Creating the Aravaipa hand crew

Above: Aravaipa crew superintendent Greg Smith, center in black shirt, briefs the crew on the thinning project in the Garden Canyon area of Fort Huachuca.

The photos and article are by Tom Story

Greg Smith has had more preparation than usual to get his crew ready for the upcoming fire season. He is starting the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Aravaipa hand crew from scratch and the task is almost complete.

Aravaipa hand crew fire
Greg Smith, superintendent of the Ariavaipa Hand Crew.

“This is unique. I know the overhead, most of the overhead, but we know nothing about any of the seasonals, except on paper”, said Mr. Smith. “We are trying to do a veterans crew and right now the numbers are 75 percent vets”.

“The reason that the numbers aren’t higher”, Mr. Smith continued, “is because there aren’t a whole lot of vets with the experience at those higher GS levels; the captain and squad boss positions. All the old vets have moved on into higher up positions or got away from the fire service in general. So now we’re getting a new group of entry-level folks”.

“I was able to pick up a few non-vets with extensive experience: three or four years on a shot crew, which brings a lot to the table where you are starting a new crew” said Mr. Smith who had learned earlier that “strong overhead is key”.

The crew’s overhead positions are all Jackson Hotshot alumni. Mr. Smith brought with him to Sierra Vista both his assistants, Wade Irish and Ryan Hagenah, one of the squad bosses, Anthony Ashalintubbi, and a former squad boss, Daric Burrwith.

Aravaipa fire crew
Arturo de Leon cuts and Shane O’Farrell swamps as the Ariavaipa crew thins vegetation near a recreation site in the Garden Canyon area of Fort Huachca.

“I think we have a pretty good blend. At least seventy-five percent of the crew have some fire experience. Some of the vets came from the vet program. I picked up quite a few of those folks”, continued Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith started his wildfire career in Arizona with the Coconino National Forest’s Flagstaff Hotshots in 1993 after serving in the Navy. Two years later he moved to the Globe Hotshots on the Tonto National Forest where he spent the next thirteen years, eventually becoming the crew’s superintendent in 2001.

In late 2007, he moved to the Northwest Fire District, outside of Tucson, AZ to help convert Northwest’s highly regarded Type Two Initial Attack crew into a Type One crew. They achieved Type One status in October of 2009, becoming the Ironwood Hotshots. Mr. Smith ran the crew until the Fire District disbanded the crew in 2014. He then joined the BLM and moved to Mississippi to become superintendent of the Jackson Hotshots.

Aravaipa hand crew fire
Squad Boss Anthony Ashalintubbi (center) coaches Aravaipa crew members Zach Wolf (left) and Sean O’Malley on safe chainsaw handling while limbing of trees on the ground.

According to BLM State Fire Management Officer Kelly Castillo, in 2015 the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) approached the Arizona State office of the Bureau of Land Management about hosting Mississippi’s Jackson Hotshots early in the fire season. “We said yes, but hotshot crews are expensive”, said Mr. Castillo “and being frugal we asked the Gila District folks to find a housing solution”. The district contacted Brad Nicholson, Chief of the Fort Huachuca Fire Department, with the idea of hosting the crew on the Army base adjacent Sierra Vista, Arizona. Chief Nicholson was very enthusiastic about the idea and worked with the base commander to allow the crew to use some available dormitory space. After the BLM and the Army drafted a formal use agreement the Jackson Hotshots completed a successful multi-week tour of southern Arizona in 2015.

“The idea of starting a crew in southern Arizona grew out of bringing Jackson down early in the 2015 season” continued Mr. Castillo, “and since the BLM has a history of having veterans crews, it made good business sense to base them at the Fort”. Besides having the crew be all veterans, the other goal was to have them attain Type One (hotshot) status within three years.

Aravaipa hand crew fire
Cory Hall (left) and Ben Evans work on one of the new saws.

“NIFC allocated the funding for the crew start up and for the remodel of an unused motor pool facility on base” said Mr. Castillo “as well as an increase in annual preparedness funding”.

Mr. Castillo also indicated that the presence of the Aravaipa crew at Ft. Huachuca will serve as a recruiting tool for those in the military looking for opportunities following their military service.

The crew is expected to become available for fire assignments around April 25th.

Good weather for the Pack Test in Arizona

While a blizzard was hitting the eastern U.S. on Friday, firefighters in Arizona were taking the Pack Test.

Pack Test Arizona
Members of the Tribal Nations Response Team take the pack test in Sacaton, AZ January 22, 2016. Photo by Tom Story.

There was no snow slowing down the members of the Tribal Nations Response Team who took the pack test in Sacaton, Arizona on Friday. The team, which supplies personnel for Type 2 IA, Type 2, and camp crews, draws many of its members from the Gila River, Fort McDowell and Salt River-Pima-Maricopa Indian Communities in the Phoenix area, as well as the Pascua Yaqui Tribe south of Tucson.

All the participants easily completed the test and after their safety refresher or S-130/S-190 class will be ready to go.

pack test Arizona
Members of the Tribal Nations Response Team take the pack test in Sacaton, AZ January 22, 2016. Photo by Tom Story.

 

Army soldiers in Washington get their first fireline assignment

army soldiers Onata Fire
Captain Tran Sugai (second from right) briefs his platoon leaders as three crews of the Army’s Task Force First Round prepared to spend their first day on an active fire.

Tom Story, who is in Washington documenting some of the wildfire activity, has been spending time with some of the 200 soldiers that were trained last week to assist on the fires. These are his photos, and below is his report.

