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Wildfire Season 2006 Part I

By Laurel Druley

Prescott, AZ – SAND TABLE: Engine 6-4 to engine 3-1? Engine 6-4 to 3-1 go ahead. Have you been in contact with IC? Negative

The Arizona Wildfire Academy's tactical decision classroom may sound like adult firefighters handling a real fire. But it looks like a child's game. Instructor Curtis Heaton says it is a game developed by the military to prepare for real life emergencies.

HEATON: The tactical decision game is a series of dilemmas or situations our firefighters are placed into where they have to make difficult decisions and communicate those decisions in the same mode as if they were on a fire ground.

The firefighters stand around a box of sand on a table. In the sand Heaton has created a scene using matchbox fire trucks, toy firefighters and miniature trees. Heaton then gives the class a scenario to handle.

HEATON: It's April 15th. The snow melted. We haven't had any precipitation since. Things dried out rather rapidly and we're back into fire season. Ok? Here's the scenario a fire of unknown origin started this morning Prescott hotshots were out thinning this morning they responded got on it pretty quick. The fire spread 18 acres up slope you are four captains assigned to assist Game on.

The firefighters quickly realize in this scenario communication is the challenge. One of the players is Chief Mike Martinez. He heads the Parks Belmont fire district just west of Flagstaff. Martinez says the mock scenarios aren't so different from real fire situations.

MARTINEZ: I've worked several fires this past summer similar to this It's very realistic. Many times in the middle of nowhere in canyons or shoots or box canyons you can run into situations where you don't have radio communication so it can be difficult but you still need to get the job done.

Martinez says the sand table games help him make quick and safe decisions. That's a skill he says will be especially important this summer, which he says has all of the elements for an intense fire season.

MARTINEZ: I really believe with the new growth from the moisture we just got and the dryness we had in the past I think we're really going to see fire danger really high throughout the state. We're trying to get ourselves psyched up and prepped for it and get our community prepped for it.

Martinez and other firefighters say the fire academy in Prescott is helping them gear up for the fire season. But they say they can't shoulder the entire burden. Homeowners also have to prepare. They can remove pine needles and other debris from around their homes to create a defensible space.

Kaibab National Forest public information officer Jackie Denk says this preparation is essential. She says despite the recent wet weather, people should prepare for a potentially extreme wildfire season.

DENK: The precipitation that we've had recently has been wonderful but it's no where near enough to move us out of drought and move us out of extreme fire danger. So I expect we're going be looking at a fire season that is comparable to the big fire years that we've had in Arizona before 96, 2000, and 2002.

And Denk says it's not just the deserts that are vulnerable this year. Denk says in addition to the dry desert brush the timber in the high country hasn't seen much moisture.

DENK: What I think people need to realize whereas last yr we knew things were going to burn but we knew they were going to burn in the desert. This year really the entire state of Arizona is up for grabs in terms of fire.

Denk also says because of the severity of the drought the fires will potentially grow very quickly. Kaibab National Forest prescribed fire manager Vic Morfin (morphine) agrees. He says this year mirrors what he saw before the Rodeo Chediski fire in 2002.

MORFIN: We're bringing on additional firefighters staffing at a higher level than we have in recent history.

Morfin and fire managers statewide are taking this season seriously. Denk says individuals should have an evacuation plan. She says Arizonans can learn from the victims of this year's devastating hurricanes.

DENK:I think after the hurricane people saw what could happen to families how you can get spread out from one another, not know where to find one another, not know what hap with your pets, not having your important paperwork or meds.

Denk says catastrophe takes many forms. And many fire experts agree 2006 has all of the makings of a historic fire season.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Druley in Prescott.