Forest firefighters help battle epic blaze

What began as a small unattended campfire on May 29 has turned into the biggest blaze in Arizona history. Recently helping in the battle against this epic blaze were forest firefighters Don Weis of St. Marys and Bill Maiers of Johnsonburg.The pair recently returned from a 17-day stint out West, from June 8-24, where they were among three Pennsylvania crews sent out to assist with the firefighting efforts."A fire of this size will need resources from all over the country," Weis said. To date, the "Wallow Five" fire, named after the Bear Wallow Wilderness area in which it started, has encompassed nearly 530,000 acres, or nearly 828 square miles, and is currently 82 percent contained. It has burned through the White Mountains area in northeast Arizona, destroying 32 homes. Upon arriving in Albuquerque, N.M., Weis and Maiers were assigned to the PA-3 crew, with Weis acting as squad boss and Maiers as one of the crew's three chainsaw operators.The crew was bused to Reserve, N.M. to brush roads and trails for preparation for the fire's arrival into the nearby town of Luna. After several days, the crew was then bused to Horseshoe Lake Camp and within a few hours of arriving, were instructed to tear down at 7 p.m. and relocate to the southwest end of the fire. By midnight, the crew had arrived deep in the heart of the fire inside the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, where they set up at the Point of Pines base camp. It was here the crew would finish out their assignment.Weis explained the crew was designated type 2IA, meaning they were part of the "initial attack," being able to pick up and move to wherever they were needed. The group was self-supported with all their gear and tools, which included hand tools, water and a Pulaski grubbing tool, which is a combination of an axe and extra-sharp blade used for excavating alongside and underneath large roots and is standard issue by the USDA Forest Service for firefighters.Their duties included digging fire lines by hand, as well as by bulldozer wherever the fire was expected to come through. As the squad boss, Weis supervised five firefighters and reported to the crew boss. Maiers helped with cutting down trees in order to eliminate fuel sources for the fire."The work was hot, dusty and dirty," Weis explained. "We worked on putting out the many hot spots and trying to keep the fire contained within the fire lines."The three Pennsylvania crews eventually met up again on Friday, June 24 on their journey back to Harrisburg, where they shared a meal and completed necessary paperwork. "Everyone shook hands and gave their final farewells to each other, knowing that for the past 17 days they had worked hard along with many other firefighters from all over the country to try and put a final containment on what had become a history-making fire for the state of Arizona," Weis said.Both Weis and Maiers are seasoned forest firefighters. Weis has trained for over 14 years, with the Arizona blaze being his tenth wildfire experience since 2000. He is currently a maintenance repairman for the state Bureau of Forestry, where he works on deer fencing, trail maintenance, buildings and grounds throughout the 200,000-plus acre Elk State Forest.This was Maiers' sixth wildfire. He had previously fought blazes in Washington, Wyoming, Idaho, California, Utah and now the most recent wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico. His longest wildfire assignment was a 19-day span.He currently works for the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), where he transferred this year from the Bureau of Forestry in Emporium.