USA — Firefighters and law enforcement agencies throughout Yavapai County gained priceless experience working together at the annual Prescott Basin wildfire drill this week.
While each agency conducts its own refresher courses, this is one of the few chances they have to practice working together before the annual wildfire season begins. Then when multiple agencies are needed on large wildfires, they are more prepared to work side by side.
“This is the only time of the year that we have the chance to bring all of the resources in the area to work together and test the system to ensure that everyone is trained and tested on the basics,” said drill Incident Commander Todd Bentley, who also is the IC for the local interagency Type III team and the Groom Creek Fire District chief.
They worked on everything from structure protection strategies to laying hose lines to radio communications at the Pine Summit Bible Camp off Wolf Creek Road.
“It’s been a few years since we really did hands-on drills,” Bentley said, and firefighters at the after-action review said they appreciated the format. The last few years focused on a wildfire scenario with a tabletop exercise.
The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office Jeep Posse practiced evacuation procedures by going door to door in Groom Creek, offering residents information about what to do in case they really need to evacuate in the face of a wildfire, YCSO Search and Rescue Supervisor Scott Joy said.
New to the drill this year was the appearance of an Arizona Army National Guard Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, which landed on an open field at the camp. Firefighters were able to ask the copter crew plenty of questions about the Blackhawk’s capabilities on wildfires.
“It really meant a lot to our guys that you were here today,” Yavapai County Emergency Management Coordinator Denny Foulk told Blackhawk pilots Tim Graves and Calob Bowman and crewmember Shane Arnold.
Foulk worked with the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) to get the helicopter up to Groom Creek during regular training flights Tuesday and Wednesday. DEMA Emergency Response Branch Manager Billy Ross also came up from Phoenix for the drill.
Wildfire incident commanders or county emergency management officials can ask DEMA to order National Guard helicopters when enough regular wildfire contract aircraft are not available.
Graves flew a Blackhawk on the 2013 French Gulch fire east of Yarnell, shortly after the devastating Yarnell Hill wildfire torched 127 Yarnell homes and killed 19 of Prescott’s hotshots. Yarnell residents were understandably skittish about seeing smoke from French Gulch even though it was not directly threatening the community.
Graves and other National Guard Blackhawk pilots ferried as many as 400 firefighters for a couple days to the remote French Gulch wildfire and dropped water on it. They can carry 11 people behind the two pilots.
“We love helping out the state whenever we can,” Arnold said.
Along with ferrying firefighters and equipment, the Blackhawks can attach portable “Bambi” buckets that scoop up as much as 4,500 pounds of water at a time from lakes or portable inflatable water tanks.
They also can help with rescues, but their medics currently have some restrictions against treating civilians unless life, limb or eyesight is in danger, Graves explained.
Nine Blackhawks fly out of the Papago Park Military Reservation in Phoenix. It takes them at least four to six hours to arrive on wildfires after they are ordered, since they have to add orange markings to their camouflage color, gather equipment and brief their crew before takeoff, Graves said.