The Indian Fire - Prescott, Arizona

Wednesday, May 15:

This was another beautiful sunny, warm and breezy day in the Prescott area. The fire danger rating was at the top of the scale and registered as "EXTREME." All of the area's emergency service agencies were poised and ready for "The Big One." Today would be THE day.

Photo By Robert Winston

It was about 14:30 hours and Duane Steinbrink, Prescott Fire's Fuels Management Officer and I were attending to our duties at Prescott Fire Department (PFD) Station 72/PFD Headquarters when we heard an unusual message coming over the fire frequency radio. PFD Captain Tim Sheehan, in Engine 72, was reporting a column of smoke south of Prescott Center. At about the same time, USFS Engine 3-0 Captain Todd Rhines, located at PFD Station 71, was also reporting a column of smoke to his dispatcher at the USFS Fire Center. The 911 calls began to flood the communications office and both PFD and USFS fire crews were now enroute to what would become known as "The Indian Fire." The name of the fire came from the point of origin that was in the Indian Creek area of Prescott.

Duane and I stepped outside of Station 72 and observed a light column of smoke about 3 miles away. We started for it. Within 30 minutes the column had changed dramatically to a heavy dark colored plume as the Indian Fire grew to over 100 acres and began to crown out in the Ponderosa pines of the Prescott National Forest (PNF).

The Fire-Fight Begins:

Fire apparatus from the PFD, Central Yavapai Fire District (CYFD) and the USFS responded for an initial attack strategy. USFS Captain Todd Rhines arrived and took command as the IC. He gave his initial size up report and ordered additional resources to the incident. Tony Sciacca, Division Chief and west sector District Ranger of the PNF, Darrell Willis, PFD Fire Chief, Paul Laipple, PFD Deputy Fire Chief and Brad Malm, the on-duty PFD Battalion-1 Chief, CYFD Fire Chief David Curtis and his Fire marshal Charlie Cook and their BC-3 were all enroute.

Photo By Robert Winston

Air tankers, helitack and the Prescott Interagency Hotshot crews were ordered to the incident. The fire, being pushed by strong winds and fueled by tinder dry forest fuels, spread with extreme speed towards highway 89. The Ponderosa Pines subdivision was directly threatened and many of its residents, who were in town or at work, began to drive into the fire area, some in a state of near panic. Traffic control and evacuation were becoming a safety challenge.

As the local and federal fire commanders arrived on scene, the incident was transitioned from USFS Captain Rhines to USFS Division Chief Sciacca. Additional resources, fire commanders and support personnel from area fire and emergency agencies began to arrive at the hastily established Incident Command Post (ICP) at the Indian Creek Campgrounds. Reconnaissance missions and on-going size ups were made. According to a long-standing pre-plan of attack, critical sector/division assignments were rapidly established. A structure protection group was initiated. Evacuation plans were assigned and implemented. Planning was incredibly well orchestrated with no confusion at a time of intense fire activity when lives and homes were severely threatened.

PFD Fire Chief Darrell Willis: "We had a written plan and we drilled on that plan for about 12 years. Interagency cooperation was incredible and the plan was executed just as we had trained on it."

USFS Division Chief Tony Sciacca: "These local Firefighters have a tremendous amount of pride in what they do. We all knew our roles (during this fire) and there was no confusion. This firefight rates up there as one of the best initial attacks I have ever seen. Two additional components helped to control and to stop this fire. Cooler temperatures and decreased winds at night and a fuel break where the Forest Service thinned out brush and trees a few years ago."

Photo By Robert Winston

Both PFD Chief Willis and USFS Division Chief Dugger Hughes, Sciacca's counterpart in the Verde Valley, agreed that the prescribed burn and mechanical thinning (of fuels) in the path of the fire made a big difference with fire control. If the fire kept on moving, it would have entered the Timberridge subdivision. Willis and Hughes are also members of a Type-1 Incident Management Team, the same team that was assigned to assist at the World Trade Center Attack.

Evacuations Ordered As A Community Mobilizes:

As the Indian Fire rapidly spread it became obvious that evacuations would be essential for life safety. The Yavapai County Office of Emergency Management under the direction of its Coordinator, Nick Angiolillo began to mobilize resources according to the Interagency Incident Management Operating Plan for Prescott Basin.

