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Wildfire Academy finally gets to burn

The Daily Courier/Joanna Dodder<p>
Chaparral bursts into flames as Arizona Wildfire Academy students learn about wildfire behavior during a prescribed burn in Prescott Thursday.

The Daily Courier/Joanna Dodder<p> Chaparral bursts into flames as Arizona Wildfire Academy students learn about wildfire behavior during a prescribed burn in Prescott Thursday.

PRESCOTT - People don't want to be wildland firefighters because they enjoy being in a classroom.

So Thursday was easily the favorite day for more than 100 students in the basic firefighting courses at the Arizona Wildfire Academy in Prescott.

After four straight days in the classroom, they got to help conduct a 12-acre prescribed burn on the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campus near their classrooms.

"You train all day, Sunday through Thursday, and then you finally get out there and see what it's all about," student Alex Meraz of Tucson said. "It's a great way to end it."

The others around him all agreed that Thursday's successful burn made all that class time worth it.

Meraz hopes the training will lead to a job in wildland firefighting. Others in the class are volunteers in small fire departments who want to do their best.

While the basic classes helped prepare for the burn by clearing the burn boundary after the saw class cut back the brush, others practiced laying out hose lines, using foam, and drafting sample burn plans.

This was the first time in the Wildfire Academy's six years that weather conditions have allowed firefighters to ignite a controlled burn on the campus.

In fact, it's the first time that any wildland firefighting agency has ignited a controlled burn inside the city limits of Prescott.

The thick, decadent brush surrounding the ERAU campus probably hasn't burned since the early 1900s, said Todd Rhines, safety officer on the burn.

The weather conditions were perfect, and the brush was burning better than he anticipated, said Jason Clawson, ignitions officer on the fire.

The fact that the brush burned so readily just four days after it snowed demonstrates how quickly wildfire danger can increase, Rhines said.

"That's a key note," said Duane Steinbrink, burn boss for Thursday's prescribed burn. "People need to make sure they're providing defensible space (around their own homes)."

Fire managers are anticipating an especially dangerous wildfire season in the desert this year because winter rains produced a bumper crop of grass that will dry out quickly.

While the precipitation helped reduce the fire danger in heavier fuels such as pine trees, it doesn't necessarily take the high country out of fire danger, Rhines said.

"If we don't get any more moisture, I've got to say we're a little above-normal (in Prescott-area wildfire danger) just because of the dead chaparral component," Rhines said. "The chances of a big fire are pretty good."

More than a decade of drought has killed off large swaths of chaparral in the Prescott National Forest and surrounding areas.

"I think that's what a lot of people don't understand," Rhines said. "Dead fuel continues to be dead fuel."

A side benefit to Thursday's training was the extra protection against wildfires spreading between ERAU and the neighboring Piñon Oaks subdivision, Prescott Fire Chief Darrell Willis said.

The Prescott Fire Department used its relatively new Reverse-911 system to alert about 330 Piñon Oaks residents that the burn would be taking place Thursday.

Fire managers simply outlined the calling area on a computer screen map, taped a 30-second message and sent it off, Willis said.

The message works in live or recorded answers, Willis said. Unfortunately, 21 people hung up before the message finished, apparently thinking it was a solicitation call.

This was only the second time the Prescott Fire Department has used the Reverse-911 system, Steinbrink said.

Contact the reporter at jdodder@prescottaz.com

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