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Tue, Feb. 18

NM burns; Prescott gets lucky next? Prescott lucky after small blaze breaks out

PRESCOTT – A quick response and the fortuitous availability of a pair of slurry bombers prevented a Thursday morning forest fire near Goldwater Lake from spreading out of control.

The fire started less than a mile from homes in the Groom Creek area and on top of Spruce Mountain. It was southeast of Goldwater Lake and just south of the Watershed Trailhead.

Tony Sciacca of the U.S. Forest Service said the man-caused fire consumed about an acre of underbrush near Schoolhouse Gulch.

"Thanks to the quick response between the Forest Service, the city, the county and the Groom Creek Department, we were able to get a handle on it," Sciacca said.

The other key to quick containment was the presence of slurry bombers at the Prescott airport.

"It was just dumb luck (the planes were here), because Wednesday there was not one air tanker to be found," said Tom Tobin, acting fire zone coordinator stationed at the Prescott Fire Center. Both air tankers normally stationed at the Prescott Fire Center are fighting fires in Los Alamos, N.M., and Florida. The lone helicopter here broke its bucket after dropping just two loads of water Thursday.

Other air tankers had been called in Thursday to the wildfire near the Grand Canyon. One had to leave because of high winds, and returned to Prescott with a full load of slurry. Dispatchers sent it straight down to Goldwater just as the first fire engine arrived. Then another tanker arrived here for its start-of-the-season briefing on its way to the Grand Canyon; firefighters quickly filled that one with slurry and sent it to Goldwater, too, Tobin said.

It would have taken one and a half to two hours to call in an air tanker if they weren't already here, Tobin said.

"Fire can go a long ways in two hours," especially if it's getting fanned by 35 mile per hour winds, he noted. "It could have been bad. See all those houses burning in Los Alamos? That's a real scenario."

Winds in Prescott Thursday forced the bomber pilots to drop their loads well upwind of the fire, making the precision of their hits all the more remarkable.

Sciacca said that without the bombers, which dropped a total of six loads of fire retardant, the Schoolhouse blaze probably would have gone out of control.

"We definitely had the potential if it hadn't been for the air support," he said.

About 25 firefighters from the various agencies surrounded the fire with hose lines in about an hour, a notable feat given the fire's location on both sides of the steep and narrow draw. Fire departments from Prescott, Groom Creek and Central Yavapai aided the effort along with the State Land Department.

The quick containment, Sciacca said, was the result of available resources and the near-constant training all the departments take part in.

"It's years of preparation to make it look this easy," he said. "And, this time of year, we're going to be real aggressive with our initial response."

The wind and extremely dry conditions could have combined to create a serious wildfire, said Ed Hollenshead, the top fire officer on the Prescott Forest. The pine and oak/juniper in the area is bone dry. The wind was hitting 35 mph in the Prescott area, but luckily gusting to just 25 mph in the canyon.

Slightly cooler temperatures also helped.

"It was moving, it had potential," Hollenshead said of the fire. "They jumped on it right away. I was impressed."

Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Jim Clawson spent much of the afternoon sifting through the ashes where he figured the fire started. Less than 10 feet away, a fire ring showed no signs of recent use, and what Clawson saw at the point of origin led him to believe that a person or persons were to blame.

"It's definitely human-caused, definitely suspicious and still under investigation," Clawson said.

The fire never had the chance to crown in the trees, aiding the firefighting effort. But Sciacca said it probably would be two days before mop-up crews could complete the work that would allow the Forest Service to declare the fire completely out.

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