The following are some excerpts from the YCOEM "event log" of the Indian Fire:


A total of 38 Non Fire Agencies, from the American Red Cross to the YMCA were activated or in some way assisting with essential services during the entire fire suppression operations. Nearly 3,000 evacuees signed into the area's evacuation centers at the fire's height.

Air Attack:

Air tankers and heavy lift Sky Crane helicopters and a USFS Helitack Crew were instrumental in the control efforts of this wildland/urban interface fire. Firefighting aircraft are based at the USFS Prescott National Forest Fire Center. This aircraft and its personnel were not at other fire assignments when the Indian Fire began. That was a huge piece of luck.

A total of six air tankers flew the fire and dropped at least 33 loads of fire retardant to slow the fire's progress. The slurry drops were made with precision accuracy, as were water drops from helicopters. The large air tankers flew at treetop levels and the smaller lead "fire attack" plane preceded the tankers at high speed. All in all, it was a thrilling air show to witness.

Stand Made At Cathedral Pines Subdivision:

As the Indian Fire grew and continued to torch, crown out and spot ahead, plans were made to evacuate and protect the Cathedral Pines subdivision that was in the path of the fire. The structure protection group, consisting of PFD and CYFD units, was moved into Cathedral Pines and took up a position that put the group where they would soon be actively fighting fire.

Photo By Robert Winston

A structure protection plan was formed. Look outs communications, escape routes and safety zones (LCES) were established. Apparatus was backed down the narrow roads in preparation for a fast escape. USFS Firefighters also arrived. Structure triage was initiated. Structure protection preparation was conducted with defensible space and burn out operations around structures. The fire was coming. The sky grew dark from the growing smoke plume. First ashes then embers fell around and onto the structures and the firefighters. Spot fires began to form. The winds increased and the flame front hit and hit hard and fast.

The wall of flame moved into Cathedral Pines and ignited vegetation, out buildings and some homes. This was a dangerous place for Firefighters to be. Life safety was the number one priority and the Firefighters were keenly aware of this. Some positioning adjustments were made. Then, a courageous and concerted firefight was mounted to save structures. Some were burning and it was determined that they could not be saved. Others were successfully protected. Many others.

For almost three decades PFD BC Brad Malm has been fighting fires. Malm said:

"I have never seen so many houses burning at one time. The fire was intense and if weather conditions were any worse that day we probably would have lost more homes. We just got real lucky. This type of fire produces and adrenaline rush. You are competing with and fighting Mother Nature and trying to win. We made a stand. We all wanted to have no homes burned. We would not have been able to save the homes that we did save if we did not have interagency cooperation and air support."

The sights and sounds at the Cathedral Pines subdivision fire operations are still clear in my mind. The sound that a crowning wildland fire makes as it hits structures. Low flying aircraft causes one to look up and then almost duck for cover as they drop slurry or water very close to where one stands. Engines pumping water and foam and Firefighters yelling orders. The sound that a large LPG tank makes when it is heated enough by the fire to pop its pressure relief valve is like the scream of a jet engine on takeoff. The adrenaline surges!

Thursday, May 16:

Because of the size and complexity of the Indian Fire, a Type-1 National Incident Management Team was ordered and this fire was transitioned from local command to the Type-1 Team at 06:00 hours on May 16th. Some of the team's members are local fire personnel such as PFD Fire Chief Darrell Willis and CYFD BC Pruett Small.

A full scale fire camp was established and total fire and management personnel was at 601; Engines on scene-29; acres burned-1,365; suppression costs-$1.2 million with total losses and suppression costs amounts of almost $3 million

Photo By Robert Winston

Burnouts, extinguishment, containment using hand crews and bulldozers, mop up and overhaul and damage assessments continued throughout the day and the next several days until the fire was declared under control and contained.

A Grateful Community Gives Thanks:

The Indian Fire was one of the most destructive fires to occur in the Prescott area in many years. It was the type of fire, a wildland/urban interface fire, which had been predicted by Firefighters over the years. Despite the large dollar losses incurred, the potential for dramatically larger losses was ever present during this incident. This larger potential loss was averted and prevented as a direct result of exceptional fire planning, interagency cooperation and fire suppression efforts that excelled in all phases. The potential for a catastrophic wildland/urban interface fire that would dwarf the Indian Fire looms real. According to PFD Fire Chief Willis, "