A Week In Fire ~ Thursday ~ Home

The week is over and I am already a day toward home.  Yesterday, after the morning briefing at NIFC, I said my goodbyes and thanks and pointed the Jeep back toward the prairie.  I stopped in a town called Mountain Home and took a picture of the red stripe on the ground next to a hotel, a row of slurry placed by a SEAT to stop a range fire. Down the highway a bit, I paused when I saw smoke rising and relaxed when I discovered it was only a very large dust devil.  Outside of a town called American Falls, I watched a Type Two helicopter lift a bucket of water out of a lake and head off into the distance.  I passed one of those electronic reader boards warning me a range fire was ahead and I should use caution, but the fire never appeared.

It has been a quiet fire week.  This is always good.  And the quiet has allowed the men and women at NIFC the space to talk with me.  To each of them, and especially Don Smurthwaite, I offer deep and honest thanks.

I have more than twenty hours of audio recordings from the interviews this week—a great deal more than the space here allows.  That’s one of the good things about being a writer.  Now I get to listen to them all, slowly, and give them shape.  I get to do the research and background to help them breathe.

Tomorrow morning I will stop in at the Billings tanker base again, just to check in, just to see what’s up.  I’ll check the National Fire maps, and if something has flared then I may turn that way.  But I expect I’ll be home soon.

There are stories, deep stories, still to tell.  I need to find a way to describe what a smokejumper’s face looks like when I ask if he’s ever been scared.  I need to find a way to convey the pride in the voice of the guy who runs the cache.  I need to explain what a firefighter means by anchor, flank and pinch. I need to offer a new view into the idea of generosity.   In other words, I need to get to work.  Thanks for reading.

 

–W. Scott Olsen

A Week In Fire ~ Wednesday ~ The Middle of Everything

The National Interagency Coordination Center looks very much like Mission Control.  Four rows of desks and computers, each about fifteen work stations wide, face a wall with large screen monitors, a very large projection screen, digital clocks.  It’s a very large room. Walking in, you suddenly feel the size and weight of the show.

At the back, in an office that looks just like everyone else’s, Chuck Womack keeps track of the nation-sized effort.

It would be wrong to say he is the boss.  But if there is a person at the top of the

Chuck leading the morning briefing

national wildfire effort, it would be Chuck, NIFC Center Manager.  This is the guy who runs the morning briefing.  This is the guy who brings the agencies together.

“This place?” he says.  “Think of this place like the Pentagon.   At the Pentagon, you have the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines.  They have the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  And they have a war room. We have the Federal agencies.  And the NICC, this is the war room.”

There are stories about this place that have nothing to do with fire.  Hurricane Katrina.  The Columbia Space Shuttle.  9-11.  And there are stories about Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was the Governor of California.  There are stories about the future, about the NIFC’s work as an All-Risk center.  When large disaster strikes, this is where the telephone rings.

“This office answers to all the fire directors in the building,” he tells me.  “And in this building there are the directors, or their acting counterparts, from all the agencies that handle fire.”

It strikes me that he says his office answers to them, instead of them reporting to him, and I tell him that it seems dangerous to me, that so many Federal agencies working together is knife-edge at best.  All it takes is one person who doesn’t play well with others.  But I’ve also learned this is not a community where the grooming process has been corporate or political.  Everyone here has worked a fire.  Everyone has stared at flames and watched something burn.

Chuck Womack

“There’s delegation of authority,” he says, “through the NMAC [National Multi-Agency Coordinating group].  Even though the Forest Service has more money and the BLM has more engines, everyone’s got more of something.  Instead of the forces being against each other we all work together.”

“Firefighters are a bunch of type-a personalities,” he says.  “But it’s funny because we’re all maybe a B when we get up here.  We can’t survive without each other.”

The morning briefing was quiet.  The large scale fires, for the moment, are mostly contained and the weather is relatively wet.  But this is the office that plans, and prepares, and tries to imagine what problem or disaster might strike next.  Chuck’s phone rings, he addresses the person on the other end as “Sir” and listens intently for a long time.  The conversation is about releasing the California MAFFS back to the state for possible activation at that level.  Then the conversation is about other resources.

