How’s America Tackling Its Epic Fires? With an Epic Scheme
California’s most devastating wildfire of the year started in rural Lake County just after 1 pm Saturday. Within 24 hours, it had grown to more than 50,000 acres. It consumed another 17,000 acres by Tuesday morning, destroying more than 580 homes and sending thousands of people fleeing ahead of the flames. Crews have only started getting a line around it and have no idea when they’ll gain the upper hand.
Even seasoned firefighters have been stunned by the ferocity of the blaze, one of three major fires burning in the Golden State right now. All told, some 11,800 firefighters are scrambling to contain fires that have burned 381,000 acres of tinder-dry forests. State officials have summoned all available resources, including the National Guard, to join the effort and help beat back fires that show no sign of abating.
It’s been that way all summer. An epic drought and scorching heat have conspired to create one of the busiest fire seasons in recent years. At the moment, 23,050 firefighters are battling 106 fires throughout the West. All told, more than 46,000 fires have burned 8.8 million acres across the US, an area bigger than the state of Maryland. The Pentagon at one point dispatched US troops to work alongside the National Guard and firefighters from throughout the country and Canada in fighting the fires. Every available truck, tanker, chopper and plane has been deployed, but with manpower and resources stretched so thin authorities must occasionally triage fires, letting those that pose no risk to lives or property simply burn.
This Herculean effort is been coordinated through the National Interagency Fire Center, which manages the nation’s wildfire response efforts from its command center in Boise, Idaho. The Center is comprised of eight federal agencies that play key roles in managing fire response planning and operations. Thousands of firefighters and dozens of management teams can be deployed to a fire within days—or sooner, if necessary. The Valley Fire offers a lesson in how this massive effort is organized.
The fire began just after 1 pm Saturday. Just how remains under investigation, but the fire grew with a speed and ferocity rarely seen. Evacuations began almost immediately, and the blaze consumed 40,000 acres within 12 hours. By that time, an elderly woman, unable to flee her home, had been killed by a fire that is behaving unlike any other.
“This fire sort of broke the rules even relative to this incredible season that’s already occurred,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at Stanford University, told the The Los Angeles Times.
The Valley Fire is burning through bone-dry timber, brush and tall grass, and exhibiting some extreme behavior, including spotting. That occurs when burning embers are blown ahead of the fire line—in this case, half a mile ahead of it—to start new blazes.
Most fires grow in a particular direction, funneled by local geography or pushed by the wind, as is the case in Southern California when the Santa Ana winds push fires to the west. The Valley Fire was unusual in that it appeared to spread in every direction simultaneously, growing so large so quickly that it generated its own weather system, with wind blowing outward from the center of the fire. Frequent spotting compounded the inferno, complicating evacuations and forcing some to flee through the flames.
By Sunday afternoon, firefighters—many of them pulled from the Butte fire that has charred 71,500 acres about 100 miles to the east—were focused largely on evacuating residents, letting the fire follow its course. Some 1,200 firefighters poured into the area from throughout the state on Monday. Still more joined the effort Tuesday, bringing the total to 2,362 people—a number that eclipses the manpower dedicated to all but two of the 97 fires now burning in the US. Those firefighters have 285 engines and eight helicopters at their disposal, yet still struggle to contain the fire.
“We have multiple fires, so we’re all stretched thin,” incident commander Robert Michael told the LA Times. “We’re starting to get resources reassigned as each fire is starting to get their containment up … So we all started short, meaning we’re just stretched.”
It is rare to see a fire grow as explosively as the Valley Fire, and it is the latest test of a system that’s seen no rest this year. In any wildfire, the first line of defense tends to be local and state fire departments, occasionally with help from the US Forest Service or other federal agencies. In most cases, the initial attack crew gets things under control quickly. If the weather, an exceptionally heavy fuel load, or other factor requires more than one “operational period” (usually that means overnight), to contain the fire, the response quickly grows more complex.
Regardless of its size, almost all wildfires in the US are managed by something called the Incident Command System. First developed in California, the system—which is, in essence, a strategy for managing the logistics of firefighting—was refined and expanded after 9/11 and is now used nationwide to ensure optimal command, control and coordination of the response, manpower, and resources. The goal is to ensure the myriad agencies, from local police and fire on up to the National Guard, are working together efficiently under a clear chain of command and accountability.
