Gila County Coordinates Wildfire Season Preparations

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The "Rim Country" of northern Gila County is at high risk for a catastrophic wildland fire every year during fire season, and, over the years, there have been several. The Dude Fire of 1990 killed six firefighters, destroyed some 60 structures and burned over 24,000 acres. For a long time, "The Dude" was the largest and most deadly wildfire in Arizona history, but, as we all know, in the past few years the fires have been getting bigger and more destructive.

In 2002, Gila County Rim Country dodged a bullet when the Rodeo-Chediski Fire devastated the areas to the east, all the way to Show Low. This season, with very little winter moisture and record low fuel moisture levels, the Rim Country is bracing itself for another bad fire year, and area residents and firefighters are holding their collective breaths.

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Chuck Jacobs

But this season is different in the Rim Country. The 4,200-acre February Fire in (of course) February spurred Gila County officials to get involved in the wildland fire issue as they never had before. Gila County District 1 Supervisor Tommie Martin called for a series of meetings with County officials, local fire chiefs, and everyone else who could be impacted by a catastrophic wildfire. She challenged those in attendance to think of ways to do things better, to communicate and coordinate better, and to act more like a team. Stating that everyone, including Gila County government, had way too much to lose if the Rim Country were to experience another Rodeo-Chediski Fire, she pledged the county's support and wanted some "out of the box" thinking.

As a result of these meetings, a number of things started happening:

  • Personnel from the various agencies started talking to each other, and more importantly, started understanding each other's concerns and seeing things from the "other guy's" point of view. It is a level of cooperation that never existed before.
  • Gaps in radio communications were revealed, and radios were reprogrammed to allow communications between County Public Works units and firefighters.
  • Where necessary, non-fire personnel were given basic training in Incident Command, Fire Operations and the use of emergency fire shelters.
  • Adaptors were purchased to allow County Public Works tanker trucks to connect with fire trucks to be able to more readily move water back and forth between them.
  • Sites at water sources were identified where county equipment could be quickly set up to fill fire trucks and other tankers. When needed, site prep work was performed for easier access.
  • An inventory of potential dip sites for firefighting helicopters revealed large areas where no dip sites were available. A plan was put together to install dip tanks, made out of ten-foot tall sections of ten-foot diameter culvert pipe, with a steel plate bottom welded on. Where no water source existed to supply the dip tanks, surplus military 20,000 gallon bladders, also known as "pillow tanks," were purchased by Gila County, and were installed and filled by County Public Works personnel. Seven such sites were installed. There are now nearly 30 identified helicopter dip sites available from Strawberry to east of Christopher Creek, and south to Payson and beyond. Virtually all areas of the Rim Country are now within just a few minutes flight time of a helicopter dip site, making for a quick hard-hitting aerial attack on any new fires. And Gila County even purchased four 6,000 gallon "pumpkin" tanks, which can be set up even closer to a fire scene if necessary for extended operations.
  • In an effort to get the word out to more people when fire restrictions are in effect, Gila County purchased 50 pairs of magnetic signs, and supplied them to County departments and local fire departments. The signs say "Fire Danger Extreme. No open burning. No campfires." The signs became so popular that 50 more pairs were purchased and distributed. Now, you see them practically everywhere.

The work is continuing, but the partnership between Gila County and the Rim Country's seven fire districts, Payson's municipal fire department, the U.S. Forest Service, and the other participating agencies has resulted in a greatly improved wildfire attack capability for the entire Rim Country.

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