KNAU and Arizona News
12:02 pm
Tue June 12, 2012

The Hard Work of Putting Out Wildfires

Scenes of wildfires are almost commonplace this time of year in the southwest

Photos of billowing smoke and threatening orange flames…

Firefighters weighted down with equipment…

Homeowners looking weary and frightened…

Behind the dramatic images though are sometimes hundreds of men and women putting in long hours in poor conditions, doing dangerous work.

Media reports about the Gladiator Fire, southeast of Prescott, routinely mentioned rough terrain slowing down fire fighters.

Here’s an idea of just how rough that terrain is.

The road to Crown King is about 25 miles of rough, mostly single-lane dirt road.

Once you pass Crown King, the graded dirt road you’ve bounced along turns narrower and steeper.

It looks more like a hiking trail than a road.

Patrick Lair, with the National Forest Service, said, “They had to essentially get a lot of firefighters up here with all of their equipment in some pretty big trucks.”

Large equipment like bulldozers, small fire engines, and towable equipment like wood chippers came up these roads.

The wear and tear eroded them to jagged rocks.

At the peak of the Gladiator fire operation, over 1,100 firefighters were on the scene. 

They came from across Arizona and from as far away as New York.

Forest Service fire crew member Todd Zumhofe said, “I couldn’t believe some of the homes these guys saved.  The actual work they’ve done and the burnout operations, everything came together and clicked for them. ”

These crews would stay on site for mostly overnight shifts lasting over 12 hours. 

Their gear allowed them to stay several days if need be, with necessities being delivered by trucks

Gerry Perry, with the Gladiator Fire Management Team, said, “Many times the strategy is to work overnight because the humidity is a bit higher overnight and because of that the fire has a tendency to be less active. 

Therefore if they need to do burnout operations to rob the fire of fuel, then they can do that much more safely. ”

The crews spent their shifts clearing roads and trails, using shovels, hoes and if lucky, bulldozers.

The goal of firefighters is to remove the fuel and starve the fire.

Perry said, “We don’t put out a big fire like this.  Mother Nature does it.  All we can do is make sure that it is safe so that as the fire cools down there’s no opportunity for some smoldering ember to come outside of that and start up again.”

While crews work on the ground, air tankers drop flame retardant on spots in danger of catching.

Think of it like medieval siege warfare.

The goal is to surround the enemy and starve it out, picking off the occasional archer to keep your soldiers safe.

But unlike a medieval siege, these fire fighters have been more than welcomed in Crown King.

A sign posted on the community bulletin board salutes the crews and prays for their well-being.

Patrick Lair, with the National Forest Service, said the people here have been really outspoken, gracious, thankful and friendly. "It’s really been a joy to be up here because they’ve been so thankful and welcoming. They’re actually cooking our meals," he added.

Despite burning over 16,000 acres, the fire destroyed six structures, including the home where the fire began.

The crews suffered eight injuries, but none required hospital visits.

Jim Derrick, with the Fire Management Team, said, “Our major [concern] is firefighter safety and public safety, that’s number one.  From there we work on out.”

Fire officials often caution that any small fire can spread into a mega-fire.

Northern Arizona’s dry weather and high winds make that warning much more of a reality.

They also say that with a little luck and a lot of hard work, fire crews can hold the line.