Think of the Incident Command System as a series of boxes, like a traditional org chart. Each fire gets its own ICS, or chart. And each box on that chart indicates a person or a resource, like a helicopter or a fire engine. As an incident requires more people and equipment, you add boxes and move them around the chart.
How to fill those boxes and where to deploy them, especially on a longer incident, is where things start to get tricky.
The United States is divided into 10 regions called Geographic Area Coordination Centers. California is divided into two regions, due to its vast size, large population, and frequent fires. Other regions include as many as 20 states. All of them are overseen by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, the organizational center of the country’s firefighting system. It is the air traffic control tower overseeing every fire in the country.
When the Valley Fire started, the local police and fire crews were the first to respond. They quickly realized the fire was more than they could handle and almost immediately alerted the local dispatch center (a subdivision within the Geographical Area Coordination Center) to summon help. The local dispatch center began calling in additional manpower and resources like air support from elsewhere in the state — calling in crews from the Butte Fire, which no longer poses a threat to lives and could therefore spare the manpower.
“You always try to dispatch the closest resource,” says Mike Ferris, public information officer for the US Forest Service. “Once you exceed the closest resources available, the Dispatch Center will try to find what’s close in the geographic area.”
That’s where things get tricky.
With crews and resources stretched thin nationwide, fighting a fire becomes something akin to chess, with authorities having to move pieces around the board. Any request for manpower or resources is entered into the Resource Ordering & Status System, a database that tracks the status of every deployable firefighter and piece of equipment nationwide. It includes everything from engines and air tankers and bulldozers to catering trucks and public information officers like Ferris.
Beyond the local firefighters who are instrumental in any fire, there are more than 100 so-called hotshot crews (20-man teams of dedicated wildfire specialists), several hundred smokejumpers (elite firefighters who parachute into remote areas), and thousands of engines. For example, Cal Fire, which coordinates wildfire suppression throughout California, has more than 16,000 firefighters and 1,100 engines at its disposal. The agency also maintains a fleet of 23 air tankers, 12 helicopters and 15 tactical planes used for fire reconnaissance and surveillance. (California is unique in maintaining its own fleet; most other agencies, including the US Forest Service, hire them as needed.) Any and all of these resources can be deployed anywhere in the country—and beyond—within days. When all hell breaks loose, the military can provide troops and C-130 tankers.
“They’ll pick up the phone and call: ‘Can you go to Montana tonight?’,” says Ferris.
And so the call went out from Lake County on Saturday afternoon. Within hours, Cal Fire had air tankers and helicopters overhead, and firefighters were pouring in throughout California and beyond. They’re still coming.
The management of a fire is classified by its size. Type 5 teams fight the smallest fires and tend to be little more than an engine and crew on the scene for just a few hours. Type 4 teams have more resources and might run for a day or two to ensure the fire is out. These jobs typically are handled by the locals, who are more than up to the task.
As fires grow in size and the response increases in complexity, more people are needed. Beyond the firefighters, you need public information officers to handle the media, caterers to keep people fed, quartermasters to keep them supplied. Still bigger fires, those requiring air support, require flight crews and ground crews.
And the biggest fires, like the Valley Fires, the Type 1 fires that require all hands on deck, bring a Type 1 Incident Management Team. These are the heavy hitters, teams of at least 55 people specifically trained in everything from operations (fighting the fire) to administration (handling the myriad bureaucratic details intrinsic in all large organizations) to logistics.
Every night, the incident commander on each fire files a report—called an ICS-209—to the Geographic Area Coordination Center, where authorities assess the situation to determine who needs what, where, and when. The highest priority is given to those fires that pose an imminent threat to lives. Then come those that threaten homes and other structures. Last on the list are those fires burning in remote areas. Resources are moved around accordingly, like pieces on a chessboard.
“We’re always moving parts and pieces on the board based on the threat to life, property and resources,” says Ferris. “It gets complicated.”
At the moment, all those parts and pieces are focused on Lake County. It is the highest priority.
Editor’s note: WIRED contributing writer Jordan Golson is a volunteer firefighter in Durango, Colorado.