Twice a day, inside a gated and fenced compound next to the Boise Airport, eight of the nation’s top fire managers play a chess game.
At the National Interagency Fire Center, officials from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and other smaller agencies sit at a conference table flanked by an oversized computer monitor that shows the sites of wildfires burning across the United States.
The season has been brutal. More than 8.2 million acres have burned in 43,819 fires nationwide — nearly three times as much land as had burned by this time last year, and an area larger than Maryland. During the past month alone, hundreds of fires in Idaho and other states have raged at the same time.
And the season is far from over: Many California fires burn in the fall.
For 60 to 90 minutes at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., the fire managers gather to listen to updates on the fires, study weather reports and decide how best to allocate personnel and equipment to regions that need them.
“It’s really triage. We’re here to pick the best responses to a bad situation,” said John Segar, chief of fire management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and one of eight members of a national coordinating group.
As of Thursday, there were 59 large fires burning across the country, including 16 in Idaho, 14 each in Washington and Montana, seven in Oregon and six in California. Nearly 25,000 firefighters were battling blazes. The nation was at preparedness Level 5, the highest, with the biggest commitment of federal and state employees for firefighting. Their efforts are costing taxpayers $150 million a week.
But it isn’t enough. There are too few elite Hotshot firefighter crews, smokejumpers, tanker planes, helicopters and other supplies to go around.
The need is so great that 126 fire managers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand have been sent to fight fires in the Northwest and the Rocky Mountains. Two dozen airmen and soldiers from the Idaho Air National Guard and Army National Guard are fighting fires in North Idaho. Two hundred soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McCord near Tacoma have been deployed in Washington state.
Canada supplied a plane that drops retardant and several Canadair CL-415 Superscoopers, which were recently seen refilling their 1,600-gallon water tanks while skimming the surface of Cascade Lake in Donnelly.
“While fire activity may moderate on many fires this week, we remain at Preparedness Level 5 with very high competition for almost every type of team or resource,” said Aitor Bidaburu in a statement Monday. Bidaburu is chairman of the coordinating group and an official of the U.S. Fire Administration, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency
“Critical resource shortages persist despite assistance from aerial and ground resources from the military, Australia, Canada and New Zealand,” he wrote. “In short, we have exceeded our national operational capability.”
Coordination cuts costs, reduces duplication
The Boise Interagency Fire Center was created in 1965 for the Forest Service, the BLM and the National Weather Service to work together to carry out national fire planning and operations. One goal was to reduce duplication of services and cut costs. Officials said Boise was picked because the largest fires burn in the West and Boise was centrally located.
“They recognized the desirability of creating a spot where all of the agencies involved with wildland firefighting could come together and sit in one room that would help with collaboration and coordination,” said Bill Kaage, division chief for fire and aviation management for the National Park Service and a member of the coordinating group.
Other agencies, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and FEMA, joined over the years. The National Association of State Foresters is also a member and has a representative on the coordinating group.
In 1993, the center changed its name to the National Interagency Fire Center — its abbreviation, NIFC, is pronounced NIF-see — to better reflect its national mission.
Many operations take place at the center. The National Interagency Coordination Center coordinates the mobilization of crews, equipment and aircraft for fires across the country. Another division runs a warehouse that supplies fireproof clothing, equipment such as portable water pumps and fire hoses, and training materials to crews in the Great Basin region, which includes Southern Idaho, Utah, Nevada and a portion of western Wyoming. A radio division issues and maintains 11,000 hand-held radios used by wildland firefighters. A weather division operates solar-powered weather stations for fire managers and firefighters in the field.
The BLM also operates a smokejumper base at the center. Seventy-four smokejumpers are on call for deployment at a moment’s notice throughout the West this season.
ALL ABOUT RESOURCES
A request for firefighters and equipment begins at one of dozens of local coordination centers across the country. The one serving Southwest Idaho, the Boise Interagency Dispatch Center, is conveniently located next to the NIFC campus. A joint effort of the Forest Service, the BLM and the Idaho Department of Lands, the center handles fire suppression responsibilities for 9.1 million acres of public and private land.
When local resources are insufficient, requests for help go to one of 11 regional coordination centers, which act as mini-NIFCs. Regional managers evaluate requests and decide how to allocate personnel and equipment. Southern Idaho, including Boise, is served by the Great Basin Geographic Area Coordination Center in Salt Lake City.
Once a region has exhausted its resources, it can ask for help from the National Interagency Coordination Center, where Bidaburu, Segar, Kaage and the other decision- makers meet.
They had little left to offer when lightning caused a fire to break out Aug. 15 in rural Stevens County, northwest of Spokane. Several large fires were already burning across Washington, including one where three firefighters died Aug. 19 near Twisp just east of the Cascades. In its early days, the Carpenter Road Fire destroyed 15 homes and 23 other structures in Stevens County and the Spokane Indian Reservation.
Later, as the fire grew, NICC directed resources there. By Wednesday of this week, the fire was 45 percent contained. Nearly 900 firefighters are now assigned to that fire, with full containment expected late next week.
Each of the members of the coordinating group represents his or her agency and different regions of the country. But they’re charged with making decisions that benefit the country as a whole.
“There isn’t any area that feels like they got everything they wanted and everything they needed,” Segar said. “Everyone around that table has 30 years of fire experience. We always compromise.”