USA — WALKER – Northern Arizona’s new Type III incident management team was put to the test Friday during an all-day wildfire drill based in Walker.
To an outsider, the list of problems that popped up every five minutes seemed unrealistic. But not to the experienced wildland firefighters who created the mock list.
“We sat down and thought about what would be likely to happen,” said Pruett Small, a retired Central Yavapai fire manager who was director of Friday’s annual Prescott Basin wildfire drill. He came up with the scenarios alongside fellow retired Central Yavapai firefighter Todd Abel. Both now serve on an elite Type I national incident management team.
The drill involved a wildfire sparked by fireworks that was forcing the evacuation of Walker, a small forested community just southeast of Prescott. But participants also had to deal with other incidents that popped up during the wildfire battle.
For example, one family was desperate for help to find two 12-year-old boys before evacuating. Then firefighters found a barrel of unknown chemicals in the path of the flames near Lynx Creek and needed someone who could assess its danger.
A Hotshot firefighter broke his ankle. The media showed up seeking an interview, while drunken motorcycle gang members were causing trouble at a nearby campground.
Another wildfire ignited three miles south of Prescott and someone reported potential suspects leaving in a Jeep. And neighbors evacuated to a Red Cross shelter were arguing about how well their homes were protected from wildfire.
The Type III team dealt with each issue as it came along.
“It’s organized chaos,” said Tony Sciacca, a retired Prescott Forest fire manager who now leads a Type I team. He was helping oversee the drill.
“Having a team that works together all the time, knows the incident command system and continually trains makes it go a lot more smoothly,” said the new Type III team’s Incident Commander Todd Bentley, also Groom Creek’s fire chief.
It was the first big test of the new Northern Arizona Type III team that is now ready to respond to emergencies across the state, from floods to blizzards. It still has to do more work to qualify to respond to wildfires.
The idea for all-hazards response teams across the country emerged after 9/11, said Small, who joined the 9/11 emergency response in New York City. Now about 50 such teams exist, but most of them don’t have the required skills to respond to wildfires. The Northern Arizona team will, so it will be somewhat unique.
Arizona now has Type III teams based out of northern, central and southern Arizona, noted Chuck McHugh, Arizona Division of Emergency Management assistant director. ADEM provided $10,000 worth of equipment for the new team. McHugh was in Walker to support the drill Friday.
“Success is a function of practice,” McHugh said.
Other states also can seek help from the teams, he noted. For example, the Phoenix team responded to Hurricane Sandy last year.
The Prescott region already has a reputation for some of the best wildland firefighting interagency cooperation in the country, and the Type III team will only enhance that, said McHugh and several other experts.
“One of the things that attracted me to work here is the cooperation among agencies, and it seems to have gone to a new level the last few years,” said Pete Gordon, fire staff officer on the Prescott National Forest.
It’s rare to see an incident management team and emergency operations officials working so closely on a drill, said retired law enforcement officer and firefighter Sam Whitted of Flagstaff, another Type I team member helping to oversee Friday’s drill.
The Type III team will be a real asset for northern Arizona, Whitted added. It will respond to fires and other emergencies that are beyond the capacity of local resources.
“It provides leadership coordination for fires we know are going to go beyond initial attack,” he explained.
Numerous fire departments from the Verde Valley joined the exercise by filling in on regular station duties for local firefighters who were battling the wildfire, Bentley explained.
“They did that during the Indian fire (at Prescott in 2002), and it’s been that long since we exercised that part of the plan,” Bentley said.
Perhaps no one was enjoying the drill more than Peter Cecil, a wildfire instructor from Australia who was watching how Americans do their jobs.
“This has been absolutely fantastic,” Cecil said. “I’m a big advocate of drills in the field like this.”