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Who Calls the Shots When Fighting Wildfires

"By November 2005 it was like we were sitting in a big box of match heads, that’s how dry it was in Oklahoma," Incident Commander Mark Goeller recalls. "We also had unusually high temperatures and strong winds, up to 40 miles per hour with even higher gusts. The threat from wildfires was extreme."

During normal times, Mark is Assistant Director for the State of Oklahoma’s Forestry Division, where he monitors weather conditions and the relative flammability of "fuels." Fuels is the term firefighters use to refer to grasses, trees, and other combustible vegetation. When the countryside bursts into flames, however, Mark becomes an Incident Commander, a position established by the Incident Command System (ICS), which was developed following wildfires that struck California in the 1970s.1

 

"Fighting wildfires or sustaining any large-scale emergency response is a huge logistical and operational challenge," Mark says. "People see video of firefighters dousing flames—and believe me that takes a lot of training and good old-fashioned guts—but it's just one part of the overall effort."

ICS, the organizational structure used in the National Incident Management System (NIMS), helps manage disasters ranging from fires to earthquakes to spills of hazardous materials. NIMS in turn is a component of the National Response Plan, a complex national emergency response capability administered by the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

States and counties have their own emergency response hierarchies to meet local needs, but when a disaster is bigger than local responders can handle, a national emergency is declared.

As Incident Commander, Mark assembles, deploys and manages human and other resources to fight wildfires. His 23 years of government experience includes 20 years coordinating emergency responses.

"Oklahoma started drying up in early July of 2005," Mark continues, "and it kept getting worse." Rains that normally fell in September didn't materialize. "By October, everything was brown and the soil was dust dry," he says. "When you have such extreme conditions, all it takes is a spark from a welder, catalytic converter or one of many other possible sources."

Just after Thanksgiving "smokes" (the term spotters apply to the earliest stage of wildland fires) were reported across the state. Soon, huge areas were blazing and homes were set afire. In response, the Forestry Division's Incident Management Team established an Incident Command Post (ICP) in Henryetta, Okla.

"Later, in December, we set up another ICP about 38 miles east of Oklahoma City in the Shawnee Expo Center," Mark says. "This gave us about 5,000 square feet of space." Shawnee was picked because it was central to where the wildfires were occurring and near roads and airports. "When thousands of acres are burning, you have to be able move firefighting personnel and equipment quickly," Mark continues.

At the height of the emergency, more than 600 firefighters and support personnel from 33 states were involved, along with agencies ranging from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the US Forest Service and FEMA.

Incident Command System

The Incident Command System specifies a response organization divided into four managerial units called sections: finance, logistics, operations, and planning.

A buying team—part of the logistics section—procured many items from local stores, including paper, pens, markers, file folders, tables, chairs and so on. "Depending on where we are," Mark continues, "we're often able to purchase goods and services ranging from bottled water to portable toilets from local vendors."

The Salvation Army furnished sack lunches for a fee; other meals were purchased at local restaurants.

"I've been involved in forest fire emergencies where meals were provided by companies such as Big Sky Mobile Catering," Mark says, "a national vendor that specializes in meeting the needs of emergency responders."

According to the company's Web site2: "In an emergency situation, we can be on the road within four hours of receiving notification, and our units can start preparing hot meals within two hours of arrival at the emergency camp."

Food tents are part of the facilities that need to be set up for firefighters and support personnel. (photo courtesy Mark Goeller, Oklahoma Forestry Division)

"Other supplies—including a 'starter package' of firefighting needs such as hand tools, pumps, hose, and personal protective equipment—were obtained from the National Interagency Fire Center3 (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho," Mark points out. NIFC offers an astonishingly wide range of equipment, from water-carrying air tankers to yurts—roughly circular, tent-like structures that were invented centuries ago in Central Asia and are often used to house offices at command posts located away from cities and towns. Some firefighting equipment was shipped in by states that answered the call for experienced personnel. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) was contacted and sent equipment and firefighters. WDNR Forestry Technician Jim Ivacko among them.

"Upper levels of the department received the call for help and forwarded it to people like me who have experience fighting wildland fires," Jim says. "I volunteered and was given permission to go. Oklahoma compensated Wisconsin for the two weeks I was there."

Reinforcements

In Oklahoma, Jim operated a heavy unit on loan from Wisconsin—one of many that were brought in to fight the 2005-2006 wildfires. "A heavy unit is a three-ton fire engine and trailer; the engine holds 850 gallons of water and the trailer carries a John Deere 450 bulldozer," Jim says. Shovels, fire hose, chain saws, portable pumps, hard hats, and pulaskis (a tool that features a head with an axe on one end and a mattock—hoe-like blade—on the other) are stored in compartments.

The truck also holds a "back can," which is carried on a firefighter's back and contains five gallons of water. "It's like a big squirt gun," Jim says.

Fuel for heavy units and other vehicles was obtained from local gas stations. Oklahoma employees used government-issued credit cards; responders from other states collected receipts and were reimbursed.

"Our fires were close enough to commercial facilities that we had no trouble obtaining gas," Mark says. "However, I have been assigned to fires in remote locations where everything we needed was brought in, from fuel trucks to truck mechanics. We do whatever it takes to get the job done."

Critical Communications

Communications were essential to coordinating the efforts of hundreds of firefighters, including members of the National Guard; 900 local fire departments; and aircraft, from fire-spotting planes to tankers dropping fire retardant.

Mark says nearly everyone carried a two-way radio, but cell phones were the primary means of staying in touch. "They allowed us to contact people just about anywhere," he says. Cell-based conference calls were held at the beginning of each shift to exchange the latest information. "We have plenty of cellular facilities in Oklahoma," Mark continues, "but I've been involved in firefights so far off the beaten path that the Logistics Section ordered COWs [Cell on Wheels] and set them up to make sure we were able to make calls to and receive calls from remote areas." Basically, a COW is a temporary cell tower run by a generator.

In addition, special radio repeaters installed by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation allowed air operations personnel to communicate with wildfire-related aircraft wherever they were over the state.

Base camp facilities for Oklahoma's 2005 wildfires included the Incident Command Center. (photo courtesy Mark Goeller, Oklahoma Forestry Division)

After light snows arrived in mid-December, the emergency subsided, but it was the lull before the storm. "The dry, windy weather returned full force in late December, and soon the wildfires were raging again," Mark says. "In January, we had a number of days in the 80s—which was highly unusual. The fires kept going up well into March mainly due to the dry, hot weather. In fact, we had a temperature of 94 on March 1!"

Heavy rains finally began falling in mid-March, dousing flames across the state and temporarily returning things to normal. "We demobilized the ICP in Shawnee on March 23," Mark notes, "but for the rest of the year we were battling sporadic wildfires with our own people."

During the worst wildfire period, from November 2005 to April 2006, the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management reports that "fires left more than 550,00 acres scorched and more than 800 homes damaged." Some 300 homes were destroyed.4

But it would have been far worse without the effort put forth by the emergency responders. "We fought the wildfires for over 80 days straight during one stretch," Mark concludes, "and though we brought in all kinds of outside resources—and were very grateful for them—Oklahomans managed and directed the response. We're pretty proud of that."

Sources:

  1. http://www.fema.gov/txt/nims/nims_ics_position_paper.txt.
  2. http://www.bigskymobilecatering.com
  3. http://www.nifc.gov/index.html
  4. http://www.ok.gov/OEM/News/2006_News/Wildfire_Recovery_Continues.html

Firefighter image courtesy of BobMcMillan/FEMA Photo.

Related Links:

www.grainger.com/emergency