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When fires rage throughout west, it’s often Desert Hills to the rescue

August 19, 2018

Hundreds of miles from home, four Desert Hills firefighters joined nearly 100 more fire personnel from throughout the Southwest this week at a small area just north of the Grand Canyon.

Lightning sparked the Cat Fire last week, which as of Thursday consumed more than 3,500 acres of Arizona’s wilderness and prompted the closure of several roads throughout the region. While a haze still lingers in Northern Arizona, the coordinated effort and area storms have given fire personnel the upper hand. It was only the latest in a devastating fire season.

“The demand has been incredible this summer because of all of the wildland fires in the Southwest right now,” said Desert Hills Fire District Chief Pat Dennen. “There have been so many fires, and it’s been difficult for some agencies to send enough firefighters to provide support.”

Fighting fires throughout Southwestern wildlands isn’t something that just any firefighter can do, according to Dennen. It requires specialized training that many of Arizona’s municipal fire departments don’t typically offer.

“It’s like HAZMAT or technical rescue,” Dennen said. “Not everyone is trained to do those skills. We’ve always had a core group of firefighters who were wildlands-certified, but this year we decided to make it mandatory for all of our firefighters. Our goal is to get all of our firefighters wildlands-certified by the end of this month.”

The Desert Hills Fire District maintains a roster of about 34 firefighters, including on-call personnel and paramedics. Barring those with personal injuries and those still in training, almost all of the district’s firefighters will be wildlands-certified by early September. Such firefighters may then be called upon by the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management to assist fire agencies throughout Arizona and in other states throughout the U.S.

Despite the availability of its wildlands-trained firefighters, the Desert Hills Fire District is limited. To lend support to non-local fire agencies, Dennen said, the Department of Forestry and Fire Management requires one engine boss for every fire engine sent. The Desert Hills Fire District maintains a fleet of 10 vehicles, but employs only one firefighter trained as an engine boss.

The Desert Hills Fire District receives its funding through Desert Hills property taxes, grants and auxiliary fire district fundraisers. The District operates with an annual budget of about $2.6 million. But according to Dennen, the community of Desert Hills isn’t at great risk of wildfires, as the majority of vegetation that could fuel such a fire lies on Lake Havasu’s shores.

Desert Hills firefighters often field about 1,000 emergency calls per year, including structure fires and medical calls in the areas of Lake Havasu City and Desert Hills. When the Department of Forestry and Fire Management calls, however, Desert Hills firefighters are ready for standard two-week deployments throughout the U.S. to assist other agencies.

“Our local government maintains the fire department, but when the state contacts us, we’re essentially a standing army, ready to go,” Dennen said.

Desert Hills firefighters have been called to assist other Arizona fire agencies and agencies in the Southwest about 12 times this summer, Dennen said. The Department of Forestry and Fire Management reimburses the fire district in travel expenses when they lend assistance to other agencies.

Among the most dangerous of those wildlands fires was the Ferguson Fire, which erupted last month in the area of Yosemite National Park. Desert Hills Firefighter Jeremy Barrigan was among them.

Barrigan traveled with two other firefighters to assist other agencies, creating backburns to starve the fire of potential fuel and protecting structures throughout the area.

“It was work from the day we got there,” Barrigan said. “We teamed up with other companies to do backburns and camped off-site, a couple of miles from the main fire.”

The firefighters camped in tents for 14 days as they assisted other agencies. Barrigan showered six times in that span, and many of the assisting firefighters did not shave throughout the mission. A large portion of their mission required preventative maintenance to save homes near the outskirts of the Ferguson Fire.

“A house we were protecting was right in the line of fire,” Barrigan said. “We were trying to prevent the fire from jumping over to the residential area. The house was saved, but things got kind of hairy. We had to evacuate due to how close the fire had gotten.”

The mission may not have been safe or easy, but it created a deeper camaraderie between the firefighters who went, according to Barrigan.

“We were in tight quarters, working together about 16 hours per day,” Barrigan said. “We worked with each other on past fires, and got to know each other … I think we got to know each other even better this time.”

According to Dennen, six firefighters have died throughout the Southwest this summer. None of those fatalities have taken place in Arizona, according to the Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

According to Forestry and Fire Management records, more than 1,600 fires have consumed almost 140,000 acres of state, private, federal and tribal lands throughout Arizona this year.

“Firefighters are vital to the security of our lands,” said Forestry and Fire Management Public Affairs Officer Tiffany Davila. “Not only do they serve to help with fire suppression efforts, but many work during the off-season on fuel-reduction projects.”

Areas of Mohave County have been deemed to have a high risk of wildfires in the future, and the Department of Forestry and Fire Safety is already planning projects to mitigate that risk, Davila said.

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