Fighting wildfires is a necessary task, but fire agencies are finding it harder to justify sending teams to operate outside established jurisdiction.
In Arizona, the effort to extinguish wild fires is coordinated by wildland response teams. The metro Phoenix area falls under the Central Arizona Wildland Response Team, which has east and west divisions. The response teams draw personnel and equipment from fire departments and districts throughout the CAWRT area.
However, in recent years some districts and departments are either downsizing their deployments or eliminating them altogether. This is being done for various reasons. This year the COVID-19 pandemic is also playing a role, as departments find themselves either down in manpower with not enough backfill or wanting to make sure their personnel are well enough to respond to calls in their jurisdiction.
However, lack of participation by some departments and districts is not impacting CAWRT’s ability to provide personnel and equipment to the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, according to Tiffany Davila, Forestry spokewoman.
“This is not hurting our amount of resources at all,” Ms. Davila said. “We not only have our local resources, but federal resources as well.”
The Forestry Department can also call on resources from out-of-state, she added. While the Forestry Department operates under a slightly different system, it is much like the automatic aid system in the Valley, in which departments send units to calls outside their jurisdiction when theirs are the closest units to the incident.
“Because of this, we will never be short of resources to fight wild fires,” Ms. Davila said.
When collecting resources for a wild fire, forestry officials go to the closest agency to the fire first to request personnel and equipment, then reach out further as the need arises, according to Ms. Davila.
“If an agency has a specific piece of equipment that a closer agency does not have, we will reach out to them as well,” she added.
The Chandler and Phoenix fire departments eliminated deployments to fight wildfires outside their jurisdictional boundaries. While Phoenix officials confirmed this, they were mum about the reasons.
A department spokesman was asked the reason for that decision but said he did not have that information and would respond when he obtained it. He did not respond as of press time.
Sun City Fire District went through one wildfire season with the approach of not deploying personnel or equipment but has since modified that approach. The decisions about wildland deployment were all about finances for Sun City Fire officials.
“Wildland deployments are done on two-year contracts and if it is not signed, you’re out of it,” said Ron Deadman, Sun City fire chief. “A couple of contracts ago, they (state and federal) would not reimburse the entire pay for personnel deployed.”
That put a strain on an already tight department budget because the portion of the salary not reimbursed had to come from somewhere else in the budget or the department had to eat the loss, according to Mr. Deadman.
But SCFMD officials wanted to continue to be a part of wildland deployment, so now when requested fire officials reduced the number of people sent. SCFMD will now send only two people, and their deployment has to be tied to also sending the department’s brush truck.
Chandler Fire Department officials had a very different reason for opting out of wildland deployments, according to Jeff West, the department spokesman.
“There are quite a few requirements to qualify for teams,” he said. “Fewer and fewer of our personnel wanted to go through the qualification process, so we just haven’t had the personnel to do it.”
--- Jeff West
Some requirements, to name just a few, are personnel have to have participated in a minimum number of fires and must be certified as an engine boss.
He added the department does have some equipment that can be deployed to wildland fires, but so far those have not been sent out.
“The wildland equipment we have is used mostly in the rural interfaces of the city,” Mr. West said.
The rural interface in the area between dense structure areas and rural portions inside and outside the city limits.
Fire departments may also be feeling the financial pinch because of the unfunded liability for the retirement system in place. In 2018, Chandler’s unfunded Public Safety Personnel Retirement System liability was $172 million, Sun City’s was about $1 million and Phoenix’s was $2.986 billion. This is just a sampling of the 263 individual PSPRS plans. Agency officials continue to develop multi-year pay down plans to eventually eliminate their unfunded liabilities.
Central Arizona Wildland Response Team is a consortium of more than 20 local fire agencies in central Arizona that participate in state and nationwide wildland fire response. CAWRT agencies are cooperators with the Arizona State Forestry Division and work in the Region 3 Southwest Geographic area. CAWRT is divided into two Wildland Resource Groups of about 15 WRGs statewide to meet Arizona Forestry resource coordination and mobilization needs.
CAWRT works closely with five state and federal land management agencies --- the Arizona State Forestry Division, Tonto National Forest, Prescott National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs and maintains a relationship with the Maricopa County Department of Emergency Management.
CAWRT provides the state of Arizona, federal land management agencies or any other requesting authority or agency a pool of about 200 wildland-qualified personnel staffing any mix of more than 18 Type-6 engines, six Type 3-engines, seven water tenders and, if necessary, up to 20 Type-1 engines. In most cases, engines are staffed with one to two paramedics on each unit, and at the very least, all personnel are EMTB qualified. Overall, CAWRT provides resources to fires locally or to anywhere in the United States.