It's not a year for rookie firefighters in the Tonto National Forest.
But rural fire departments are gearing up and getting information on what they can do if they're called in to assist the team that is Payson's first response to fire in the forest.
The Payson Ranger District firefighting team is comprised of two administrators, a 20-person Hot Shot crew, three people on the eastside fire engine, two on the westside engine, seven on the Payson engine, one on the water tender, and a lookout at Diamond Point.
In addition, a helicopter with seven people could be called in from Roosevelt.
Members of the team with the Payson Ranger District held a 20-hour class on wildland firefighting March 12, 13 and 14 at Christopher-Kohl's Fire District station.
It was one of a number of classes on wildland firefighting offered in the area each year. Area firefighters have been required to take the class since the mutual aid agreement was put in place 12 years ago between all Northern Gila County fire districts, the U.S. Forest Service and the State Land Department.
Dan Eckstein, assistant fire management officer with the Payson Ranger District, told the group, "If we do have a busy season, under our mutual aid agreement, we may call someone in -- just be extra cautious and extra careful."
Some 20 rural firefighters from Payson, Mesa del Caballo, Diamond Star, Tonto Village, and Christopher-Kohl's Fire districts learned that fighting fires in the forest is a lot different than battling a structure fire in a residential area.
A learning experience
When dealing with the danger of wildland fires, they learned the most important letters in the alphabet are L.C.E.S. The letters stand for lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones.
They learned how to read topographical maps in order to get to the fire and respond to commands, and how to figure out where they're at once they've arrived at the scene.
They learned that once they arrive on a forest fire, there's a chain of command -- like an army -- that was developed in Southern California and adopted by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.
Pat Velasco, district fire management officer at the Payson Ranger District, told the firefighters what they would be expected to do initially.
"Obtain topographical maps; develop a pre-attack plan; listen to the weather updates; do radio tests; practice operations on the radio; know your agreements with other agencies; know where your local water supplies are."
Where's the water?
Velasco said knowing where to locate the water supply is critical in the Payson area, especially for engine crews.
Everyone on a fire is expected to know how big the fire is and where the "head" and "heel" are located. The head is the most intense part, and is driven by wind or slope of the terrain.
The heel is the rear of the fire, but it's not considered a safety zone because too many things can happen. Burning debris can fall downhill, starting spot fires behind the main fire.
Those who respond to a fire are expected to know where the flanks are, which is where the fire line may be drawn at a width three times the size of the flames. The line around the fire is dug to mineral soil with specialized tools.
Fire lines are drawn on both flanks and worked toward the head of the fire to pinch it off. "Flanking it means you're working the sides of the fire and working it in," Eckstein said.
The fire line is the most common method of suppression. When conditions demand, the control lines are located along natural breaks in the topography or at a distance from the main fire.
More than 250 deaths
In theory, it should work, but there are many factors to consider in fighting fires. Since 1926, 250 wildland firefighters have died fighting fires in the United States. Last weekend's class members saw videos on how the firefighters were caught off guard, and talked about what went wrong.
The rural fire fighters were taught to think of safety first and comfort second, and to understand that everything can change in an instant.
"The greatest influence is the wind," Eckstein said. "It bends the flames over and adds oxygen."
One of the most important things firefighters have to think about is the weather. Which way is the wind blowing? How hot is it? How dry? Is there a storm or a front coming in? Are there cumulus clouds building up and is the air unstable?
Did the fire start during the hot, dry part of the day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.? If so, it'll be more of a problem.
Planning, logistics, finance, safety -- the setup is like an army and, basically, the army is doing battle with one of nature's most terrifying and mystifying forces.
Many of the firefighters with the Payson Ranger District have been doing the work for more than a decade. They share a fascination for the work they do. When they talk about the fires they've been on, they talk about the taste, the smell, the permeating qualities of smoke -- they talk about a respect that is tempered by fear. There is also a sense of camaraderie.
Taking it all in
The training provided a lot to think about for the 20 rural firefighters. On the final day of the class, they had a practice exercise and lit a prescribed burn at a nearby campground in Christopher Creek.
The light, dry fuel, which was mostly grasses, took off quickly. The firefighters watched as the wind shifted from side to side, pushing the flames toward the road to the north.
Tom Pearson, Mike Henderson, and Swede Carlson, with Payson Ranger District's Engine 46, were on hand to help the rural firefighters flank the fire.
"We flanked it on both sides, using the road as an anchor point, started at the heel and went at it from both flanks toward the head of the fire," Eckstein said.
The class did a dry mop-up and a wet mop-up using backpack pumps and hose. They also practiced the use of fire shelters, and hoped they would never be in a position to use them.
Mutual aid agreements
The rural firefighters have a mutual aid agreement in place and they will go when and where they're called.
Restrictions in the forest are almost guaranteed this summer and forest closures may be necessary in areas north of Highline and the Rim, Eckstein said. "We've even had fires start from metal horseshoes when it's extra dry."
"If we don't get everybody rolling right away, we're going to lose one. We're going to just call out the troops and get 'em in there. The whole thing is, on a year like this -- get all the resources coming."