Fire fighting bladders

A helicopter filling up from a water bladder supported by the Gila County Public Works Department. County staff station bladders and keep them filled in case a fire breaks out. The sooner first responders can put out the fire, the less likely it will grow into a wildfire. Until this year, the bladder program faced struggles for lack of money and supplies.

Turns out war has a silver lining. The withdrawal from Afghanistan has freed a whole load of water bladders that just might help save Payson in the homefront battle against wildfires.

Moreover, the federal infrastructure bill filled Gila County’s pockets with enough money to upgrade the bladder system used to support initial attacks on wildfires.

Since 2006, Gila County has used an innovative program using military grade water bladders in remote areas near Rim Country communities in the Tonto National Forest. The bladders give fire trucks and helicopters a place to get enough water to douse small blazes before they grow. This award-winning system has been snuffing out fires for 18 years.

But as time passed and bladders disappeared from the military surplus market, the ravages of the sun, dry environment and vandalism has taken its toll.

Each year that the county held its annual spring fire season prep meeting, the news got grimmer and grimmer.

Former Supervisor Tommie Martin, who launched the bladder program after asking Payson Head Ranger Ed Armenta for ideas, scrounged for more bladders and funded metal dip tank conversions. She found no answer to the problem before she died in December 2020.

This year, things changed.

And that’s a good thing — with Rim Country one of the most fire-menaced regions in the country.

“(The Forest Service) did an analysis and came up with the top fire risk fire sheds across the country,” said Taiga Roher, the fire staff officer for the Payson Ranger District. “For region 3 Arizona and New Mexico, out of the top 10 fire sheds in the region, three are in Payson and the Rim Country.”

But Roher reassured attendees this alarming news has an upside.

“That means that this is where the Forest Service will wind up focusing a lot of money,” he said.

District 1 Gila County Supervisor Steve Christensen, who hosted this year’s fire season preparation meeting, echoed that message, announcing the federal government has promised to provide $620,000 for the bladder program.

Just in time — since Wayne Jones from Gila County Public Works announced, “the bladder inventory — we have run out on that. We are kind of going into the process of tanks replacing those old bladders,” said Jones.

Despite the low inventory, Head Ranger Matt Paciorek felt “there is good coverage over Gila County.”

He had some good news of his own.

“Recently, a generous landowner has offered to put in a well for wildlife and fire,” said Paciorek.

This year, the wildfire season has started off with a bang. Four wildfires have already caused evacuations and burned buildings. As of early this week, they were all contained.

Rim Country faces a dangerous fire season thanks to a hot, dry spring, a relatively dry winter and repeated bouts of red flag weather conditions, with low humidity, strong winds and dry fuels. All the forests in northern Arizona have already imposed Stage 1 fire restrictions as of May 5. This means no fires except in developed campgrounds.

Fortunately, Gila County is now buying up bladders, filling tanks and preparing to support first responders to keep Rim Country safe.

“Gila County plays a big part, with tanks and moving water around,” said Christensen.

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