“The problem is DOD always comes to the table with these great ideas when we’re at PL4 or PL5,” he says into the phone, laughing.  “We need to negotiate in November or December.”   Then, “I’m already getting information from NIROPS about Air Force infrared capability. You know we have Firehawk.  You know you guys provide some type of secret imagery to us and we never know where it comes from.  But there must be something bigger going on in the world right now because we keep getting UTFd  from you guys.”  UTF means Unable to Fill.  He laughs.  “You can’t tell me, right?”

When he hangs up, Chuck looks at me and Don.  “Colonel McCormack,” he says.  “It’s Army versus Air Force,” he jokes. “See, we all get along.”

“We have a military rep from NorthCom here,” he continues.  “He has the MAFFS and the capability to mobilize battalions.  But the MAFFS are Air Force and the position here is Army.  We use the MAFFS more than we use the military as firefighters on the ground, so it gets a little confusing sometimes.  And what I’m trying to do today isn’t fitting in with their plan.  But we pay for them when they are here, so it’s a little frustrating. We have our own King Air and Cessna Citation to do infrared,” he continues, “and they can download their dataset to our system.  But when we get into over-extending our aircraft then we go to Department of Defense and they provide imagery to us.”

“From where?” I ask.

“We don’t know.”

The NICC is where most of the action takes place on a national level.  If you want to have a national influence, you turn your career toward Boise.  Like nearly everyone else, however, Chuck started young.  Straight out of high school in 1980 he joined the Army as a firefighter.  After his tour, he went to the Marshall Islands as a contract firefighter.  “This was back in the Reagan days,” he says.  I was on this tiny island and they were shooting MX missiles at us and we were trying to shoot them down.  Star Wars days.  Then my brother sent me a letter about a job in Alaska and I got hired into a hot shot crew in the BLM.  I went from an island that was three and a half miles long and half a mile wide to Alaska.”

NICC

Chuck started in Boise as a coordinator on the NICC floor.  He has been with NIFC for eleven years.

On a normal day, Chuck arrives between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m. and fills his head with information.  Knowledge and context are the biggest parts of his job.  “Everything that everyone’s got going on are pieces that are moving, so when things are popping up you know what your Plan A will be, but you also need to have Plan B in mind.  I have four coordinators out there, and one of them is always on duty.  They are working the phones, talking to the eleven geographical areas, working on capabilities.  We’re like a brokerage firm.  We don’t own a lot of resources here, the resources are owned by the local units, but we know in effect who’s buying and who’s selling.”

I ask him about changing from PL4 to PL3.

“That’s not easy to do,” he says.  “It sounds easy, but now you’re unloading resources that you worked equally hard to get ramped up.  What you hear out there on the floor is quiet, because that’s the fire activity that’s going on.  But what we’ve got to do now is readjust the nation.  Everything’s been mobilized.  And now we need to get it redistributed back home.”

“What happens if someplace just explodes tomorrow?” I ask.

“We can always go back to PL4,” he says.  “But you’ve seen our meteorologist and our fuels guys.  I know what’s going on today.  Their job is to keep us thinking two and three days out.  And that’s a tough job.”

“Is there a cost savings to going down a level?”

“Not really.”

“Why not go to PL4 on May 1st?”

“That’s the whole thing.  It’s a capabilities scenario. How many crews are committed?  How many are available?  When we get to the highest planning levels, what I’m basically telling you is that I’m committed.  When we’re at that level, each of the geographical areas may have fifteen  hot fires going on, and they all want hot shot crews.  Well, in the whole nation there’s only about 105 hot shot crews, right?  And they have to have days off every now and then, so you’re basically playing with about 90 hot shot crews a day.  And they can be committed to an incident up to 14 days.  You really have a finite capability there.  So the NMAC may say to Great Basin we’re going to cap you at 30 hot shot crews, which is a big surge in capability, and then the GMAC has to figure out how to divide that up amongst the incidents.    Otherwise all they do is keep ordering from us and we keep saying no.”

