The urgency in fighting the Cave Creek Complex fire can be felt at Mesa’s Williams Gateway Airport. Although 50 miles away, the airport is crucial to the efforts in knocking down the 46,000-acre blaze.
There, air tankers refuel and fill up with fire retardant to be dropped in reddish bursts over burning land. From sunup to sundown, large P-3 Orions and nimble single-engine prop planes are coming and going.
Five hotshot crews, each with 20 men and women, arrived Thursday morning from 59-degree weather in Oregon for a two-week tour of duty, and more help is on the way.
"Welcome to Arizona. We left the heat on for you," one man told the arriving quick-response teams as they unloaded luggage from the plane’s belly.
Less than 30 minutes separated the plane’s touchdown from the crews’ departure via buses — sack lunches and drinks in hand.
"You don’t try to run fast; You try to run smooth," said Darrell "Bo" Bohannon, a ramp manager under contract with the U.S. Forest Service. "Smooth and safe."
The Forest Service has designated Williams as the state’s lone mobilization center, where hotshot firefighting crews are flown in from around the West. Scheduled to arrive later Thursday were two more crews, bound for a 28,000-acre fire near Kingman.
Williams has hosted air tankers since 2002, and is one of four airports across the state to do so. But this marks the first time Mesa is the processing point for the firefighters, said Donald Van Driel, group leader for fire and engineering for Tonto National Forest. Before 2005, the crews were flown into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, then taken to the National Guard armory in downtown Phoenix.
Hotshots are best described as the Forest Service’s Marines: They are physically fit, travel long distances to big battles and possess esprit de corps created by their 45-year history and discipline from training for a dangerous job. From the plane to the buses, they walked in single file with a minimum of chatter. All business.
But it didn’t take long for their anticipation to bubble up. The crews trained all spring for fires like the ones burning near Cave Creek, and this is their opportunity to show what they’re made of.
In that respect, the scene on the buses evoked a high school football team en route to their season opener.
Said Mike Muehlbauer, an assistant superintendent with the Redmond crew: "We’re ready to rock, that’s for sure."
Want to help?
Learn more: Call the Red Cross at (602) 336-6497 or visit
For shelter: The Red Cross shelter is at Desert Arroyo Middle School, 33401 N. 56th St., Cave Creek