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Fri, Feb. 28

Preparation, luck halted wall of fire<BR>

It was the first major fire in the West that year, so an abundance of national firefighting resources were available and many were in place at the Prescott Fire Center. The blaze ignited in mid-afternoon instead of the morning, so within a few hours, temperatures started to cool as humidity levels increased and winds died down.

And local firefighters in several agencies had been training for such a fire for more than a decade.

Sciacca, the Prescott National Forest's fire management officer for this district, was the incident commander on the initial attack against the fire.

He and other firefighters relived that experience recently during a re-enactment.

The call came in at 2:18 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15, 2002. It was 85 degrees and sunny, the relative humidity was 12 percent, and winds were blowing 10 to 15 miles per hour from the southwest. The Haines Index, a wildland firefighting calculation combining the stability and moisture content of the lower atmosphere, was at five on a scale of two to six.

The area was in the midst of a long-term drought. Prescott National Forest fire restrictions had gone into effect on April 18, the earliest in its history.

Sciacca and others were training at the Prescott Fire Center when they heard the call and saw a huge black column already rising into the sky.

Forest law officer Jim Clawson was patrolling the forest.

"I was the first one here, and by the time I came here, it was on top of the ridge and it was ugly," Clawson recalled.

He quickly moved to evacuate people at the Indian Creek campground near the fire's origin. It wasn't easy. One group was reluctant to leave their camp trailer and gear, the campground host kept trying to return to get her dog, and a nearby homeless man was livid that Clawson was forcing him to leave behind his belongings.

By the time he led them all out, firefighters were on the scene.

The firefighters were pulling out their hose packs and connecting them up the hill in what they call a progressive hose lay. With this technique, they can surround a fire as large as five acres.

But the extreme conditions made that maneuver impossible this time.

Two air tankers stationed at the Prescott Fire Center were quickly on the scene to help.

Other engine crews arrived and started laying hose along Indian Creek Road, hoping to flank the flames away from the nearby Ponderosa Park subdivision. Highway 89 would serve as the western boundary, they hoped.

After about an hour fighting the blaze, Sciacca called for the next level of Forest Service firefighting oversight, a Type II management team.

But when the helicopter crew radioed that the fire had hit the Indian Creek drainage and was heading toward Prescott proper, Sciacca quickly upped the level to a Type I team.

When the fire jumped Highway 89, it was time to evacuate more than 3,000 people from the subdivisions along Prescott's southwestern edge.

Seventy firefighting resources from throughout the region and nation were on the ground and in the air within 2.5 hours of the initial call.

The final lucky draw occurred when the fire hit an area that forest officials and a neighboring private landowner had cleared of thick brush a few years earlier.

That gave firefighters a chance to make a stand.

Unfortunately, embers blew out ahead of the main blaze and caught a home on fire. That separate spot fire raced up a drainage depression and took out four more homes. It was the first time a wildfire had claimed Prescott-area homes.

But firefighters halted the main blaze and allowed the other evacuees to return to their homes by Friday evening.

"Losing five homes was a great loss, but we could have had 500 structures," Sciacca said.

Contact the reporter at jdodder@prescottaz.com.

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