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.