With the first major wildland fire of the season raging in southern Arizona, Payson Fire Chief John Ross announced new emergency procedures for the Rim country.
Over the course of three days, the Ryan fire has consumed 36,000 acres between Elgin and Huachuca City. The fire, which was 75 percent contained by Thursday, is the largest wildfire in Arizona in five years.
With abnormally high temperatures and the lowest levels of precipitation on record, Ross and other emergency services providers are putting plans into effect to deal with a similar situation in this area.
They include the acquisition of new equipment, additional education for firefighters, inter-agency training, establishment of a command center, and emergency evacuation procedures.
"Essentially this goes back to 1999," Ross said. "(At that time) we evaluated our services and embarked on a program to increase our ability to suppress wildland fires or at least minimize them somewhat."
As Payson firefighters attend classes and gain wildland firefighting certification, the department has been acquiring equipment specifically to fight wildland fires.
"We've also set up our mutual aid agreements with the surrounding districts," Ross said. "In the event of a major fire in this area, we will call in resources from other departments around the area, and if they need resources we will assist them."
Ross said meetings have also been held with the Arizona State Land Department and the U.S. Forest Service. The various local agencies and fire departments are also conducting joint training exercises.
"We do drills together and we work fires together," Ross said. "We have basically built up our capabilities to suppress wildland fires and manage them.
"Recently we've been going through actual scenarios in different areas of Payson in the event a wildland fire threatens portions of the community. We're looking at how the first 12 hours would go, with the Forest Service essentially handling the fire in the woods and the fire department and other agencies handling any threats to structures in town."
In the event of a wildland fire, an emergency operations center, set up in the Payson Police Department training room, will coordinate the response.
"We've practiced working with Gila County emergency services so they'll be notified, as will the state," Ross said. "If the emergency is significant enough, the state will become involved and get us resources from all over the West."
Ross also said evacuation plans are in place.
"If evacuation becomes necessary, the incident commander will delegate it to the police department, he said. "They have processes to address a rapid evacuation where there's imminent danger, or a 12-hour delayed evacuation in the event a fire is several miles away."
Police or other emergency personnel will go door-to-door in the event of an evacuation.
"People will be told what route to take and where to go," Ross said. "We have established refuge areas in town, such as the middle school."
The fire chief recommends that residents prepare a disaster kit with food and essential medical and emergency supplies to "endure an evacuation or home confinement."
"People ought to have such a kit for a variety of good reasons," Ross said. "In a wildfire situation, depending on which area of the community you're in, you could have folks isolated for a period of time because of no ingress or egress. Power lines can also be taken out."
Ross also recommends keeping a bag handy for valuables, important papers, money and credit cards in the event an evacuation becomes necessary.
So far, the Payson area has experienced numerous brush fires, "a lot more than typical," Ross said.
Campfire, ATV, smoking and firearms restrictions are in effect in the forest, and the Forest Service is evaluating the possibility of closing the forest at some point soon.
Ross admits that a major wildland fire can be virtually unstoppable.
"In the end a fire will do what it's going to do," he said. "All we can do is evacuate and try to control certain areas of it to minimize the danger and destruction."
Seminar on protecting your home
A free seminar on protecting your home from major fire damage will be held from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, May 4, at Pine Cultural Hall. Co-sponsored by the Pine-Strawberry and Payson fire departments, University of Arizona Agricultural Extension Service, U.S. Forest Service and the Arizona State Land Department, the seminar will feature preventive measures and what to do in case of fire in your neighborhood.