped the operation, but we were fortunate to have alternative water supplies. We don’t always have alternatives when drones impede flights,” said Veronica VanHulley, SWA Type 1 IMT PIO on the scene with Flagstaff Business News the next day.
Community Supporting Firefighters
“The support that has been shown to the first
responders in terms of donations, with countless businesses in town offering free food, coffee and other things, is always appreciated even though once we get this wheel in motion, many people are fed,” said Brown. “The messages that people put on signs truly resonated with us. Knowing that you have the whole town behind you means a lot.”
“Not just business pro-action efforts but also a community protection effort is apparent,” said Brown about the City of Flagstaff and Coconino County’s coordinated efforts with post-fire, flooding risks in many neighborhoods.
Demonstrating Wildfire Preparedness
“Personally, I’m seeing more in this community with people doing their part in wildfire preparedness. More is always better, for sure,” Brown said. He sees more citizens getting behind prescribed-fire and managed-fire projects like the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project.
“We know that it has an impact on folks [smoke, area closures], but the support and understanding of the community help promote forest health. We live here, too – we’re right there sucking that smoke with you,” said Brown. “In this fire-dependent ecosystem, being proactive with thinning, prescribed fires and managed fires to reduce fuel is the best for managing the land. With wildfire preparedness, support is key, and I think this community is cognizant of that.”
The SWA Type 1 IMT 2 commanded the fire through July 30, at which time they transferred the command back to the Coconino National Forest, a local Type 3 organization.
“There are lessons learned on all incidents,” said Brown. “We review small fires to big incidents, and are always promoting a learning organization so we can be bettered prepared. With the post-fire, we have taken big strides since the Schultz Fire. People are a lot more prepared for flooding now than then.” The Schultz Fire burned over 15,000 acres in June 2010. FBN
Stacey Wittig, FBN