June 21, 2013

Scorched Earth: Wildfire Season is Well Underway

By Angel MedFlight Contributor

The biggest wildfire in state history has scorched more than 22 square miles in Colorado. In California's Yosemite National Park, 2,200 firefighters are still dealing with a blaze caused by an unattended campfire.  Here in Arizona, hundreds of residents have been evacuated near Prescott as a wildfire has burned to within a mile of some homes. Just days away from the start of summer, wildfires are already raging in the West. Cris Lecher is a flight paramedic with Angel MedFlight and has personal experience dealing with these blazes.
A wildfire rages in Arizona

Lecher has fought wildland fires for over 16 years and was a captain with the Hellsgate Fire Department in Star Valley, Ariz., He's worked on some of the biggest wildfires in the state's history. "The biggest difficulty with a wildfire is it's not in a confined box like a structure fire is. It's pretty much able to go where the wind and the topography want  to take it."

The anchor point is basically where all the fires start, says Lecher and firefighters "need to start at the heel, anchor in and then go around the flanks of the fire. But it's kind of hard to figure that out if you don't know where the winds and the weather are expected. "
Angel MedFlight Flight Paramedic Cris Lecher

Lecher says the biggest enemy for crews fighting wildfires is the wind. "When you have predominant Southwest winds in the summer, it just superheats the fuel in front of the fire and it makes it pretty explosive."

As for the chief cause of wildfires, Lecher says "a lot of them have to do with human fires like "someone not paying attention to the fire danger signs. There are a lot of illegal campfires." Lecher says when the monsoon season starts in Arizona, most of the wildfires in the state are caused by lightning.

A lot of wildfire prevention has to do with thinning out the forests, but the federal government is spending less these days on clearing out dead trees and flammable underbrush in Western forests. According to a story by The Associated Press, the government is spending less on the Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program than it did in 2002. Lecher says the spending cuts "are going to be a detriment to our forests and to our communities."

Lecher now cares for patients on our air ambulances, but he thinks back to the dangers of fighting wildfires. He recalls the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in the summer of 2002, which until the Wallow Fire in 2011, was the worst in Arizona's history. There were "300-foot flame lengths off the tops of pine trees and it was running at four miles per hour. In a wildland fire with a flame front that's 20 miles long, that's a lot of fire."

He remembers a day during that fire when his crew was supporting a line of dozers which were going in and thinning some brush "and we had no idea where the fire was. And all of a sudden I felt the ground shaking and looked down below and the dozers were full-power coming up the hill and the dozer boss said, 'Get out of here, it's coming." Lecher says they made it up the hill and by the time they got into their trucks, "the fire had come in and there was fire over the tops of our engines. That was probably the closest that I've come to just praying to God that I make it out of this."

Lecher's advice for people near wildfires is to heed evacuation orders. "They're not only risking their lives" when they don't evacuate, "but they're risking the lives of the firefighters."  He says residents should get their valuables and pets "and get out of there and let the firefighters do what they do best."

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