In the wildfire world, there is a story about this office saying no to the Governor of California.

“I’ve heard the Arnold Schwarzenegger story,” I say.  “Tell me the truth of that one?”

Chuck smiles and sighs.  “What really happened,” he says, “is that California had a lot of fires going on, and they placed an order for something like 100 engines.  And we filled like 80 of them.  We could not fill the other 20, so we UTFd it.    The other 20 were on other sites.  The next day they placed an order for 50 engines, and we got something like 35.  We’d UTF the others again and send the request back.  You need to remember that we don’t own the engines.  There has to be someone who’s willing to let something go.  Then what happened is that these UTFs were added up.  Someone came up with a number of engine orders we refused to fill, when the reality was that we provided a lot of engines to them.  Unfortunately, the way the governor got the information, he wrote a letter to the President and we were instructed to provide them with that capability.  And because it came from the President—remember, we didn’t have any more capability to offer them—suddenly local fire departments were coughing up engines to send to California.  I mean we all want to help.  But the reality was that when it all showed up in California is was over what they needed.”

A colleague stops by the door and tells Chuck they need to talk, but it’s nothing urgent.  His desk phone rings.  His cell phone rings.

I want to ask him about Hurricane Katrina.  I’ve heard that  NIFC personnel went out to find parts of the Columbia Space Shuttle and crew.  The phrase is All Risk.

“When you talk about ‘all risk’ you’re talking about our FEMA support,” he says.

“Yes,” I say.

“Years ago, when FEMA was just ramping up, they really didn’t have a great logistical capability.  Management team type of capability.  And so they leaned on us pretty heavily.  That’s how we got so involved in Katrina and 9-11 and the space shuttle.

“What did you do for Katrina?”

“We’re really good at is logistics and procurement.  So for Katrina what we did was we sent incident management teams into distribution centers.  FEMA brings in all these trailers and trucks of baby food and water and such, and we get them distributed to the right places.  And we bring in procurement capability so we’re not sitting there without the ability to buy more batteries and such.”

“Why would BLM or Forest Service or anyone at this site have any interest in buying supplies for New Orleans?”

“We do it under ESF function.  Emergency Services Function. So we get a tasking from FEMA to do it.   Forest Service takes the lead.”

“It’s tremendous organizational expertise,” he says.  “That’s what we do.  It’s a three tiered dispatch system.  Across the street is the Boise dispatch center.  That’s where somebody calls in a panic—there’s a fire in the foothills!—and they distribute the engine and the aircraft to head up there and start knocking the fire down.  That’s where the rubber meets the road.  That’s tier three—that’s where most of the hard work is done.  But if the problem grows, the second tier is the eleven geographical centers.  They can share what they have.  Finally you have the NICC.  We have a phenomenal capability and with staffing we can come into a place with no infrastructure and we can feed people, we can shower them, we can bed them down.”

“With what hardware?” I ask.  He points out into the NICC, the war room.

The War Room

“My front row is hardware,” he says. “We have national contracts with caterers and showers.  The caterer comes with tractor-trailers. Full on kitchens, potable water trucks, gray water trucks. Same for the showers.  Without any water, electricity or plumbing, we set up in some valley somewhere where there is some large fire and we can feed up to 1500 people three meals a day.  We bring in COWs—cellphones on wheels—and we have the largest cache of radios outside the military.  We have frequency managers here.  We can bring in entire communications systems.”

“What if?” I ask.  “What if the problem isn’t fire, but it’s just over the top huge?  What if the New Madrid fault were to fire off tomorrow and all of Memphis were to slide into the Mississippi?”

Chuck grins broadly.  “See that envelope over there, that big folder leaning up against the wall?” he asks, pointing at a very large envelop on a corner table.  “That’s New Madrid right there.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Well, FEMA has spent a lot of money using New Madrid as a catastrophe model of what might happen.  You know, if that were to happen, you’d lose all of your bridges.  What would your runways and roads look like?  Everything that is mobile now would become immobile then.  It’s a planning problem we need to solve in advance.  You not only have to bring in support for the people there, you have to bring in a way to support yourself.  You can’t just throw two to four thousand new people in and leave them hungry and tired—I mean that won’t work.”

