Since Arizona's Wallow Fire ignited on May 29, it has burned more than 527,774 acres — making it the largest wildfire in the state's history. Currently 3,483 personnel are involved in firefighting efforts, including 11 hotshot crews and 50 handcrews. On the equipment side, there are 15 helicopters, five air tankers, 202 engines, 73 water tenders and 19 dozers. So far, only 12 injuries have been reported. (See "USFS Deploys 2,500 Firefighters to Wallow Fire; Springerville FD Helps".)
Because of the magnitude of the Wallow Fire, the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association dispatched Asst. Fire Chief Chris Jessop of the Show Low Fire District to the fire's Incident Command System. Not since the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned more than 500,000 acres has the AFCA dispatched members to assist in a wildfire.
Jessop served as a liaison between the incident management team and the five fire departments in the Wallow area. After Jessop, Northwest District Fire Chief Jeff Piechura took over the role at the Wallow Fire.
"We were aligned with the five local fire chiefs and their fire departments impacted by the Wallow Fire," Piechura said. "Our job was to assist in interacting with the incident management team and making sure the pressures of the fire and the matters of business were being addressed."
Strong winds and low humidity have contributed to the fire's spread.
"This has been an odd year for us," Piechura said. "Normally in mid-May, we're in a pattern of warming weather, but the cold fronts that have been sweeping to the north of us have aggravated the situation and there's no moisture. A lot of fuels are drought-stressed and very little moisture"
The weather conditions have improved recently, Piechura said, but even if the winds stay down, the Wallow Fire is expected to burn until the rainy season begins in July.
The AFCA is tackling a fire on another front. On June 12, the Monument Fire ignited in the Coronado National Forest. Initially, there were conflicts between the Incident Management Team and three local fire departments, so the state land-management agency asked for an AFCA representative to come help bring the two sides together.
Another AFCA member replaced Piechura at the Wallow Fire, and he went to assess the Monument Fire situation.
"It was a day's worth of work — late nights and early mornings, working with the sheriff's office and the information office," he said.
But both fires reinforced to Piechura the importance of bringing sides together.
"In Wallow, the fire departments were fully integrated in the IMT," he said. "The fire departments were a part of the processes, knew exactly what was going on and were an integral part of the system from the first response to the clean-up and to the preparation for the coming floods.
"In Monument, however, the IMT initially didn't do a good job of creating a good working relationship with the local department and consequently," Piechura continued. "A separate mutual aid structure was established by the local fire departments, with a separate communication network and separate operations center called 'Mutual Aid Operations Group.'"
Piechura spent three days negotiating with both groups. By the fourth day, he had embedded some team members and low-level managers in the effort.
"On Sunday, the fire pushed back over the road and we had two systems working independently, as concerted an effort as they could have been," he said. "Two dynamic situations in a community, two disastrous fires: in one area, a great success with the fire departments and IMT working together and in the other, a stressed relationship that didn't run as smooth as it could or should."
Piechura said that the AFCA plans to develop a program to address the lessons learned, the good and the bad, in an effort to prevent problems in the future integrating local fire departments with IMTs.
"The fire chiefs need to understand the IMT'' role and the IMTs need to be educated on what they should expect with local fire departments," he said.
Piechura said that it makes a difference whether the IMTs have local members involved or if [locals] don't get a lot of interaction with WUI fires. "We want to educate chiefs on what the IMT can do and what the fire department can do and make sure each side is aware of the other," he said.