Training, Expertise Guide Wildfire Incident Commanders

June 11, 2013
In 2012, 15 firefighters died battling wildfires around the nation, compared to 11 Eleven the year before.

June 11--Incident commanders have to consider the big picture when managing complex fires such as those burning now in the Pecos Canyon and Jemez Mountains. If they and team leaders below them make critical errors, people die.

In 2012, 15 firefighters died battling wildfires around the nation. Eleven died the year before.

John Pierson, Type II incident commander on the Tres Lagunas Fire in the Pecos Canyon, said the goal is always zero: no deaths, no injuries. Everything else, from saving homes to preventing a fire's spread, has to be weighed against the risks of hurting firefighters and other people, Pierson said. "We want to make sure people get back safely every day. I preach that daily," he said.

Fire managers take calculated risks. How long can a team fight to save houses before they need to pull out? Can a crew build a fire line break on a ridge without getting caught by the blaze? How long should they stay in an area as the winds come up? "We have to decide: Is the gain worth the risk?" Pierson said. "If we apply a tactic, we look at what is the probability of success."

Computer programs and new digital tools provide useful data for fire managers. But the ultimate decisions on how to attack and manage a fire are made by people on the ground trusting their experience, instincts and understanding of fire behavior.

As the wildfires grow in size, ferocity and danger due to drought, overgrown forests and more homes in the wildlands, so do the risks. "I think what we are seeing is the new normal," Pierson said.

Two decades ago, a fire larger than 10,000 acres didn't occur that often, he said. In the last couple of years, more than one New Mexico fire topped 100,000 acres. "Any time we go on a fire now, I expect extreme fire behavior," he said.

When an incident commander is called to a fire, like Pierson was on May 30 to Tres Lagunas, he learns about the blaze on the way to the scene. Pierson was called in from the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico, where he is a district ranger. Incident commanders like him learn the job through training and a lot of fires. "We don't just learn how to do this overnight," he said, while taking a break Monday from coordinating efforts on the Tres Lagunas blaze, which was 60 percent contained at 10,185 acres.

The goal is for all the agencies to have a set of factors the arriving incident commander needs to consider as he or she is deciding strategy for fighting the fire. "As I'm en route, I'm making contact with those people to get a ballpark picture of what is going on," he said.

Local volunteer firefighters are often first on the scene of such fires, which start in remote, hard-to-reach spots. Those on the scene will let the incident commander know if homes are at risk, if evacuations are needed, what the terrain is like and what is most at risk. Tres Lagunas threatened homes and two municipal watersheds -- Santa Fe and the Gallinas, which feeds the water-strapped city of Las Vegas, N.M. Fire in watersheds can damage the water source as debris and burned logs wash down into reservoirs.

A fire's complexity determines the level of incident management teams called in to help. Many fires are put out by initial attack crews and never require a larger team. But if a fire grows in size, threatens multiple resources and requires people to be evacuated, often the higher level Type I and Type II management teams will be requested by officials.

Pierson, with 27 years of firefighting experience, didn't take command of Tres Lagunas until June 1. By then, only two days after the fire had started, a small, self-contained town had begun to spring up on property provided by the Pecos National Historical Park. By June 8, the number of personnel swelled to more than 1,000, including firefighting hand crews, engine crews, air support crews, bulldozer crews, kitchen staff, information officers, logistics staff and others.

When Pierson started, high winds had already pushed the blaze over fire breaks once. In the steep, rock folds of canyons and mountains, wind can shove a fire up and over ridges with startling ferocity. Smoke and wind grounded air support part of the time, giving the fire an edge for a little while.

It is helpful, Pierson said, when incident commanders have some familiarity with the territory where a fire is burning. He has worked forest fires in both the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Jemez Mountains.

While each firefighting crew has its own team leaders, the incident commander has to know where crews are placed and what their goals are for attacking the fire or protecting resources each day. Giant dry erase boards in the incident command tent display a long list of the factors the management team tracks, such as driving hazards, firing operations, dangerous trees, vegetation and weather. With fires that are thousands of acres in size, each of those factors can change within different portions of the blaze.

Firefighters first responding to the blaze, like local firefighters or regional Hotshot crews, sometimes stay on the fire until it is contained. Firefighters get two days off for every 14 days of work. Depending on a fire's activity, they may work up to 16 hours and then must take eight hours off. Fatigue can lead to bad decisions by firefighters on the fire line, so it is critical for crew leaders to keep tabs on work hours, Pierson said.

The incident command model has been around for decades, Pierson said. It serves for any kind of disaster -- from a fire to a hurricane. "Initially, we're trying to manage chaos," Pierson said.

It doesn't mean everyone is happy with the decisions an incident commander makes. Pierson knows people who have been evacuated from their properties in the Pecos Canyon since May 30 are frustrated they still can't return.

But he has to consider everything, from hot spots within the fire to traffic on the two-lane winding road, before deciding when to let people go home.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.

Copyright 2013 - The Santa Fe New Mexican

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!