USFS Prescott Fire Center: Trained To Respond

Note: This article was published in the August 2002 issue of Firehouse Magazine by Contributing Editor Robert Winston.

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Fire Center located near Prescott, AZ, is staffed by a cadre of highly skilled professionals and is a vital link in the national emergency response system. The fire center's staff coordinates, supports and assists in the management of interagency, multi-agency and international services deployed to major emergencies such as earthquakes, floods, wildland and wildland/urban interface fire suppression operations.

The fire center combines an aviation program, an incident coordination and communications center, a fire cache, an air tanker base, the Prescott Interagency Hotshot Crew, a helitack crew, a fire and emergency incident training program and a Business Management Department. Headquartered at the center are the Wildland Fire Managers for the Prescott National Forest (PNF).

The forest is 1.25 million acres of Ponderosa pine, numerous species of other vegetation and the topography is hilly to mountainous. There is also a serious wildland/urban interface fire challenge to contend with in and around this forest. The PNF is heavily used for recreation and is dotted with USFS campsites. There are 28 additional privately owned campgrounds nestled into this forest. Evacuation of thousands of people recreating in and around the PNF during a large wildland fire is a major concern, even though an evacuation plan does exist.

During any given year, the fire center personnel respond to hundreds of incidents and support local, state and federal agencies. Positive international relations are strengthened in the form of firefighting aid provided to Mexico.

Aviation program. Wildland fires are often fought from the air as well as from the ground. The fire center has a modern fire retardant mixing and loading system that is capable of mixing retardant concentrate with water at the rate of about 125,000 gallons into air tankers every day when fire season is at its peak.

Fill time for air tankers is approximately 450 gallons per minute, or six to seven minutes to fill a large aircraft. The usual assignment of fixed-wing air tankers is two to four and rotary-winged aircraft is two to three. Aircraft and crews can be dispatched to anywhere that they are needed in the nation.

Prescott Helitack Crew. During periods of high wildland fire danger, the Prescott Helitack Crew can be dispatched to fire incidents as an integral part of the initial fire attack response. Jeff Quick is the supervisor of the Prescott Helitack Crew. He oversees this elite, well-trained and physically fit firefighter crew of seven people every day during fire season. The crew stays in top form through constant training, project work and by what they love to do best, fighting fires.

Prescott Hotshot Crew. The Prescott Interagency Hotshot Crew is a highly skilled, initial fire attack team for front-line fire suppression. They are like the "Marines" of wildland firefighting. The crewmembers are in top physical and mental condition and undergo intensive training in fire suppression methodology, equipment use, helicopter operations and fuels management. Jeff Andrews is the crew's superintendent in addition to an assistant and 18 seasonal wildland firefighters.

Hotshot crews are considered a national resource and are capable of being self-reliant. Emergency medical technicians are therefore an important part of this crew. During a busy wildland fire season, the crew is on the road and fighting fire most of the time. The pace is grueling and the crewmembers love it! They do not spend much time at their home base.

Prescott Forest Dispatch and Incident Coordination Center. This dispatch and coordination center operates computerized databases and communications equipment. Highly skilled emergency dispatch specialists mobilize crews, aircraft, equipment, supplies and personnel during incidents. They keep the crucial lines of communications open to those in the field. They get people and all manner of essentials to and from incidents both small and large.

The center is a model of cooperative, efficient management among agencies that dispatch resources across the country. The center's staff works with local fire and law enforcement agencies to suppress fires and to help mitigate other types of incidents on and adjacent to the forest.

Dispatchers also gather and compute weather data from weather stations and fire lookout towers in the area during fire season, predict weather's effects on fire behavior and provide that information to units in the field. This is a critical factor in firefighting safety.

Prescott fire cache. This fire cache is one of 11 that are strategically located throughout the nation. The equipment and supply needs for 2,500 firefighters are stored in this giant storage warehouse. Tools of all description, fuel for power tools, firefighter clothing, MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), tents, sanitary facilities, nozzles, fittings and about 20 miles of various diameter hoses all valued at about $10 million are just some of the hundreds of items stored in this cache.

After use, the supplies and equipment are returned where the staff checks, cleans, repairs, recycles or replaces items. During a busy wildland fire season, up to 70 seasonal employees can be working around the clock at the fire cache.

Wildland engine crews. The PNF fire managers are located in the Prescott Fire Center. Robert Morales is the PNF's fire management officer (FMO) and Tony Sciacca is the fire division chief/FMO of the West Zone District. Dugger Hughes is the fire division chief/FMO of the East Zone District that also covers the Coconino National Forest. Hughes is also the operations chief on one of the South West Area Type 1 Incident Management Teams. That team spent a five-week tour of duty coordinating logistics following the 9/11 attacks.

These three seasoned fire officers have overall command of all firefighting operations and related fire suppression training on the PNF. They are assisted by fire battalion chiefs. Wildland engines and engine crews are directly supervised by engine captains. Staffing on engines is an officer and three to five personnel. The staffing is a mix of 40 permanent and 25 seasonal wildland firefighters. Many members of the firefighting staff are cross-trained in structural and wildland fire operations.

Wildland engines on the PNF consist of two "type 3" engines (large), five "type 6" engines (small) and three patrol units. The wildland engines are housed in the municipal fire stations of the Prescott Fire Department and the Central Yavapai Fire District. A unique bond of camaraderie and mutual cooperation exists between the USFS wildland firefighters and the local municipal structure firefighters.

When the alarm is sounded for a wildland fire in or near the PNF, fire suppression agencies are automatically dispatched from both the USFS and the local fire department, regardless of which jurisdiction the fire is located in. The nearest fire units respond. If the fire is located in the W/UI, air support will be launched as well.

Years ago, this beneficial partnership between agencies was not as evident as it is today. This partnering is the result of the realization that no single agency can go it alone in this complex society; the need to hit fires early, fast and hard with as many resources as is possible, using the incident command system, keeps fires from becoming catastrophic; rapid growth of values-at-risk (W/UI) into and adjacent to vegetation; a clear sense of vision by the fire chiefs, their staff officers and firefighters from both structure and wildland agencies; training and drilling together and understanding each agency's differences and goals. And, of course, fighting fires side by side builds lasting relationships.

The beautiful and popular Prescott National Forest is a forest that is experiencing tremendous urban pressures. It is a forest at risk from wildland fire. The populations of the City of Prescott and the entire Prescott Basin area are well protected from fire due in great part to the USFS Prescott Fire Center and its resources - its people!

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and a retired Boston Fire Department district fire chief. He is a wildland/ urban interface and structural fire service presenter and adjunct college instructor. Winston can be contacted at 928-541-9215 or e-mail: