PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Seated around a long oak table in a room
with large green maps covering the walls, top firefighting
strategists - akin to generals in a war room - decide how best to
deploy limited resources to fight the biggest fires raging across
Oregon.
The mission of this Multi-Agency Coordination group, or MAC, is
to evaluate the relative risk of each major fire, then decide where
to deploy firefighters, helicopters and air tankers.
"Staffing a wildland fire is a logistics challenge of the
highest order," said Gary Larsen, Northwest MAC coordinator.
There are more wildfires burning in Oregon than in any other
state, and the Northwest MAC's purpose is to make sure that the
greatest threats to people and property get the most attention.
The MAC consists of officials from the U.S. Bureau of Land
Management, the U.S Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry,
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and other
state and federal agencies.
The MAC meets only when wildfires spread resources dangerously
thin and agency jurisdictions begin to overlap. They usually don't
meet until August, when summer is hottest and fire fuels the
driest.
"July is the earliest MAC has ever met," said David Widmark of
the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, where the
strategists hold their meetings.
For the 13 group members, the day starts early.
From 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., they call the incident commanders at each
fire. They discuss the size of the fire, the possibility of
containment, the proximity of houses and other structures, and the
possible need to evacuate residents.
Then there are questions about the firefighters. How tired are
they? How is morale? Have there been any injuries? Is everyone
getting enough to eat?
The strategists then look at the green maps, dotted with tiny
red cardboard flames to denote burning areas, and summarize all the
relevant information.
The group - laptop computers, cell phones, and notes in front of
them - receives an update via conference call from the National MAC
based in Boise, Idaho.
"You guys are still the stars of the show," Alice Forbes from
National MAC told the Oregon MAC strategists Thursday. "Oregon is
our top priority and two more helicopters will be heading your way
this morning."
After the national update, the strategists focused their
attention on a screen projecting air currents flowing across the
state.
For firefighters, a "good" forecast includes rain and high
humidity. Meteorologist Paul Werth told the group there were
118,000 lightning strikes in the Western states the past day.
But the extended weekend forecast has some good news.
"We could see some precipitation around Baker City and Burns,"
where the Monument fire is burning on 24,700 acres, said Werth.
"At least there will be more cloudiness and humidity."
Now it's time to make decisions.
"I just got off the phone with the commander at Winter Complex
(burning 29,300 acres near the Summer Lake Hot Springs in
south-central Oregon)," said Roddy Baumann, from the federal Fish
and Wildlife agency. "We need Type 1 (elite firefighting) crews to
help us do the burnouts."
Laurie Perrett from the U.S. Forest Service updated the group on
the the Malheur Complex fire, burning about 10 miles south of
Prairie City and said what firefighters there need.
"The Easy fire (part of the complex) is laying low," said
Perret. "But it's about a quarter-mile from the evacuation trigger
point. Without an air attack yesterday we had no eyes in the sky, a
real difficulty."
When each strategist has given an update, the group uses
established criteria to decide where to deploy resources, said
Larsen, the MAC coordinator.
"Everyone brings different viewpoints to the table," he said.
"But not once have I experienced a heated discussion."
After lunch, the group prepared to start the process again -
this time in the afternoon.
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On the Net: Northwest Interagency Coordination Center:
http://www.or.blm.gov/nwcc/

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press.