Fires

Holding back Hell: Boise’s national fire center coordinates efforts and saves lives

Coming right at you: Planes drop retardant onto California’s Holy Fire

Fire crews worked to contain southern California’s Holy Fire on August 9, spraying the area with fire retardant to help manage the blaze. The Holy Fire had burned through 10,236 acres by the evening of August 9.
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Fire crews worked to contain southern California’s Holy Fire on August 9, spraying the area with fire retardant to help manage the blaze. The Holy Fire had burned through 10,236 acres by the evening of August 9.

Right now, 114 large wildfires are burning in the U.S. Another 80 fires started in the past 24 hours. This conjures visions of the iconic firefighters, Pulaski or chainsaw in hand, putting their lives on the line — such as the two men who died this year fighting the Carr Fire near Redding, California.

But for every firefighter on the ground, three or four people labor behind the scenes, collecting scientific data, moving resources and making hard choices. For the most part, this support system is hidden from public view.

Some of the greatest minds in fire science and response are assembled here in Boise, along with huge caches of equipment and resources, at the nerve center of this system: the National Interagency Fire Center.

Boiseans have heard of NIFC, but few really understand what it is. For starters, NIFC is a place — the complex of buildings that house fire managers, climatologists, logistics personnel and huge warehouses. At its core is the National Interagency Coordination Center, the group of officials from all major land management agencies that assemble information from the front lines of the nation’s fires every day and decide where to redeploy firefighters, aircraft and other resources.

The way information flows through NIFC is among its least understood features, but the one that makes it nimble and effective. So effective, in fact, that fire and emergency management officials come from around the world to learn how the agency does it. In recent years, people from Ukraine, Norway, Russia, Morocco, Greece, Lebanon, and Ethiopia have visited to learn NIFC’s secrets.

A recent perspective study reports that in the 2017 fire season, more than 71,000 fires burned approximately 27,000 square miles of land. That’s equal to roughly one-third the state of Idaho. The cost of suppressing those fires was nearly $3 billion, more than half the annual budget of the U.S. Forest Service.

Fire on this scale requires a response in kind. From NIFC, the national symphony of firefighting is conducted. Like any good symphony, however, the music starts with the individual musicians.

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Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a home as they battle a wildfire in Anaheim Hills, Calif., Oct. 9, 2017. Jeff Gritchen The Orange County Register via AP

THE FRONT LINE: INCIDENT COMMANDERS AND DISPATCHERS

The front line of the firefighting effort is, of course, the people in the local teams, people like Ben Rojas. Rojas is an incident commander and superintendent of the Bureau of Land Management’s Boise District’s Engine Unit C. When he gets to a fire, he’s responsible for establishing a command structure and coordinating the firefighting effort. “The incident commander is overall in charge of the whole fire,” he says.

Rojas is responsible for collecting weather data on site. When the firefighters first arrive, they use the broad weather reports given to them by the National Weather Service and others. But to effectively tackle a fire, especially one that lasts for an extended period, gathering your own weather data is crucial, says Rojas. Things like temperature, humidity and wind allow him and other incident commanders to estimate the instability of a fire.

They use these data to set trigger points — say a temperature of 85 degrees and a humidity of 15 percent. “Once we hit those numbers, we want to move people out of there,” says Rojas. “We know that fire behavior is going to increase and the threat for harm to the firefighters is there.”

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Crews from Boise Fire and BLM work the edge of a 15-acre fire near El Pelar subdivision in July 2018. Katherine Jones Idaho Statesman file

Al Mebane is the assistant dispatch center manager at the Boise Interagency Fire Dispatch and works with Rojas often. Mebane’s job is to understand the larger picture. He takes the information that Rojas sends, combines it with other data he receives — such as weather information from the network of remote weather stations that cover the area — and passes it on to other incident commanders that might need it.

Unpredictability can kill people, as has been shown in the wildly unpredictable fires in Northern California this summer. So, Mebane uses the data to establish important measures of how serious a wildfire is. One example is the burning index, a combination of wind and fuel information that lets Rojas and others estimate the height of a fire’s flames. “Our success rate goes down as that number goes up,” says Rojas.

Mebane uses metrics like burning index to set a dispatch level: The higher the level, the more resources must be sent and coordinated. The lowest level is just a few engines. The highest could be several full crews, lots of engines and multiple aircraft, says Mebane. “As they say, send the world.”

THE COORDINATORS: CALLING IN THE CAVALRY

When a fire outstrips the ability of local teams to deal with it, people like Jeff Arnberger call in the cavalry. Arnberger is the chief of the BLM’s Fire and Aviation Branch of Preparedness and Suppression Operations. He’s based in Boise at NIFC and represents the Great Basin geographic area, one of 10 large regions that divide up the U.S.

The Great Basin region contains most of Utah, Idaho, and Nevada, as well as small pieces of California, Arizona, and Wyoming. “The area is huge and has some of the highest fuel loads,” says Arnberger. The wide range of different environments across this region, from desert to high timber, presents challenges.

The fire season in the Great Basin typically starts in the south, where vegetation dries out first. As the summer progresses, the fires move north, finally reaching timber in higher elevations. The Great Basin is well known for wind-driven fires over huge areas. July’s Martin Fire in Northern Nevada burned close to half a million acres, aided by dry, windy conditions. It remains the largest U.S. fire this year.

When a huge fire occurs, Arnberger must coordinate resources from across the Great Basin area to fight it. Large range fires require a lot of resources quickly. “I call it dogpile mode,” he says. He throws everything at the fire as hard as possible.