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Three crews from the freshly fire-trained Army Task Force First Round, from Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, made their first trip to the fireline August 24, 2015 when they traveled north of the Kaniksu Complex’s Tower Fire in eastern Washington to the 300-acre Onata Fire. The Incident Management Team welcomed the additional help and gave the soldiers two tasks for the day: put in some hand line and help plumb, or install fire hose, on the bottom edge of the fire along a road the team wanted to use to halt the fire’s spread.

Like most things in fire, the plans changed on the scene and the hand line assignment was cancelled and the crews were put to work putting in a 1,500 foot hose lay in preparation for a burnout. Not only did the crew haul and lay a bunch of hose, they tied in with the Forest Service’s McKenzie River Hand Crew who were doing chain saw work, prepping for the burnout, lending a hand with swamping the cut material.

army soldiers Onata Fire
Part of the Army’s assignment on the Onata Fire was to assist putting in a hose lay as part of preparation for a planned burnout. Robert “Hippie” Horn (left) of North Dakota Forest Service hands rolls of hose to soldiers to distribute along a road.
army soldiers Onata Fire
Members of the Army’s Task Force First Round swamp behind the McKenzie River Hand Crew’s Sawyers in prep for a future burnout operation.
army soldiers Onata Fire
Following the sawyers of the McKenzie River Hand Crew, Penn Woolridge and other crew members move the cut material across the road and onto the green side of the planned burnout area.

Soldiers complete firefighter training in Washington

soldiers fighting wildfires
Luke Lanphear (left) and Rene Drew do the initial bucking of a 60′ hazard tree they had just dropped near one of the Kalispel tribal elders homes that the Army Task Force was doing Firewise work around as the last part of the military’s training prior to being deployed to the fireline. The professional fallers dropped the tree so the Army’s fledgling sawyers could finish bucking the tree so that the rest of the crew could stack it for fire wood.

The 200 U.S. Army‬ Soldiers fromt the 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Field Artillery Brigade, 7th Infantry Division, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington completed their firefighting training Sunday and will begin to perform actual fireline work Monday on the Tower Fire in eastern Washington near the Idaho border.

Tom Story took these photos for us on Sunday.

soldiers fighting wildfires
Michael Mora of the BLM (center) works with Crew 9 from the Army’s Task Force First Round as the soldiers put in some hand fireline behind the home of one of the elders of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians. The tribe was hosting the Tower Fire Incident Command Post at their Pow Wow Grounds, across the river from Cusick, Washington.
soldiers fighting wildfires
Vegas Valley Hand Crew Lead Chain Saw Jonathan Pilkerton (left) instructs Specialist Robert Sandoval in the specialized skills of fire line chain sawing as PFC Timothy Illig (cq) (right) stands by to swamp for the saw. Members of the Army’s Task Force First Round was finishing up their training August 23, 2015 on the Tower Fire in northeastern Washington. The Task Force was divided up into crews and were using the training opportunity do some Firewise work around the homes of some of the elders of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.
soldiers fighting wildfires
Russ Long, the Incident Management Teams Operations Section Chief, (center), talks with the Army’s Lt. Col. James Dunwoody (the Task Force First Round Commander), Command Sargent Major Tony Phelps and Major Tim Lynch (left to right) after the Tower Fire morning briefing on August 23, 2015.
soldiers fighting wildfires
Members of Crew 10 clamber up a steep section of hand line they had just put in near a home on the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.

Military to attack the Tower Fire

Soldier training
Jay Karle, center right, a wildland firefighter assigned to assist Soldiers of 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Field Artillery Brigade, points out boundaries to be used during wildland firefighting training near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Aug. 20, 2015. The “First Round” Soldiers have been activated to help suppress fires in the Pacific Northwest due to civilian resources running low. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Porch, 28th Public Affairs Detachment.)

Approximately 200 U.S. Army‬ Soldiers assigned to the 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Field Artillery Brigade, 7th Infantry Division, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington have been activated to assist in the suppression of wildfires during a period when over 32,000 regular wildland firefighters are deployed but still more help is needed.

The Soldiers were trained at their base by wildland fire agency personnel, including the Bureau of Land Management Vegas Valley Crew comprised entirely of military veterans. They arrived at the Tower Fire in western Washington near the Idaho border late in the afternoon on August 22, where Tom Story captured some images.

Members of the Army's Task Force First Round are briefed on the layout of the Incident Command Post after arriving at the Tower Fire, near Newport, Washington August 22, 2015. With more than 17 major fires burning in Washington alone, the 200 soldiers along with support personnel underwent fire suppression training prior to traveling from their home at Joint Base Lewis-McChord to assist in containing the blaze.
Members of the Army’s Task Force First Round are briefed on the layout of the Incident Command Post after arriving at the Tower Fire, near Newport, Washington August 22, 2015. Photo by Tom Story.
After a briefing on the layout of the Tower Fire Incident Command Post, The Army's Task Force First Round joined the other firefighters in the dinner line. The Saturday evening meal was pasta with sausage meat sauce, veggies, salad and garlic bread.
After a briefing on the layout of the Tower Fire Incident Command Post, The Army’s Task Force First Round joined the other firefighters in the dinner line. The Saturday evening meal was pasta with sausage meat sauce, veggies, salad and garlic bread. Photo by Tom Story.

A new year on the Tonto

Fire danger on Tonto National Forest
New Year’s Day in 2015 revealed the Tonto National Forests fire danger signs along the Beeline Highway, northeast of Mesa, Arizona and just south of the Four Peaks Road covered with snow brought by the 2014 New Years Eve storm in Arizona. Photo by Tom Story, January 1, 2015.