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Wildfire season outlook uncertain, but firefighters preparing for the worst

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ORACLE – The baseball field at Mountain Vista School is dotted with yellow and green uniforms. But today the players are dozens of wildland firefighters preparing to save landscapes, property and perhaps their own lives.

One group picks at the infield dirt with fire rakes, simulating what it takes to clear vegetation from a wildfire’s path.

Near home plate, others practice unpacking and tucking themselves safely beneath sheets of plastic – a substitute for the expensive foil shelters they would deploy as a last resort if overrun by flames.

“You play like you practice, and you practice like you play,” Colin Port, a qualified engine boss with Golder Ranch Fire District and incident commander for the drill, told participants.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center’s Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook, Arizona faces normal wildfire risk from March through June.

However, Carrie Templin, public affairs officer for Tonto National Forest, said the especially wet winter this year could potentially increase wildfire risk as summer heat dries things up.

“We had a lot of good grasses and wildflowers come up,” she said. “When those cure out and dry, which they do as the weather heats up, the potential risk exists that we could have significant wildfires in the area.”

At the training here, Scott Robb, battalion chief with Golder Ranch Fire District, which serves communities north of Tucson, said wildfires are difficult to predict but that prolonged drought and high temperatures have made conditions extremely dry this year.

“Whether you have one fire or 100 fires, the danger potential is there, and the need for safety is there,” he said.

Robb said anything from a blown tire to a lightning strike can start a wildfire, adding that the dangers are highest in areas with a lot of desert brush and heavy winds.

A dozen agencies from around southern Arizona participated in the March 21 exercise hosted by the Pinal County Wildland Team, an association of nine fire agencies from Southern Pinal and Northern Pima Counties, along with the U.S. Forest Service and the Arizona State Forestry Division.

Port, the drill’s incident commander, said the result will be better coordination among the departments.

“In the event of a wildfire, we will have already used this as a pre-plan so that we know how to work together,” he said.

Along with practice deploying shelters and using their fire rakes, firefighters ran a simulation with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department, acting as if a fire broke out at the nearby Biosphere 2 and establishing communication with the officers to fight it.

Other refresher courses covered radio communications, driving safety and land navigation.

“We tried to run today just like a normal incident, so if there ever was a wildfire there would be all the command positions that we’ve established,” Port said.

He said firefighters also prepare throughout the winter with by eating right, exercising and engaging in various training programs like handling chainsaws and water.

Robb, the battalion chief, said firefighters face the biggest challenge when a fire starts and there aren’t many resources, making it vital for agencies to share supplies.

“You’re never going to feel like you’re fully funded to handle any situation,” he said. “But if you make the best with what you have and you work together then you’re giving yourselves the best chance to succeed.”

Carrie Dennett, fire prevention officer for Arizona State Forestry Division, said another important way to get ready for wildfire season is educating the community.

She said her agency does this through its Firewise program, which encourages safety as well as preventing and defending against wildfires.

“For most of the state, there’s a lot of work to be done with being fire wise,” Dennett said.

She said homeowners should clear brush around their homes every spring and make sure houses are constructed with fire-resistant materials to create safer communities.

“Before there’s even smoke in the air, there’s a lot of things people can do to increase the chances of their house surviving the fire,” Dennett said.

What can cause a wildfire:

● Campfires.

● Parking vehicles in tall grass or over shrubs.

● Sparks from mowers, chainsaws, welding torches and other equipment.

● Smoking.

● Fireworks.

● Target shooting.

● Homes and other buildings made of flammable materials.

Source: Arizona Interagency Wildfire Prevention and Information Website

Then and now: Slide the handle to see an overhead shot of a neighborhood in Yarnell right after the 2013 fire and then eight months later during the healing process.