Higher elevation timber fires burn more slowly and require a drawn-out flow of resources. That means Arnberger must be nimble: In the Great Basin, a 14-day shift might see a firefighter sent to six or seven different fires.

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Helicopters battle the 64,000-acre Beaver Creek Fire in August 2013 north of Hailey. Dozens of giant fires over the last 25 years have become more catastrophic because of warming caused by climate change. Ashley Smith Times-News

Arnberger makes difficult decisions about limited resources. “Part of the response is fiscal responsibility to the taxpayer,” he says. This means not wasting money on less important fires. Of course, “important” depends on whom you ask. Northern California’s Carr and Mendocino Complex fires are destroying homes and threatening human life. Range fires like the Martin Fire, while not costly in the same way, have a devastating impact on grazing land and wildlife habitat.

To make these decisions, Arnberger and his counterparts from the other regions must have the best information possible. Key to this is the data collected on the ground and complied by people like Rojas and Mebane. But, as Arnberger says, “I need someone to assimilate that info so I can make decisions in my own swim lane.” So, he turns to people like Ed Delgado at NIFC.

THE BIG PICTURE: PEOPLE AT THE TOP

Delgado works for the BLM and, as NIFC’s top meteorologist, is national program director for predictive services. This organization was set up after the 2000 fire season to give decision-makers the best, most comprehensive information possible. Helping people like Arnberger is personal for Delgado. “For me,” he says, “it’s the challenge and the gratification of knowing that I’m providing the people I work with something really useful.”

The largest fires require a level of response that individual geographic areas can’t provide. When this happens, the National Interagency Coordination Center at NIFC becomes the focal point for getting resources where they need to go. The information that Delgado provides is critical to those decisions.

Delgado and his fellow meteorologists see themselves as the first step in the decision-making process, though he’s quick to point out they don’t believe they’re any more important than others on the team. “We just set the stage: ’This is the playing field that you’re on today,’ “ he says. “Then they’ll decide how they’re going to manage the consequences of that.”

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Ed Delgado, NIFC’s national program director for predictive services, gives a briefing on how forecasted weather could affect nationwide wildfires on July 16, 2018. Meiying Wu mwu@idahostatesman.com

At the daily morning national fire briefing, Delgado presents all the best weather and fire information, collected from sources that range from satellites to incident commanders on the ground. He and the other meteorologists analyze the models to understand which regions have high fire potential and how existing fires may be affected.

They help the decision-makers make sense of it all. Arnberger says there is a lot of artistry to what Delgado does. “It takes a lot of … experience and knowledge to bring out what the models are trying to predict,” says Delgado.

Delgado tailors his briefings to the people in the room. For example, Arnberger might be interested in smoke levels around a fire. Aircraft won’t be able to fly in heavy smoke, so that briefing might inform a decision to move them into other areas where they can actually be used. “It’s better … than to just have them sitting there for four or five days doing nothing,” says Delgado. A National Guard representative might be more interested in temperature conditions on the ground and how they may affect his people on the line.

Not only does Delgado brief the nation’s top fire managers, he often teaches classes that give firefighters weather basics so they understand how events on the ground affect the fire they’re working on.

NIFC’s success is that it functions as a huge collaborative team. Delgado’s weather information is critical to decision-makers like Arnberger. That data filters down to people like Mebane, who relay it to the field. But the most important information is collected in the field by incident commanders like Rojas and makes its way up to Delgado for interpretation and modeling.

Everyone wears many hats, which is one of the reasons the firefighting symphony works: Firefighters stay safe and fires get controlled. That helps everyone, says Delgado. “The general public is reaping the benefits of that when the fire’s put out.”

HOW IDAHOANS CAN BE FIREWISE

Keri Steneck, mitigation and education specialist with the Boise BLM, offered several tips to help Idahoans better understand the relationship between people in the West and wildfire:

  • 84 percent of wildfires are started by humans at the wildland-urban interface. This includes places where people have built homes on the edge of wilderness or along roadways and paths.
  • Pay attention to weather reports and red flag warnings. Use this information to be more careful when recreating.
  • In Idaho, vehicles are the leading cause of wildfires. Hot undercarriages can start fires. Maintain your trailers, grease axle bearings, tie up loose chains. Make sure you have adequate pressure in your tires. The devastating Carr Fire in Northern California was started by sparks from the rim of a trailer’s failed tire.
  • The second biggest cause is fires started while shooting. Any kind of bullet can start a fire if the conditions are right, not just steel core or tracer rounds.
  • Make your home less of a hazard by cleaning up debris, keeping space between your home and trees, and even installing special vents to keep embers out. For a more complete check list, go to Boise Fire Department’s hazard reduction checklist.
  • Fighting wildfire is like triage. Firefighters aren’t going to put people’s lives in danger to protect a property that hasn’t been properly prepared, when maybe the neighbor’s home has been.
  • Fire is a disaster we can prepare for. We know it’s going to happen, we know it’s going to be near homes and we know that we need people to do their part. Reducing human-caused fire lets agencies devote more resources to unavoidable lightning-caused fires
  • For more resources, visit https://fire.cityofboise.org/media-releases/2012/07/protect-your-home-from-wildfire!/

Kevin Davenport is an experimental physicist at the University of Utah and a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow with the Idaho Statesman: 208-377-6411, @tropnevaDniveK.
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