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Thu, April 18

With fire season at hand, feds' actions baffle local firefighters

PRESCOTT – Some local firemen are baffled about the timing that federal agencies picked to cancel all firefighting contracts with heavy air tankers considering that the Southwest fire season already has knocked on the door.

They also are concerned about battling a potential fire in this region without having this critical piece of equipment to support them.

The U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior announced on Monday the indefinite grounding of all of the 33 air tankers stationed across the country. They cited safety concerns.

Two of the tankers that arrived in Prescott just recently were stationed in the U.S. Forest Service's Prescott Fire Center. They left the day after the federal agencies broke the news.

Prescott Fire Department Capt. Jeff Knotek said he can't understand why the federal government waited this long to announce its decision if it knew it was a possibility.

"It seems like really bad timing," he said, adding that a lack of air support limits firefighters' ability to fight wildfires.

"Because of the amount of fuel out in the woods and because of the way the weather is going to look … air support like that is critical."

"Who knows where the Indian Fire or the Rodeo-Chediski Fire would have been without air support," he noted. "When you lose a resource like that for an indefinite amount of time, it is scary."

Knotek said tankers had been very helpful in the areas with heavy fuels where it is difficult to stay on the ground or in instances where large fires are moving in multiple directions, adding that it takes many firefighters to try to control them.

Prescott Fire Department Chief Darrell Willis said he has some concerns about the latest announcement, but noted that federal agencies are planning to bring additional resources to the area.

"They are going to add some extra large helicopters and some single-engine tankers and additional ground forces," he said. "That is critical in this case and I think they are trying to do the best they possibly can."

Willis said local agencies will have to be jumping on fires quickly to keep them small, but noted that without tankers the potential for fires to grow larger is very real.

"There are going to be more acres burned," he said, adding that with tankers firemen had several tactics available to fight fires. "Without that type of support, we are going to have to back off a little more. We are not going to endanger people (firefighters) to save acreage or put them in the bad position because we can't get them as close to the fire as we used to."

Central Yavapai Fire District Battalion Chief Mike Parrish said tankers were really beneficial on initial attacks to hold the fire.

"We will just have to rely on helicopters and smaller aircraft," he said.

Parrish said they will continue to emphasize all the safety factors that they have been taught, but the public's involvement also is critical in preventing a huge disaster from happening.

"If anybody sees anything, we need to be notified right away so we can take immediate action on it," he said.

PFD fireman Cory Moser said he definitely saw the benefit of having tankers' support during the Indian Fire.

"When the Indian Fire was going on, one of the first things that made me feel we had a fighting chance was watching those tankers come in over the city and make those slurry runs for us," he said. "Those tankers were absolutely critical in helping us stop that fire."

Chino Valley Fire District Operations Chief John Ginn agreed that the tankers have been critical in fighting wildfires.

"The air tankers help us control a small fire from getting into one of these major catastrophic things," he said. "That resource will be eliminated from our tactics. We are going to have some safety issues for firefighters without the air tankers. The public is going to lack some safety because of it."

Many times air tankers allow people to get out of places from which they wouldn't otherwise, he said. "They can fight the fire where we can't," he said. "When the flames get to a certain length, ground troops are no longer usable. Without that the fire is going to run unchecked. ... That is really going to change the size of the fires."

Contact the reporter at mburicadam@prescottaz.com

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