Utah Firefighter Story
Scottsdale firefighters bring home invaluable experience from battling Utah blaze
An angry wall of flames was cresting a ridge when Scottsdale firefighters arrived at an isolated spot along Highway 132 outside Oak City, Utah, on the night of June 28.
They were the first crew on the scene and in the glow of an advancing maelstrom, their job was both simple and daunting – start a back fire, destroy the fuel and keep the Clay Springs Fire from devouring more of Utah.
The Scottsdale crew worked through the night, helping to contain that state’s largest wildfire and gaining precious experience.
“No tactics, no strategies, nothing can be applied to fight a wildland fire until you see wildland fire behavior in real time,” said Capt. Jan Shank, one of four Scottsdale firefighters who spent eight days earlier this month battling the Clay Springs blaze.
“We got to see extreme fire behavior … some really crazy stuff. It was invaluable experience.” Experience Shank and the other Scottsdale firefighters – Capt. Jamie Majchrzak, Engineer Jay Robinson and Firefighter Mike Ruiz – can share with their colleagues and apply to protecting residents, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and other sensitive desert lands.
“The Utah fuel was very similar to what’s in the preserve,” said Majchrzak. “We now have direct experience of how fire is going to run through those fuel models. It gives us a good, solid foundation to be able to protect the preserve.”
The Scottsdale crew gained that front-line experience because they were one of the first outside agencies to arrive in Oak City. Most of the nation’s experienced wildland crews were in parched Colorado, fighting a drought-inspired epidemic of wildland blazes. Shank’s past experience with Arizona’s Rodeo-Chidiski and Bronco fires earned his crew a chance on the front lines of the Clay Springs fire.
“They needed resources,” Shank said. "So we got really good front-line assignments. In Scottsdale we continually train so we are ready to fight wildfires but we haven’t had this type of experience in years. Out of this tragedy, we came home with skills that will serve and protect our community and its assets well.”
It was back-breaking and endurance-sapping work – but with flames spreading to eventually scorch nearly 110,000 acres, there was little time for rest. “It was very physical,” said Majchrzak. “You’re trying to switch your body schedule to be up all night. You’re very mentally fatigued.”
The upside, of course, is getting a chance to preserve precious wildlands – and earning experience critical to protecting areas closer to home. Scottsdale is part of a coalition of central Arizona fire departments that take turns sending crews to major wildfires. It can be years before an individual department has a chance to deploy and gain experience.
“Once you see a fire’s behavior real-time, you can take the school-book tactics and develop a strategy,” Shank said. “It’s really important to get that experience. Then we can make sure Scottsdale firefighters are dialed in and doing the right things to protect lives, property and our Preserves.”