I’ll never forget when a burly police officer walked into the classroom I was in at NAU‘s new student Orientation before the upcoming school year to get incoming freshman signed up for their classes and integrated into college life. Once he had the attention of everyone, he asked if I was present in the classroom using my full name. At first, I thought, “Did I do something wrong? Am I in trouble?!” He asked to see me outside.
We walked out into the hallway and the whole time my mind was racing with questions. He told me he had a message from my parents which he handed to me and left. I unfolded the piece of paper which said, “There is a fire. Meet us outside the DuBois building at 2:30 PM.”
I had to leave the class to go back to the dorm where I was staying and pack up my things. It turns out, a large wildfire had spread to my hometown in Northern Arizona and, once my parents got word they were evacuating residents, they came to get me right away. Our goal was to get back into our house and gather up some of our things to then turn around and stay with my aunt. Fortunately, we already had our dog with us.
By the time we reached Holbrook the entire sky was black and orange and ashes were raining from it. It was a grey snowfall. No one was in town which made it feel like we were in a horror movie. We kept going and were stopped shortly afterward by authorities who had blocked off the road to our town. We weren’t allowed to go home. The fire had become too dangerous.
That fire was eventually named the Rodeo-Chedisky fire. We were evacuated for about three weeks, and several people we knew had their houses burned down as well as many businesses. We were fortunate ours didn’t because we did find quite a few large, burnt embers in our yard when we returned home. Our little town was unrecognizable looking more like a burnt tree graveyard the further we drove through it.
It was scary to think that, had our house burned down, we would have been one of those people to have lost everything since we were not able to get back to our home.
Fire season is upon us in Arizona, and I think it’s important to be aware of wildfire safety. I’m no expert, so I asked Travis Helfrich if I could ask him some questions to help us all learn more about how we can be safe, and as residents, help to prevent wildfires. Travis currently works for the U.S. Forest Service in the Kaibab National Forest as a type 6 Engine Operator on the Tusayan Ranger District.
How long do forest fires usually last?
It can vary. We have single tree lightning fires that can last as little as a few days. Some of the larger project fires such as the Wallow Fire in 2011, lasted months and burned over 538,000 acres in Arizona and New Mexico.
What is a fact that surprised you about forest fires?
One thing that surprised me most when I first started learning about fire was, here in the Southwest, a lot of the native grasses and trees need fire as a disturbance factor to help support a healthier and more resilient ecosystem. In short, not all fire is bad for the land.
How can someone visiting northern Arizona help to prevent starting a wildfire?
I always encourage people who are visiting Arizona, and other states in the West, to get familiar with local fire restrictions and weather patterns in the areas or forests they are visiting. Also, always remember to put your campfire completely out before you leave.
What is the most common mistake people make when they go camping?
The most common mistake people make is leaving a campfire unattended. Some other mistakes are when people are careless with matches, cigarettes, and firearms during the hotter dryer times of the year.
What can I do to my house and yard to prepare for fire season?
Be Fire Wise. Create defensible space around your house and property which means cut brush and smaller trees, and remove needles and forest debris on a regular basis. Make sure to clean your gutters of needles and other debris as well as move log piles, and any other combustible material, away from your house to create a buffer.
What should I know if I have kids, pets, and/or livestock?
It is a good idea to know your local jurisdiction’s evacuation plan. As far as children, it is beneficial to keep them informed and teach them early to be safe with fire. For animals, I know in a lot of communities have stickers you can put on windows listing the type and color of your animals, how many you have, and where they should be located. In the event of an evacuation and you cannot take your pets, it is best to let them out in a pasture versus locked up in a shed or stable if at all possible.
What should I keep in my car during fire season?
If possible – a shovel, 5 gallons of water, maps of the area, emergency blankets, and a medical kit. Jumper cables and a tool kit are also important to have in your vehicle year round.
In the event of an evacuation, what should I bring?
You should bring all your vital paperwork such as birth certificates, social security cards, home deeds, vehicle titles, family pictures, and any other essential paperwork you feel you cannot live without or would be difficult to replace if destroyed. Additionally, you should bring a first aid kit, medications, extra food, water, and clothing to help sustain you and your family for at least 3-5 days. I also think it is important to bring some sort of shelter such as a tent or trailer, maps/GPS with extra batteries and a solar power battery charger.
How long will I have to evacuate?
It can vary depending on the area you live in but typically, evacuations are a three-step process. First, a notice of a possible evacuation will be issued. Second, an alert that an evacuation is likely will occur and finally, an order to evacuate is released – Ready, Set and Go.
Is there anything I should know about evacuating?
Evacuation orders always fall to the local sheriff’s office. Once you are ordered to leave and you have left, you cannot return until the evacuation order has been lifted.
How can I stay informed of what’s happening?
The Forest Service has Public Affairs Officials who will put out news releases and radio updates on current situations. The local jurisdictions should have meeting spots and staging areas where you can go to get information and ask questions. Social media is also a great tool nowadays to get information. I think it is smart to use several different methods when obtaining this information to ensure you are getting the most up-to-date and accurate information possible.
Why did you choose to be a wildland firefighter?
I have always been very interested in fire. Growing up, I was always exposed to going camping and being out in the woods. My father was a wildland firefighter and though he stopped doing that to pursue another career, he would still take me to the stations to meet the guys and check out the trucks. In the summertime, when there were fires close to where I grew up, he would take me out on drives and we would be “Smoke Chasers.” We would get on a high point and watch the smoke as the fires grew. These memories pushed me and gave me a love for this job and, in a sense, I have always wanted to be a wildland firefighter.
What was the most difficult fire you had to work on?
That is a tough question. Most fires are difficult but, the ones that tend to stick out are more mentally demanding. Fires where we lose colleagues, brothers, or friends. The Strawberry Fire in the Great Basin National Park in August 2016 claimed the life of Justin Beebe on August 13, 2016. The Ferguson Fire in the Sierra National Forest, Stanislaus National Forest, and Yosemite National Park in July 2018 claimed the life of Brian Hughes on July 29, 2018. The Yarnell Hill Fire near Yarnell, Arizona in June 2013 claimed the lives of 19 firefighters on Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew. These three fires will always stand out, weighing heavy on my heart and mind.
Thank you so much to Travis for answering the above questions! I hope this was informative for anyone who comes across it and helps you to prepare for the upcoming season.
You can follow Travis at his Instagram page linked here.
Photo credits: Travis Helfrich