An improvised handful of water tanks and bladders has grown into a sophisticated network essential to the firefighting strategy of every fire department in Rim Country.
An all-star cast of firefighters, fire chiefs, police, emergency crews, county maintenance workers, utility managers, state transportation officials and Forest Service personnel met last week to review the status of the network of 45 stations where fire trucks and helicopters can fill up with water to fight fires throughout Rim Country.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin started the effort years ago with a handful of scrounged, surplus rubber military water storage bladders.
“Can you believe this, Tommie?” said Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch, looking over the color-coded map showing the locations of tanks, ponds over which helicopters can hover and giant bladder tanks that can hold anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 gallons of water. “What’d we start with — five?”
At that point, the roomful of gruff emergency crews and fire administrators broke into a long wave of spontaneous applause.
Martin blushed and waved them off. “We just call it redneck ingenuity,” said Martin, from a longtime Rim Country ranching family.
The meeting then launched into a long, detailed status report on the bladders, which require constant tending and upkeep.
Payson Ranger District Fire and Fuels Manager Don Nunley said the Forest Service hopes the county can get the water bladders and dipping sites ready early this year, with indications that fuels have already dried out to dangerous levels. The Forest Service constantly monitors the moisture content of both the living trees, the downed logs and the twigs and pine needles that litter the forest floor.
In a good year, the moisture content will remain at 90 percent of capacity or more well into the year. But once the moisture content falls below 10 percent as it has repeatedly in the past decade in May and June, fires can spread with explosive violence.
The Forest Service has shifted from an effort of trying to put out fires immediately all year long to an emphasis on letting fires burn naturally whenever possible — but only when fuel moisture contents are high. In those conditions, fire ambles along the debris and brush on the ground — doing more good than harm. But when fuels get tinder dry, trees and brush explode in flame, which spreads up the “fuel ladder” of the small trees into the lower branches of the big trees. That can lead to a dreaded crown fire, when a wind-driven fire can spread through the treetops much faster than a man can run.
This year, after a near-record 69-day dry stretch, the Forest Service cancelled further controlled burns until the monsoon rains hit in July or August.
The network of water bladders is intended to provide enough water to drench a small fire quickly, before it can spread into a town-destroying monster. The bladders in the past several fire seasons have played a key role in getting to fires early. Firefighters credit the network of water depots with preventing a series of Rim Country fires even as monsters like the Schultz Fire near Flagstaff and the Yarnell Fire got loose. The last major fire in Rim Country was the Water Wheel Fire, started close to a road and an informal campground. The fire burned only about 800 acres, but only a shift of the wind saved both Beaver Valley and Whispering Pines.
The bladders have also proved valuable when it comes to preventing car or house or truck fires from touching off roadside brush and triggering a major blaze. Just last week, a semi truck heading down Highway 87 caught fire from overheated brakes. The truck fire snarled traffic and threatened to spread. However, once engine crews emptied their pumper trucks, they refilled at one of the nearby bladders.
The gathering of firefighters spent a big chunk of the meeting last Thursday going over the status of the water depot network — with several new sites added. Most of the bladders sit on public land, with a handful on private land in places where the private land provides the only flat area near water accessible to the helicopters.
The Whispering Pines Fire Department managed to land a federal grant to add several water bladder sites in areas where trucks could need a refill.
When Whispering Pines Fire Chief Ron Sattelmaier announced the grant to the group, Gila County Sheriff Lt. Tim Scott hastened to offer the department one of the 15-20 water bladders the county had obtained as military surplus.
“I called over to the county,” said Chief Sattelmaier, “nobody knew anything.”
“I always go get surplus bladders any time we can get our hands on them,” said Scott, who drove to California for the latest batch. “So we’ve got them for anyone who wants to set them up.”
“Guess I talked to the wrong people,” said Chief Sattelmaier, demonstrating the value of this annual fire-preparation gathering.
A welter of small fire departments and different agencies protect Rim Country from this most pressing of dangers. Most rely on volunteers and local property taxes. The annual meeting provides a chance to coordinate their efforts and for the smaller departments to learn about grants, extra equipment and new regulations.
Arizona Division of Forestry District Forester James Downey spoke up from the back of the crowded room and said he could help Whispering Pines alter the terms of its federal grant so it could take the free bladders from the county and apply the grant money to other pressing needs.
Martin moved around the amiable mob of fire chiefs to check on their needs for the upcoming fire season — especially as relates to the water bladders.
“We could use one down at Bear Flats,” said Chief Hatch.
“Yeah,” said Nunley, “anything we can hit coming out of Hellsgate — that would be great.”
Hatch said the private landowner had offered the use of a large meadow alongside Tonto Creek — a rare flat spot in rugged terrain close to a reliable source of water wide enough for a helicopter to access. The giant bladders have to be set up on absolutely level ground — preferably surrounded by berms — or they have a tendency to roll away. Martin said the county would need a contract with the landowner, since in the past they’ve had problems with landowners first granting — then revoking permissions for a water station.
Tonto Basin Fire Department Chief Steve Holt offered a location for another bladder that could help protect several small communities down there.
“I think it would work there — although we might have the problem of someone shooting at it,” said Holt.
Tommie Cline Martin laughed: “Those are my relatives you’re talking about,” she said.