SWI Fire Protection At Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) is one of the great "Wonders of the World." It is a geological marvel of nature that has been, and continues to be, carved out of rock by the mighty Colorado River. The GCNP is located in far northern Arizona, where the climate is fairly dry most of the year. Measuring 277 miles in length, the park contains 1,218,375 acres covering 1,904 square miles. It is divided into the North Rim, at an elevation of about 8,000 feet, and the South Rim, at an elevation of about 7,000 feet.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
One of the largest hotels in the Grand Canyon National Park is of rustic wood-frame construction.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
This is a typical structural wildland interzone that is so prevalent at the Grand Canyon National Park.

Because of the Canyon's popularity, it is visited by more than 5 million people every year; its peak tourist season is from April through October. During any given day, the population of the Canyon can be well over 10,000. Many of these people are concentrated in certain areas of the park, creating crowded conditions.

The vegetation in and around the park is in the form of combustible pine forest, brush and grasses. A variety of structure types and sizes lie within the park boundaries, ranging from small, rustic cabins to a large, high-population hotel filled to capacity with visitors and tourists. Most of these structures are built of the older style of wood-frame construction.

The extreme hazard of the structural wildland interzone (wild-land/urban interface) and life safety from fire are important considerations. The park averages 75-100 wildfires per year that range in size from a quarter acre to thousands of acres. This year, for example, a wildfire on the north rim of the GCNP grew in size to over 4,000 acres.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
A safety training session is attended by some of the Grand Canyon National Park firefighters to learn helicopter operations. The helicopter is brand new and is used for transport, search & rescue and fire suppression operations.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
A U.S. Forest Service wildland engine fire crew trains on the use of Class A foam at the Grand Canyon National Park.

Other types of fires are not a common occurrence, but EMS calls are on the increase. Visitors not accustomed to the high elevations of the park can suffer from high-altitude sickness. A more serious effect of the reduced amount of oxygen at 7,000 to 8,000 feet is coronary difficulties. And there are occasional search and rescue operations for lost visitors.

Fire Protection Plan

The GCNP's fire protection plan and standard operating procedures (SOPs) consist of structural, wildland, and combined structural/wildland and evacuation scenarios. Life safety is always the first consideration. Water supply is provided via a wet hydrant system under pressure in certain areas and/or via water tenders/tankers on the ground. Water-dropping operations from the sky are provided via helicopter and/or fixed-wing air tankers.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Two of the structural engines and cross-trained/cross-equipped firefighters protecting the Grand Canyon National Park and its millions of visitors.

The park's urban interface response plan provides for a pre-planned response to wildland/structural fire incidents that pose an immediate threat to life or property. The plan notes it is important that close coordination of resources occurs for any wildland/structural fire within the urban interface.

A "Preparedness Level and Fire Danger" rating system was developed for this response plan. Ratings range from Level 1 (a low fire danger, activating a limited engine/personnel response) to Level 5 (extreme fire danger). Level 5 activates the following response: preparedness level announced; available structural and wildland engines respond; Helitack with bucket and crew ready; law enforcement for scene control/evacuation; check availability of air tankers; order additional resources; medic units on standby; and water tender/tanker with port-a-tank(s) staged for helicopter operations.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Two National Park Service wildland engines and some members of the cross-trained and cross-equipped fire crews protecting the Grand Canyon from wildfires.

Fire apparatus consists of several modern full-size structural pumpers, several wildland engines and water tenders/tankers strategically stationed in built-up areas in the park. All of the firefighting personnel are cross-trained and cross-equipped for SWI fires.

Forty National Park Service wildland firefighters who are cross-trained operate under the direction of Fire Chief R. Kent Mecham and Douglas P. Ottosen, a wildfire specialist. It is a federal fire service. There are also 14 structural firefighters who are also cross-trained and are members of a combination fire and security service that is privately owned and operated by a park concessionaire. All of the firefighters operate under the incident command system.

Additional fire apparatus can respond upon request from Tusayan Airport, about four miles south of the park, and from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Arizona State Lands and other fire departments farther to the south or north of the park (the town of Williams, AZ, is 70 miles to the south; the city of Flagstaff is 82 miles south). Obviously, distance and time are critical planning factors in the event of a serious fire threat.

Evacuation Plan

An evacuation plan was prepared in response to the large numbers of visitors and residents populating the park, the limited access and the threat of a fast-moving wildfire that would close the park.

Excerpts of the GCNP evacuation plan:

  • It is the policy of the National Park Service and the Grand Canyon National Park to provide for the safety of the visiting public and the residential community.
  • The plan has been developed with the joint cooperation of the Grand Canyon National Park, Coconino County Sheriff's Department, Kaibab National Forest, Arizona Department of Public Safety and Fred Harvey Company (a park concessionaire).
  • The incident command system and a unified command are implemented. Additional resources include 50 emergency medical personnel, 50 law enforcement officers, 70-80 additional wildland fire personnel from surrounding national forests, bulldozers, numerous other trained personnel, ambulances, buses and other vehicles for rapid transport out of the GCNP to safe places of refuge.

The plan is quite extensive and also provides for evacuation/collection areas, safety zones, shelters, security and traffic-control routes.

The National Park Service, other state and federal agencies, and private commercial interests have worked together to provide as fire safe an environment as is possible at the Grand Canyon National Park, one of the greatest and most popular natural wonders of our world.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with extensive experience and training in wildland and SWI protection. Questions and comments may be sent to him via e-mail at dfcwins@idt.net