“I like the planning that’s going on there,” he says.

“What do you say,” I ask him, “when someone asks you what your job is like.  Not what do you do, but what is it like?”

He pauses and thinks, then smiles.  “You know,” he says, “350 homes were lost in the Waldo Canyon fire.  And that’s terrible.  But 80% of the homes at risk were saved by firefighters.  You see everyone out there on the floor?  Everyone on the NICC floor comes out of operations.  That’s important.  When you hear the angst in their voice, or you listen to the descriptors they’re using, you know that comes from experience in the field.  We may have just gone down a PL level, but it’s possible we’re just a week out from another challenge.”

“In short,” he says. “I have the greatest gig I the world.  I get to be in the middle of everything.”

A Week In Fire ~ Tuesday ~ Air Attack

It really is a bit like ballet.

But in this performance, people can die.

View from Tanker 10 nose with SEAT below

When a fire gets big enough, or has the potential to get out of hand, someone calls in the airplanes.  We’ve all seen the pictures—aerial tankers opening what look like bomb bay doors and clouds of bright red fire retardant, slurry, falling away from the underside.  It’s a bit like a visit from Olympus.

But it’s never just one airplane.  The basic arrangement, the choreography, includes one airplane flying a mission called Air Attack (Canadians call this mission Bird Dog), which is to circle the fire site, observe, and direct the other airplanes.  There is a second plane flying what is called Lead.  This is generally a twin-engine King Air, and the Lead’s job is to scout the drop runs.  The heavy tankers come next.  When they show

Loading Retardant into a SEAT

up, they wait their turn and then follow the Lead plane through the site.  The Heavies return to reload.  The Lead picks up the next tanker.  And darting through all of this, the much smaller SEATs (single engine air tankers) make their own runs.

Every airplane and every pilot is working at the edge of what is possible.  Possible for the metal in their machines.  Possible for the workings of their talent.

At NIFC today, there are four C-130 Heavy Tankers parked on the ramp.  They are MAFFS.  Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems.  Some are from the Colorado Air Force Reserve.  Some are from California.  There are three SEATs, one of them an amphibian scooper plane, and one P-2 Neptune Heavy Tanker.  Every single one of

MAFFS on the ramp

them could be anywhere in the country tomorrow.

Don and I meet Master Sergeant Dan Bumby.  Sitting on the open rear deck of a Colorado MAFFS, Dan flies for the Colorado Air Force Reserve and as a pilot for Frontier Airlines.  This is his third fire this year, he says, more than thirty drops so far, all of them here in Idaho.

Dan has more than 3000 hours flying in a C-130, and more than 20,000 hours of flying overall.  “This is definitely a volunteer assignment,” he says.  “And it takes the more experienced people.”

I ask him what draws him to flying fires.

“The tempo,” he says.  “It’s fast and it’s probably the most enjoyable thing we do because we’re helping people.  And it’s a chess game.  There’s a lot of mental work involved, trying to figure out how to best use the airplane.  I mean, we hate to see anything on fire.  But when the fire comes, this is a great mission for us.”

Major Richard Pantusa, pilot of the C-130, comes around the corner, listens and then joins the conversation.

Richard Pantusa

“This is a bit outside our normal flying,” he says.  “We make a military career making sure we’re quiet and undetected.  Here we want to turn on all our lights, make all the radio calls to let everyone know where we are.”

MAFFS crews learn a whole new world of flying.

“There’s not a lot of our other training that prepares us for these missions,” Richard says.  “We normally don’t fly so low to the ground.  And we’re not used to flying in formation with King Airs, which are small and hard to see.  We’re used to flying in formation with other C-130s. We’re flying very slow, with maximum flap deflection, really not too far above stall speed for the airplane, and just a few hundred feet above the ground.”

