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Flagstaff-area firefighters learn to manage prescribe burns

November 7, 2021 GMT

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A long line of Flagstaff Wildland Firefighters stood on the edge of the Tunnel Springs Trail, a portion of the Flagstaff Urban Trail System on top of Observatory Mesa.

With a signal from the crew boss, they stepped off the trail and began making their way through the forested area ahead of them. Spreading out and rhythmically swinging their red drip torches back and forth, the crew members sowed the forest floor with little flaming droplets.

The 72-acre prescribed burn on City of Flagstaff-owned land Tuesday came as the first of several city-led burns planned throughout the week, and part of a training exchange that has brought other municipal fire officials from across Coconino County to Flagstaff.

Case in point, Tuesday’s burn was led by Brain Faith, the wildland coordinator with the fire department in Grand Lake, Colorado. Other crew leads managing the blaze were from Breckenridge, Colorado, Rapid City, South Dakota and departments in southern Arizona, as well as fire officials from the Nature Conservancy.

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Flagstaff Forest Health Supervisor Neil Chapman said Flagstaff is a good place host such an event. For one, the Flagstaff Fire Department has not only had a wildlands fire division for close to two decades but also has been doing a lot of proactive work on the forest, including prescribed burns.

Chapman said the hope is to bring municipal fire officials together with federal officials to share ideas, strategies and help give city fire departments the knowledge needed to better handle wildfire when it occurs and create more fire resilient communities.

The training exchange comes as part of a growing importance of municipal fire departments in dealing with wildfire, especially as communities across the west expand and new homes are built within forested areas.

For some of those fire departments, wildland fire has been something they have been dealing with at a smaller scale for years.

“A lot of times, especially on the perimeter of (a place like) Flagstaff, a structure fire occurs and there’s a good chance that can transition into a wildfire. And at the same time, wildland fires can transition into the structure fires in our community,” Chapman said. “Making sure that a structural fire department also trains and qualifies for wildland firefighting is not new in Flagstaff. But that’s new for a lot of other places.”

As wildland fires have grown in size and intensity, more attention is also being put on proactive and preventative measures to mitigate the issue.

John Spanarella, a captain with the Golder Ranch Fire Department north of Tucson, said his department has had a wildlands fire division for close to 17 years. But that work has largely been reactive, he said.

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Only in the past two years has the department begun looking at efforts to reduce fuels within the district. Spanarella said Flagstaff is “leaps and bounds” ahead of where they are in the process.

Much of how the training exchange has been helpful has been to provide attendees the information they need to make the importance of that preventative work clear to residents and community leaders back home.

Practicing prescribed fire and developing those skills, as they did Tuesday, are important, but it’s largely not what gets in the way of fuels treatments getting done, Spanarella said.

“One hundred percent it’s funding and politics. Those are the two things that get in the way,” Spanarella said, adding that the training exchange can help give them the information necessary to have those conversations.

“So I have information for those questions that come up. What’s it going to cost us? What do we have to do? Where are we going to do it first? How are we going to talk to the homeowners associations, all that kind of stuff? I already have a round in the chamber to answer those questions,” Spanarella said.

The burns in the field follow a week where the participants looked at the issue of inside the classroom. Participants heard from local fire managers about how they have been managing fire on the landscape, and from scientists at Northern Arizona University regarding the importance of fire to the ecosystem and impacts of long-term fire suppression.