Water Strategy Will Give Firefighters Advantage

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Gila County has come up with a novel way to improve the Rim Country's chances of keeping small forest fires from becoming major conflagrations as an extremely dangerous fire season approaches.

At last Tuesday's regular meeting, the board of supervisors approved the purchase of 10 federal government surplus fuel bladders that will be strategically placed around the Rim Country to allow helicopters a much faster turnaround time when hauling water to fires. The cost for all 10, delivered, is $27,000.

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Helicopters provide an important first line of defense fighting forest fires.

"These are unused, new-in-their-wrapping fuel bladders -- so they're thicker than water bladders," District 1 Supervisor Tommie Martin said. "We'll be staging them around sources of water -- near wells or springs."

The strategy is to give firefighters a better chance of getting a fire out before it gets out of control.

County supervisors approached Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Ed Armenta and asked what they could do in the next 60 to 90 days to help fireproof the area. Armenta suggested strategically locating water for better first strike capability.

"We have a great deal of resources available to us once a fire is to a certain level of involvement, but we don't have any resources available to us until it gets to that level," Martin said.

"Our weak link is from the time a fire starts until it gets to a certain level of involvement."

Sites are currently being selected for bladder placement. The goal is to cover an area that arcs from Strawberry to Pleasant Valley and includes Payson.

"We know that if we can get on these itty bitty fires in the first one to three hours, we can put every one of them out," Martin said. "We can make a little fire a non-fire nearly every time, but if we can't do that initial strike, every fire becomes an event."

The bladders will be combined with holding tanks called pumpkins that the county plans to fashion from 10-foot diameter galvanized culverts it already has on hand.

"Our pumpkins are going to be homemade," Martin said. "We're going to cut the culvert into 10-foot lengths, weld steel bottoms on them, and put a lip around the top so they won't beat up the Bambi buckets.

"They'll hold about 6,000 gallons of water, so that'll be about 26,000 gallons of water sitting out there ready, right now. We'd like to have water where a helicopter has no more than a five minute round trip from any direction -- where they can fill and dump and fill and dump."

Although it's currently fighting a fire in Oklahoma, a Type III helicopter will be kept in the Rim Country this fire season, ready to respond when fires start.

"It has a 300- to 500-gallon Bambi bucket on it, and we're trying to accommodate that, to have enough water out there where (the pilot) is not hauling water from town (and other remote locations)," Martin said.

The pumpkin and bladder system will also accommodate the larger Sikorsky helicopters that could be called in when a fire gets out of control. They can pick up 2,500 gallons.

But even if the helicopter is gone, fittings on area water tenders are being standardized so they, too, can refill from the pumpkins, according to Gila County Project Manager Jerry Farr.

"Whether it's Forest Service, county, town or fire district, they're putting together adapters so they can tap into these new water sources," Farr said. "That hasn't been true up until now."

The county hopes to have the pumpkins and bladders in place and operational in 30 days. They will be placed on private land to provide better protection against vandalism.

"The mighty hunters we have out here would love to see how well they hold water," Farr said. "Picture the guy with the bow and arrow at (Green Valley Park).

The federal government has a total of 46 surplus bladders, and if the first 10 prove successful, the county may purchase more.

"We may come back and do another five or 10," Deputy County Manager John Nelson said. "I think we can get enough coverage where we will have five minute attack zones."

That time can't come soon enough for Martin.

"I can't stand to sit here watching what I think is Pine and Strawberry getting ready to burn up," she said. "It's just a matter of time. They're the most critically rated fire danger for the entire West."

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