A MAFFS carries nearly 3000 gallons of slurry.  When it returns, it takes twelve minutes to load.

“We’re flying near maximum gross weight,” Dan says.  “We have to be very careful with how much slurry we take, how much fuel, how that affects wing loading and wing bending.  It’s a stressful mission for the airplane.”

Are the King Airs faster, I ask?

“We’re typically faster,” Richard says.  “If we both launch at the same time, we typically beat them to the site.  So it’s sometimes odd to get a launch order, go go go, but wait the lead hasn’t taken off yet.  So we have to slow down, relax, and wait for the lead plane to make a good fire assessment.”

Air Attack, Lead plane, SEATS and Heavies are not the only airplanes over wildfires.  There are Type One and Type Two Helicopters.  There is the VLAT, Very Large Air Tanker, a converted DC-10 that is a challenge to base and to load.  It’s difficult and creative flying.  A few years ago, a tanker pilot explained how he had to drop his load of slurry below a fire on a mountain slope because the wind was rushing uphill so fast.  “Kentucky windage,” he said.  A few weeks ago, a heavy tanker crashed in South Dakota.

And then there are the aircraft that do not drop any slurry at all.  Instead, they drop people.

A smokejumper’s job is fairly clear.  Jump out of an airplane to a place that is impossible to reach by other means, carry a great deal of equipment, and start digging fire breaks or cutting timber in front of an advancing fire.  It’s dirty and dangerous.  It’s also profoundly moving.

In the Smokejumper’s building, Matt Bowers, a Smokejumper Crew Supervisor, works the front desk.  Both of his telephones ring constantly.  “Ok, we need to fix that,” he says to someone.Matt Bowers

“Right out of high school I started doing seasonal firefighting, working on hot-shot crews,” he says.  “As a matter of fact, that was Silver State hot-shots that just called me with their availability.  That’s the crew I started with.  I spent about five years doing that and I got to watch some jumpers going in and I thought that was a pretty cool way to go.  So after five years I transitioned to being a smokejumper in McCall.  Now I’ve been doing this for twenty three years.”

Average age of a BLM smokejumper is 34 years old.  You need the experience.

“For ninety-nine percent of this job, the decision making is based on experience. We have eight people in an airplane.  We could be going in on a thousand acre fire.  We have to have the ability to trust that the person next to us is going to be in the right place, doing the right thing, by themselves.  And that trust comes from experience.”

A lot of jumpers have to apply to the program three, four or five times before they get accepted.

“We put more time into our hiring at smokejumpers than anyone in wildland fire,” Matt says. “Experience is that important.”

What’s the most rewarding thing for you, personally, I ask?

“That’s interesting,” Matt says.  “Because it’s a double-edged sword.  The most rewarding part is the travel, and getting to see and experience all these places from the door of an airplane, from the missing door of an airplane.  You have this amazing view from fairly low level, from an airplane flying fairly slow, and you get to look at the whole western US like that.  Places you would never have the opportunity to see, and you get to jump into some of the most remote places that maybe no one has ever been in.  You know, I’ve jumped onto mesa tops where there was no sign of anyone having been there.  There’s all that cryptographic dirt without a footprint of any sort.  But the flipside to that is you’re gone away from home.”

We walk into a room back by the Loft, and Matt pauses to point to a framed print over a doorway.  The title is “Last Jumper Out Over Redfish.”  It shows an airplane, and open door, a smokejumper just away from the plane, and a beautiful lake surrounded by forest.  “A few years ago, I was a spotter on a flight and we flew this exact route,” he offers.  “I thought no way, this is the painting that’s over my office door.  The guys who jumped it said it was one of their most memorable jumps. You don’t forget stuff like that.  We do our work, but this is important too.”

Joe Wyatt rigging a chute

Next to the print, a pirate flag, skull and crossbones, hangs on the wall.   I remember a story Joe Wyatt told me yesterday.

