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The Prescott Daily Courier | Prescott, Arizona

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4/14/2012 9:58:00 PM
Extinguishing all doubt: Firefighters focus on coordination with county during annual wildfire drill
Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier
The crew of Prescott National Forest Engine 930 deciphers a wildland fire sandtable scenario presented by PNF Crew 2 Hotshot KC Yowell, at far right, as members of various emergency responder organizations train at the Central Yavapai Regional Training Facility as part of the annual basin drill Friday.
Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier
The crew of Prescott National Forest Engine 930 deciphers a wildland fire sandtable scenario presented by PNF Crew 2 Hotshot KC Yowell, at far right, as members of various emergency responder organizations train at the Central Yavapai Regional Training Facility as part of the annual basin drill Friday.
Joanna Dodder Nellans
The Daily Courier

PRESCOTT VALLEY - The annual Prescott Basin spring wildfire drill focused on coordinating with the Yavapai County Emergency Operations Center Friday.

It was the first time the annual wildfire drill occurred right next door to an emergency operations center (EOC) that the county would set up during large wildfires that involve evacuations.

The Central Yavapai Fire Department's Regional Training Academy was the perfect place for the drill, with its large rooms and portable walls.

Next to the portable room where the wildfire incident management team (IMT) simulated oversight of the wildfire battle, sand table exercises in smaller portable rooms let firefighters learn more about on-the-ground issues while fighting wildfires.

One of the major benefits of the annual Basin Operations Group wildfire drill is its ability to bring firefighters together from different agencies so they can get used to working together before the wildfire season starts.

This spring's drill was a great opportunity to get to know the county's new Emergency Management Coordinator Denny Foulk and his planner, Hugh Vallely, said Todd Abel, deputy incident commander on the drill and Central Yavapai Fire District captain.

"Especially with Denny and Hugh being new, building a relationship is critical," agreed Jason Clawson, west zone assistant fire management officer on the Prescott National Forest.

"When we get our next large incident, the Yavapai County EOC will be a pretty large asset for getting extra resources," added Pete Gordon, Prescott National Forest fire staff officer.

The EOC oversaw evacuation centers staffed by the Red Cross and Animal Disaster Services, while the IMT oversaw the firefighters and ordered evacuations. More than a dozen agencies were involved in the day-long drill.

This year's drill featured not only a large wildfire that forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents and summer camp participants, but also an extra twist: a mine with hazardous materials in the path of the wildfire southwest of Prescott.

It's a scenario that's clearly in the realm of reality, since more than 100 operational and abandoned mines are scattered throughout the Prescott National Forest between Prescott and Crown King and firefighters don't always know what kind of chemicals are on site.

"The mines present a specific concern," said Todd Bentley, incident commander on the wildfire drill and Groom Creek Fire District chief. That's why his Groom Creek firefighters have technical rescue training, he added. Western Yavapai County also has a specialized multi-agency haz mat team that responds to hazardous materials emergencies.

County Management Information Systems employees helped track a toxic plume from the mine during the drill, displaying the plume on a computerized wall map in relation to evacuated areas and the wildfire. Other county departments also participated.

On another computer, Foulk was using a new web-based EOC program. Yavapai is the first county to use the system after the Arizona Department of Emergency Management connected it with all the county emergency management departments, he said.

"It improves communication, adds to situational awareness and allows us to track resource requests," Foulk said of the web-based EOC program. "It's a really powerful tool."

State emergency officials can view the details of the emergency response simultaneously as he enters updates on the web-based system, Foulk said.

The annual drills include all the intricate details that firefighters and other emergency responders have to deal with during a real wildfire.

"They're trying to make it realistic, because it really could happen," said Mary Rasmussen, a Prescott Forest planner who was playing a public information officer during the drill.

Rasmussen, Corey Moser of the Prescott Fire Department and others were playing positions during the drill that they don't usually fill.

Moser was the safety officer for the Type 3 IMT that was fighting the blaze. Agencies throughout the basin have members on the basin's Type 3 IMT.

Moser warned firefighters to be aware of signs of cyanide poisoning from burning chemicals at the "Skull Mine," such as respiratory problems and weakness. He reminded them not to spray water on hazardous materials because sometimes that can make the situation worse.

"I'm seeing folks playing roles out of their comfort zones," said Eric Marsh, a member of the drill planning team and superintendent of the Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots. It really helps the learning process to walk in someone else's shoes, he added.

Directly after the drill, participants talked about what they learned and where they could improve.

Vallely was among many participants who said he learned quite a bit Friday and felt more prepared for the wildfire season.

"Everybody in this room has such a huge amount of expertise," Vallely told fellow participants. "They've been mentoring me all day."

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