The Heat is On!

Arizona PROs drive into an inferno to provide service for firefighters battling deadly wildfires
The Heat is On!
Firefighters gear up to put out smoldering areas and hold the line on the fire. (Photo by Dawn Long)

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Tom and Ashley Van Wart operate A-1 Port-A-Pots and Septic Service out of their 5-acre homesite in Benson, Ariz., a town of about 5,000 in the southeast corner of the state. Their business is split 50/50 between septic and portable restrooms. Tom Van Wart generally handles the septic routes, and their driver services the portable restrooms. Ashley Van Wart oversees office operations, but doesn’t hesitate to drive a truck when needed, as was the case with the Monument fire.



When Ashley Van Wart’s parents decided to sell their portable restroom company in 2007, they jokingly suggested their son-in-law might want to start pumping restrooms now that he finished getting his master’s degree in counseling. But the Van Warts decided to take the offer seriously and thought they could make it work. They knew they’d have to grow it, so they quickly purchased more units and added septic service.

Currently, the company has about 150 portable restrooms in its inventory, most of which are used for construction. Their territory covers most of two counties. “I could drive 100 miles in any direction,” Van Wart says.



The company decided to go through the federal government vendor registration process. Although there were no special requirements such as certification, training, security clearance or drug testing, it’s not otherwise an easy process. “There’s quite a bit of paperwork,” Tom Van Wart says. “And you have to know exactly what you’re filling out and how to do it.”

The couple learned that the hard way. When the Sierra Vista fire broke out on June 12, 2011, they expected to get called – but didn’t. They later discovered they hadn’t registered in all the right places. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service had gotten portable restrooms from one local vendor but desperately needed more. Finally a connection was made, and on June 19, just as they sat down for a Father’s Day lunch, the Van Warts got a call asking if they could provide 45 units immediately.



Nearly a million acres of Arizona forest burned the summer of 2011 during some of the driest months on record. The Monument Wildfire near Sierra Vista in the Coronado National Forest consumed 47 square miles, destroying more than 60 homes and other structures. More than 10,000 nearby residents were evacuated. Van Wart estimated that 1,500 firefighters, security personnel and other crews were on hand during the three weeks it took to contain the fire.



The company provided 45 royal blue Maxim 3000s and five older hand-wash stations, all from Satellite Industries. The units were originally placed at the two firefighter base camps. After a few days, the company relocated five portable restrooms to a heavy equipment parking area for the standby crews, and another five to a halfway ‘point between the fire and base camp for crews working their way back and ground personnel monitoring the water tank that helicopters and water trucks drew from.



Using three vehicles and a borrowed friend, the company delivered all units the night they were called, in one 120-mile round trip. Between them they drove the septic truck with a 16-foot trailer, a 1‑ton Ford F‑350 with a 32-foot gooseneck flatbed trailer from PJ Trailers, and a 3/4-ton Ford F‑250 with a 36-foot trailer from Big Tex Trailers. Because of road closures, it took them until midnight. “It was surreal,” Van Wart says. “It was pitch dark. It looked like a Christmas tree, all these red cinders.” The darkness was punctuated by burning buildings. The Van Warts had the shocking experience of seeing two badly burned deer running across the road. “It was like driving through a war zone,” he says.



With the Forest Service ensuring he was never in harm’s way, Van Wart serviced all units daily for 13 days. He used the company’s septic truck, a 1999 International 4600 with a 1,500-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater steel tank and a Masport Inc. pump. Waste was taken to the Sierra Vista municipal treatment plant.

The company uses Safe-T-Fresh products. And Van Wart likes to put bleach in the wash water, which comes from his well.



Temperatures in southern Arizona were well into the 100s last June. Add to that the scorched earth, nearby blazes, and lack of air conditioning in his truck, and it’s clear Van Wart was working in extreme conditions. Plus, he was required to work during the hottest part of the day, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the camps were least active. “I would drink two gallons of water every day,” he says. “I couldn’t drink enough water. I lost close to 15 pounds.”

The fire was so hot that the only thing left of a portable restroom the company had at a nearby residential development site was the door springs. “The rest was completely incinerated,” he says.



Van Wart doesn’t think having serviced a major fire will give them priority for future jobs, but it did help them better understand the federal vendor registration process. And despite the hassles with that, they had a good experience working with the U.S. Forest Service. The staff not only was helpful but just pleasant to be around, he says. “In the beginning it’s kind of a train wreck, as everything’s getting set up. But they were very systematic and organized, and did a good job of helping people – but not in a fashion that’s demeaning. I’ve been to a lot less complicated affairs and had more difficulty.”

Even exhausted firefighters took time to thank them for their service. “It was a really good experience. Everybody’s got a job to do, and was respectful of every-one else.”


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