“This base started as a Forest Service base in the 80s,” he said.  “And they were going to try to develop another smokejumper base in the late 80s.  So Alaska jumpers came down and started this base.  But Alaska smokejumpers jump Alaska.  McCall jumpers jump the Payette.  Missoula smokejumpers jump Montana.  We really didn’t have any territory.  And so we just started getting called into the Great Basin.  Planes would just show up and operate a bit under the radar.  We’d go out and people would say, Oh, you’re a resource.  I want to use you.  People on planes would just wind up in the system and were sort of marauding around, trying to get on fires wherever they could.  Someone equated that with being pirates out there looking for fortune, looking for work

The Jolly Roger

because we didn’t have a chunk of land.  We filled in and took what no one else would, what no one else wanted.  That’s why we have the Jolly Roger.  People still love to get lost in the system.”

It’s amazing, I think, what can fall from the sky.

 

 

 

‘A Week In Fire’ ~ Monday ~ Smokejumping and the hub

National Interagency fire Center

The entrance to the National Interagency Fire Center is simple.  There’s a sign, some chain link fence, a small hut where a guard gives out visitor passes and makes sure you’re expected, but if you didn’t know any better you would think this gate behind a hotel at the Boise, Idaho, airport is the side entrance to something else.  The entrance does not call attention to itself, does not even hint at themes of heroism, sacrifice, grandeur or catastrophe.

In the fire world this makes perfect sense.

I meet Don Smurthwaite, Chief of External Affairs for the Bureau of Land Management’s NIFC office, in the lobby of the Jack Wilson building.  He’s going to give me a tour and introduce me around.  The site covers fifty-five acres, holds more than eight different federal and state agencies, and there are people to meet.  Depending on the needs of the season, anywhere from 550 to 800 people work here.  If you count the people just moving through, those numbers can double.

Early arrivals at morning briefing

We have a short time before the morning briefing and decide to run over to the smokejumpers’ building.  Smokejumpers are the elite of the firefighting world.  They jump out of airplanes only 3000 feet above the ground, with more than 125 pounds of extra equipment strapped to their bodies.  More equipment is dropped near to them, and then they pack all of it through rough terrain to fight a fire.  A group of Alaskan smokejumpers is on site, getting ready to deploy somewhere in the lower forty-eight.  Like hot-shot crews, smokejumpers are considered national-level assets.  They have home regions, but they can be deployed anywhere.

On the way out the door we meet a fire crew from northern California entering the building.  Their gray t-shirts read Scott Valley Fly Crew.  Introductions are easy, and soon Don and I are talking with Ryan Regelin and Jeff Lambert.  They are coming off a twenty-one day deployment, a standard length of time for fire crews.   They’ve been to Springvale, Utah, Big Piney, WY, back to Boise, then over to Pocatello, Idaho, for two fires. When I ask if they are ready to go home, Ryan says, “Yeah, but I like work.  I’d never been to Idaho or Wyoming before.”

In the fire world, the work is hard and dangerous.  The scenery is stunning.  People and equipment are moved around the country, prepositioned or responding to threats, and the result is a community where openness is as natural as breathing.  You might think firefighters have tremendous and selfish egos.  Nothing is farther from the truth.  There is loss in firefighting, and humility is the effect.

Memorial walkway

A wildland firefighter’s memorial fills a bit of land behind the Jack Wilson building.  A sidewalk shaped like a purple ribbon is bordered by nearly three hundred monuments to men and women who have died fighting fires, or who have made significant contributions to the effort.  Small stones shaped like hearts rest on nearly every one.  Some have flags, caps, pictures, toy helicopters.  All the vegetation is great basin and intermountain grass.  “We wanted it to look like a wild setting,” Don says.  “We didn’t want any manicured lawns or ornamentals.  This is what they would have seen in the field.”  Most of the markers are for individuals.  Some are for entire teams.

The smoke jumper building is fronted by racks holding more than a dozen bicycles.  In the lobby, a mannequin sports a full jump suit, pack and helmet. In a meeting room the guys

Memorial

from Fairbanks sit at a table, some on a bench by the wall, and go over booklets detailing new radio protocols, different tones for different parts of the west, different rules for talking to each other or to airplanes, and they go over equipment such as large and small chainsaws.

