Bob Richardson is a veteran forest firefighter and fire prevention officer with the U.S. Forest Service's Cleveland National Forest near San Diego, Calif. Several weeks ago, he traveled to Arizona to assist with suppression efforts on the Willow, Nuttall and Gibson fires. The Willow Fire was successfully repressed; the Nuttall and Gibson fires--ignited by lightning June 22--are currently burning on Mount Graham, 75 miles northeast of Tucson. Richardson, whose current duties include running media tours up the mountain, recently spoke with the Weekly at the Safford Fire Information Center, where he is serving as information officer.
How long have you been a firefighter? What is your firefighting experience?
Twenty-three years. Right now, I (am doing) prevention. But I've spent seven seasons smoke jumping, seven seasons (on) hotshots and five years on engines. I worked as an engine captain and a hotshot captain. Then, I went to prevention.
Why are there so many level-one, hotshot crews fighting this fire?
The hotshots are like the backbone of the firefighting organization. They're just different tools in the toolbox. Usually, the hotshot crews are needed out there. It's pretty remote, pretty rugged, pretty steep. A lot of times, they're gone most of the summer. It's a lot of dedication, a lot of hard work, a lot of comradery. It's a lot of fun. They definitely have a very hard job. A lot of it gets mental after a while. They get trained up to a peak of physical fitness, but then there are a lot of elements that aren't physical.
How long do you have to be away from home?
Normally now, I'm gone just two weeks--14 days plus travel time. You can be gone up to 21 days. You put it in perspective though. Look at the folks over in Iraq. We should be able to do a couple weeks standing on our heads.
Are most wildfires contained before they get to this point?
Most wildfires, I'd say. I think 98 to 99 percent of most fires are kept small. It's kind of a tough balancing act these days, because we live in a fire-adapted ecosystem. With all the wildland/urban interface--basically that's just the fancy way of saying houses out in the fire environment--our job gets a little tougher. If we all lived on houseboats, we wouldn't have to put fires out.
Has the firefighting been a success these past two weeks?
I think there's been a lot of success on this fire, as well as the Willow fire. The weather helped out a lot. Things could have been a lot worse in that Turkey Flats area. But the observatory seems to be doing fine. We burned around that. Once we button up that section we're burning out (between the Gibson and Nuttall fires) and tie some other pieces together, it'll be looking pretty good.
Are you concerned about the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel?
I try to stay away from (that) arena. I'm not a forester. I come from a strictly suppression background. All I know is that fire is pretty good for the ecosystem. The wildland/ urban interface makes (suppression) a little more dangerous ... a little more of a necessity. If it weren't for all the structures everywhere, you could let a lot of the fires burn. There are some people who don't want any fires at all, and then the forests can get choked up. Most all areas need fires to regenerate.
Has the smoke from the fires affected Safford residents?
My impression is that this fire is kind of winding down ... with the forecasts of monsoons. There are concerns about the smoke. One lady at the (public) meeting was saying that the typical urban city is a lot worse than what they're dealing with here.
How are fires fought these days as opposed to a century ago?
Since the fires of 1910, when we had all those lightning and railroad fires and all the deaths, we went into full suppression. And that contributed a bit to fuel loading (or overgrowth). But I think we're coming along as an agency with our prevention measures. We're getting a little more proactive with the fires. Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. With the fuel loading and the drought, it seems we're getting more intense, larger fires. A lot of people have a lot of different ideas ... everything from global warming to us suppressing the fires to draught. But we've been having major fires way before we started to suppress them. Core samples suggest there's been more acres burned in late 1800s than burned in 1910.
What message would like to send to people?
I think it's important--not (only) as a government employee but as taxpayer also--that we need to start to take responsibility for our own structures. And as a community, we need to build fire-safe places and defensible structures. We need to learn how to live with it (fire). I don't want to put myself out of job or anything, (but) I'd go back to tree trimming in an altruistic, idealistic perfect world.