Sometimes you ask a question and the answer sticks. It sticks in the back of your head and somewhere in your gut. It’s obvious. And it’s so damn amazing you really can’t forget. Like all good answers, it provokes better questions and you’re on your way again, chasing something elusive and real.
I do not remember when I heard my first fire story. It was probably in a magazine, National Geographic or Boy’s Life, or perhaps a laminated SRA card stacked in a third grade classroom, but something in those stories got into my head. What must it be like, I wondered, to arrive in a truck or jump out of a helicopter with little more than a pick-axe and some muscle, and a mission nothing less than to save the world?
I did not become a fireman. But I will admit that fire stories have always made me pause. And as I’ve grown older my wonderings, with luck, have grown deeper. There is never just one fire. Never just one need. How do they get the smoke jumpers all the places where they need to be? How do they decide what air tanker drops the slurry where? How do they do all that? And, what’s more, who are they?
Not so very long ago, I discovered the answer: the National Interagency Fire Center, in Boise, Idaho. For me, it was one of those answers that sticks and then provokes.
The logos on the web site are impressive: Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, US Forest Service, National Weather Service, National Business Center, US Fire Administration, National Association of State Foresters. Near the runways at the airport in Boise they are all in one group of buildings and they all have one goal. When fire season comes, as it comes every year—and with one good storm suddenly a dozen states are burning—put out the fires.
In every meaningful way, this is Central Command. This is Headquarters, the Pentagon, the place where all branches of the service talk to each other and plan how to attack and how to defend. This is where the desires of tactics and strategy meet the reality of resources.
When the Governor of California calls (as he once did) and says his state is on fire and he wants everything, every fire-fighter, every hot-shot crew, every smokejumper, every air-tanker, everything, and he wants it right now, what do you do when there are also fires in Utah and Colorado and Wyoming and Montana? Who gets to decide?
The acronym is NMAC. The National Multiagency Coordination Group. Eight people, a good bit like the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one in the public knows their names. The names are not secret, they simply are not recognized by the television crews as being dynamic enough. But these eight command the whole of the national effort. They include people such as: John Segar, US Fish and Wildlife Service Chief; Bill Kaage, National Park Service’s Chief of the Branch of Wildland Fire; Aitor Bidaburu, fire specialist for the US fire Administration, which is part of Homeland Security; Lyle Carlile, Director of the Fire Management branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; Dan Smith, Fire Director for the National Association of State Foresters; and John Glenn, Chief of Fire Operations for the Bureau of Land Management Fire & Aviation Directorate.
Each of them has a different way of viewing the world. Some of them have long tenure in their office while others are new this year. Their ability to work together and at speed is required.
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) is the center for large-scale firefighting for the whole country, the focal point for national mobilization of resources. The center is the sole dispatch site for heavy airtankers, lead planes, smokejumpers, hotshot crews, Type 1 Incident Management Teams, area command teams, medium and heavy helicopters,
infrared aircraft, military resources, telecom equipment for fires, Remote Automated Weather Stations, and large transport aircraft. What’s more, the NIFC has developed the expertise to respond to what is known as all-risk incidents. When the hurricanes come and the agencies need to work together, fast and well, the NIFC leads the show. NIFC also provides intelligence and what they call “predictive services products” designed for the use of the internal wildland fire community for wildland fire and incident management decision making.
Expertise comes from experience. Experience comes from solving a problem. When fire season comes, it tends to come everywhere. A large fire in California. A handful of fires in Texas and Florida. Perhaps a dozen, all of them large, all of them burning fields and forests and farms and homes and livestock and dreams. Burning them in Montana and Idaho and Oregon and Washington. A dozen more in Alaska. The dozen still waiting for the lightning to strike dry grass and dead wood in northern Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
When the forests and the grasslands begin to burn, who goes where? What need is greatest? How fast can we get there? How fast can we get somewhere else?
At one level this is simply resource management. But the decisions cost everything. Pilots die. Firefighters die. Homes are lost. Timberland and grassland are torched. The fires cover thousands and hundreds of thousands of acres. And they move. They move fast.
These are sometimes deeply difficult decisions.
The fire community speaks in terms of Preparedness Levels, ranging from One to Five. When the national Preparedness Level gets to PL4 or PL5, the Boise airport and NIFC site is the center of the fire-fighting universe. Heavy aerial tankers as well as SEAT (single engine aerial tanker) planes come and go, as do the helicopters and ground equipment. Fire crews wait and really do run for the trucks when the bell rings. There is also the work of getting the supplies where they need to go. The action at the NIFC in Boise includes: Boise Smokejumpers; The Great Basin Fire Cache, at 90,000 square feet the largest fire warehouse in the nation; the returns warehouse, where all of the equipment sent out comes back, is sorted, cleaned, rehabilitated, and sent back to the cache to be used again; the Boise National Forest airtanker base; National Interagency Coordination Center, which takes care of the ordering and movement logistics for the entire country; and the Southwest Idaho Coordination Center, which is, literally, across the street from NIFC, which includes a couple dozen engines, a helitack base, and the local coordination center, which can be chaotic during busy times.
It’s a frantic, high-energy, deeply personal center. Urgent and moral.
What is it like to be one of these people? What stories of panic or speed or joy do they hold for quiet times? Today I am heading west. Those are the questions this week will chase.