When the meeting breaks, I ask what the season has been like in Alaska.  Chris Silks, the old man of the group, tall with impressive mutton-chop sideburns and twenty-two years of experience, replies.  “Pretty good jumper season.  Lots of small fires that burned deep.

Chris Silks

Lots of remote western fires that didn’t turn into large project fires.”  We talk about his history fighting fires, and Don asks him why he keeps coming back.  “The job,” he says.  “The adventure and the people.  The lifestyle is very seductive.”

Joe Wyatt is the Senior Smokejumper at NIFC.  He gives me a tour of the Loft, where the parachutes are cleaned, repaired, repacked, and where nearly every strap and harness is custom made.  Chutes hang from the ceiling to dry.  He shows me how canopies are rigged and packed, the tremendous detail in every step.  And he shows me how to put on a jump suit.  They look like heavy winter coats and pants.

Joe Wyatt

There are hockey pads on the inside, pockets for a sleeping pad, survival gear, food, a first-aid kit, an emergency shelter.  It’s heavy and hot, and you have to be able to put it all on, every bit of it, in less than two minutes.  Any slower and you wash out of the program.

The morning briefing takes place in a conference room on the second floor.  It’s a gathering of bosses and experts, each one in charge of their part of the agency on site.  It’s the result of several hours of work already this morning—many people come in between five and six in the morning–and it’s a gathering of equals.  Almost by law, they work to consensus.  This is NMAC, the National Multiagency Coordination group, which is more or less the thing that makes the NICC, the National Interagency Coordination Center, work.  Chuck Wamack, the NICC manager, leads the meeting.  Near him at the long conference table sits John Segar, US Fish and Wildlife Service Chief; Bill Kaage, National Park Service’s Chief of the Branch of Wildland Fire; Ed Delgato, Manager of Predictive Services, John Glenn, Chief of Fire Operations for the Bureau of Land Management Fire & Aviation Directorate, and others.  Every agency and geographic area has a seat at the table.

The room has a multi-media screen, extra seating by the wall and in the back for the

Multimedia screen

sometimes large audience that needs the information.  Today there are people from the military, external affairs, a photographer from Newsweek, and more.

Weather is the first topic.  Maps come up on the screen showing areas of low and high pressure, humidities, fuel conditions.  Ed Delgato describes the outlook.  A low pressure system off the coast of Oregon is producing a steep gradient on the eastern side, which means strong winds to fan small flames into large ones.  Moisture is moving east, but there is drying behind it.  Hurricane Fabio is going to get sheared off and die, but its moisture is going to get sucked up into the southwest and then central Rockies.    There will be thunderstorms, but they will have high bases which means low moisture.

“The keywords today,” Wamack says, “are Creeping, Minimal, and Precipitation.”

The weather prediction gets a good deal more specific.  More detailed maps appear on the screen.  Ignition Potential is down.  But Energy Release Components are going to rise.  The 1000 hour forecast includes moisture, but nowhere near a season ending event.  The heavy fuels, the timber, at high elevations seem to be in good shape.  The fine fuels, the smaller trees and brush and grass at lower elevations are going to dry and become an issue.

“We’re in a lull,” someone says.  “But only that.”

After the weather, the talk turns to resources.  The VLAT—Very Large Air Tanker, a DC-10—has been moved to California.  The Rocky Mountain area wants two Heavy Tankers in addition to the MAFFS—Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, Air Force C-130s—deployed yesterday.    Wamack goes around the table and asks what issues others may want discussed and there are very few.  Then he suggests they move the national preparedness level from PL4 to PL3.  This is not a small issue in that it will change how the entire nation handles its firefighting resources, and it is a step toward a more relaxed readiness.  But the numbers from the field do not match the criteria for PL4.  No one disagrees.  It’s not difficult to move back to PL4 or even PL5.  But that’s not where we are.

