Fire warden gearing up for wildfire season

Fire warden gearing up for wildfire season

12 May 2009

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USA — The Tooele County fire warden is at his busiest from June through August, when the mercury rises and vegetation can turn tinder dry. And according to everything Arnold has seen from various organizations that predict fire seasons, this year’s fire season is estimated to be similar to last year.

“However, with all the moisture that we’ve gotten, once it does start heating up, I think we’re going to have a pretty active fire season,” he said.

In the last couple of years, the number of fires has decreased a little bit, though the intensity of the fires once they get large has generally increased, Arnold said.

“Actually in Tooele County it’s not uncommon to have true wildland fires year round,” said Arnold, 32, who has been the county fire warden since 2002. “The last two years we haven’t because of the weather conditions, but it’s possible. Nothing big, but we usually have fires every month of the year.”

The Tooele County fire warden is a state position under the state Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Arnold’s office is funded 50-50 by the state and county. Two seasonal firefighters work for Arnold during the summer.

Arnold, who lives in Grantsville, has an office in the Sheriff’s Substation in the basement of HeritageWest Credit Union in Stansbury Park.

“The main responsibility I have is to represent the state, and in some cases the county, on all wildfire matters in Tooele County,” Arnold said, adding that can include things like issuing burn permits and controlling prescribed burns.

In addition, he works as a liaison between local fire departments, the state and various federal agencies such as the BLM and U.S. Forest Service.

Arnold said fighting fires was something he wanted to do since he was little. He grew up in Caliente, Nev. — a town of between 800 and 1,000 people located about halfway between Ely and Las Vegas.

He moved to Wendover and worked for the West Wendover Fire Department in 1997. He also worked for the Bureau of Land Management as an engine crew member in Wells, then for the Nevada Division of Forestry. He has been a seasonal firefighter, emergency medical services coordinator and a training officer over the years.

In addition to his regular duties, for the past month — since his boss resigned — Arnold has been the acting fire management officer (FMO) for the Wasatch Front.

“Right now I’ve got five counties that I’m covering: Tooele, Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Morgan,” he said. “I’m swamped.”

In the last few years, Arnold has noticed more fires being caused by people shooting in areas like Timpie Point and Stansbury Island, although the No. 1 cause of fires in Tooele County continues to be lightning. To prevent shooting fires, Arnold said to refrain from using tracer ammunition, in addition to having a good shovel and water available.

The most memorable fire in recent memory, Arnold said, was the Kimbell fire in the Stansbury Mountains above Grantsville in 2007. He said firefighters with 25 years of experience said it was the most active fire they’d seen in their careers.

“And it was,” Arnold said. “We actually went up and burned around the Reeder house in the middle of the night and saved the house. I actually flew over it a couple days later and they had a blue tarp and had written ‘thank you firefighters’ on it. It was really cool.”

Arnold said when he first started fighting fires, he could work between 24 to 36 hours before having to take a break. Now the maximum amount of time a firefighter can work, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, is usually 16 hours, followed by at least eight hours of rest.

In June, firefighters from Vernon and Grantsville fire departments will be participating in a training program held in Coalville, which will train firefighters to work on wildland engines in wildland fire situations. That training is especially critical these days as residential development bumps up against wilderness.

“It’s a concern in Tooele County and statewide,” he said. “People build in places where it takes a while for fire and EMS services to kind of catch up with the housing. That’s the type of place where we really need to focus on training and work with homeowners to ensure that we can help them in case of a fire.”

He added the main thing homeowners need to know is to have a defensible space around their home in case of a wildfire.

Water is also an issue, Arnold said, and in some places firefighters are pulling water from 30 miles away to fight a fire.

“Usually we go back to cities like Grantsville, Rush Valley, Vernon, and then we have water tenders that actually bring it [water] out to us 2,500 to 5,000 gallons at a time,” he said. “During the summer, those tenders are dispatched with the fire engines.”

Over the winter, Arnold participated in several classes and trainings, ranging from two days to a week. While he enjoys keeping current on firefighting techniques, he said his favorite part of the job is teaching prevention at safety fairs and in schools.

“The main thing I like about it is just seeing the little kids and just wanting to make sure they’re safe,” he said. “If we can save one little kid with prevention work then we’ve done our jobs.”

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