PINETOP-LAKESIDE — Across the street from the Lakeside Ranger District you may have wondered what a group of firefighters were doing at the Lakeside Campground. As part of a Forest Service task force consisting of type 6 engines, a water tender and a dozer from around the country, the Pinetop Fire District’s Fire Suppression Module, along with other resources, have been making use of their time cleaning up trees and pine needles while standing ready to provide a rapid response to the community.
With the anniversaries of the two largest wildfires in the State of Arizona fast approaching — the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire, June 18, 2002 and the Wallow Fire, May 29, 2011 — and Stage 1 Fire Restrictions already in effect on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, the Pinetop Fire District is poised in a true Ready, Set, Go mode.
The Pinetop Fire District began working on a vision in 2016 to create a specialized wildland firefighting team called a Type 2 IA hand crew. Fast forward to today and that vision has morphed into a dual-purpose team. By using their existing trained fuels crew team who conduct wildfire hazardous fuel reduction, they have implemented a Suppression Module.
“The forward-thinking vision of Chief (Jim) Morgan has become a reality and the Pinetop Fire Suppression Module will be on the front lines of fire suppression support if the need arises. The town of Pinetop has their own fuel mitigation program, and the community has a fire suppression module IA hand crew thanks to the steadfast work of Chief Morgan and Chief (Richard) Wallace,” stated Captain/ Superintendent J.D. Ottman, who was also part of those efforts.
The Suppression Module is a 48 hour self-sufficient initial attack hand crew which is made up of seven to twelve of their highly skilled wildland firefighters. They assist local fire departments, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the state with suppressing and managing wildfires during the local wildfire season.
The Pinetop Fuels Crew and the Pinetop Fire Suppression Module is a part of the Pinetop Fire District. They possesses the necessary National Wildfire Coordinating Group qualifications to operate this specialty team.
This month the EMTs on the Fire Suppression Module led a medical training for the Forest Service task force which they are presently assigned to.
Because of this very specialized Suppression Module, the community does not have to wait on resources from outside the area to organize before acting. They can respond to a wildfire in the White Mountain communities within minutes, the same way an ambulance or structure fire would get a response.
Already this year, the Suppression Module has responded to a number of local fires including the G22 and Amos Wash fires which were in April. They also acted as a support crew on several fires on San Carlos Tribal Lands and within the state. Sunday, May 23, having relocated their staging area from the Lakeside campground to Mountain Meadows Recreation Center on Woodland Road, the suppression crew was called to Whiteriver to assist with the Stago Pit Fire just east of Whiteriver on the White Mountain Apache Reservation.
“Our mission is to reduce hazardous fuel loads in the Pinetop area, suppress wildfires and assist our fire partners in managing wildfires. This is a top priority due to our area being prone to wildfires,” stated Ottman. “The Pinetop Fuel Mitigation program and the Pinetop Fire Suppression Module are critical assets in our community and to our fire partners. We reduce hazardous fuels and suppress wildfires to protect lives.”
The Pinetop Fire Suppression Module and the Pinetop Fuels Crew team also complete the fuel mitigation work throughout the Pinetop Fire District. When they are not fighting wildfires, they are thinning private properties to reduce wildfire risk.
Each year the Pinetop Fire District holds an annual Firewise Block Party for residents in July. The event brings the community together to learn about vegetation management and home preparation. They conduct a defensible space demonstration which highlights smart practices in fuels reduction.
The early Stage 1 Fire Restrictions are a testimony of the concern for the 2021 fire season with them having been implemented prior to Memorial Day which is traditionally the gateway to the summer season for the Mountain.
The Rodeo-Chedeski Fire burned 468,000 acres and was the largest wildfire in the State of Arizona until the Wallow Fire occurred in 2011. The Wallow Fire consumed more than 538,000 acres. Residents who went through one or both of those fires still experience angst when they see a plume of smoke.
This year Pinetop Fire District applied for the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ (IAFC) Targeted Wildfire Risk Reduction Assistance Grant for the Ready, Set, Go! Program. They were selected as one of 10 fire districts or departments across the country. The grant was only open to fire departments operating in areas with a high wildfire risk. That in itself is another testimony as to the fire risk the area faces this year.
“It’s not a matter of if a wildfire is going to come knocking at our door, it’s when. When we understand our wildfire risk, our community can be resilient to wildfire,” stated Morgan. “Our residents are critical to the success in reducing wildfire by thinning the vegetation and pine trees. We can get to a point of being able to withstand a wildfire if we reduce the hazardous fuel loads and are proactive to wildfires. It’s a race against time.”