Without ceremony, the meeting ends and everyone goes back to their tasks.  Nearly everyone has a telephone on their desk and a cell phone in their pocket, and both of them ring.  This is the whole nation’s firefighting center.  I keep thinking the whole thing should lapse into organizational chaos.  All it would take is one person with a real turf-issue.  But without exception, every person has front line fire experience.  Every person has personal history and gut-deep understanding of what’s going on in the field.  The federal agencies do not compete here.  It’s not a world where the question is “What do you want from me?”  It’s a world where the question is “What can I bring to the table?”

After the briefing, Don and I head back to the smokejumpers building before visiting the tanker base.  I have more questions for Joe.  On the way, I ask Don what he thinks about

Smokejumpers building

the rest of the summer.  “There is a pensiveness in the air,” he says.  “People in the area, people who have a lot of experience, say this could be a very difficult fire season.  We’ve had three seasons in a row that have been relatively quiet.”

A Week In Fire ~ Sunday

Today is a driving day.  Billings to Boise, more than six hundred miles of timber and desert, sage and larch, mountain and prairie.  I cannot linger or go hiking, but I want to see this land at ground level.  This is the western landscape that burns when the fires come, and I want it to be close.

This is Sunday morning, early, and as I pass the exit that would lead me towards Red Lodge and then the Bear Tooth Pass, the day is overcast but the clouds are not thick, a few showers in the distance, the mountains obscured in the shadows.  Rain would be good today, I think.  Rain would help a good many things.

Not twenty minutes west of Billings, passing a highway rest stop, I see my first fire-scarred hill.  This is an old site—the grasses have come back—but the remaining timber is bare and charred.

A visual history

I pass another site, and then another.  Never more than five minutes between them, these are only what I can see from the Interstate Highway.

This is a day for remembering.  1988 is not so far into the past that the fire in Yellowstone has faded.  It was larger than our ability to imagine it.  Nine thousand fire fighters.  Four thousand soldiers.  The place was ripe with fuel and the fires burned for months, until the rains of autumn.  The Waldo Canyon and Colorado Springs fire was just three weeks ago.  More than 32,000 people evacuated.  I remember fire drills in my elementary school.   I remember leaping out of bed when a fading battery caused a home fire detector to wail.  And I remember the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.  One small moment of forgetting and the whole city burns.

A difficult road

What morning clouds there were have moved or burned away.  The day is bright and growing toward hot.  Climbing up the hill toward the pass west of Livingston, I am surprised and then worried when I see a plume of black smoke rise from behind a hilltop.  Then I am relieved when I see the smoke is the exhaust of a locomotive struggling up the same hill.

South of Bozeman I’m in the Gallatin National Forest heading toward West Yellowstone.  Sagebrush and grass have given away to larch and pine.  The openness of the American steppe has transformed into close valleys and canyons.  It’s all very pretty.  In the Gallatin River, fly fishers cast for trout and pause when bright yellow rafts filled with helmeted white-water adventure seekers pass by.  Yet the slopes here, the loose rock and soil, would give real pause to fire fighters.  This is ground that wants to tip you over and make you fall.  This is ground that will slide under your feet and move you toward the cliff.  The air is thick with the smell of pine.  When I pass a campground, the smell of woodsmoke is just as thick.

Near West Yellowstone

When I near the town of West Yellowstone, Smokey the Bear holds a roadside notice for my attention.  The Fire Danger is High today.  I turn west, and just east of Ashton, Idaho, I pass a highway Geological Marker.  The title of this one: Volcanic Calderas.  If it’s not one type of fire, I think, then it’s another.

I almost forget.  The day is warm and pleasant.  The traffic is light.  Then just west of Pocatello, near a spot called Massacre Rocks, I come upon the site of a recent grass fire.  More black earth.

Massacre Rocks exit

If there is adventure today, it happens east of Wendell, Idaho, just after four in the afternoon.  I have been watching a plume of white smoke in the distance.  Gravel road, I think.  But the smoke does not travel.  It rises, forms a column, and grows.  Spurts of black smoke rise within it.  This is a fire.  I do not know what is burning, but this is fresh and there is an exit off the highway.  I hit the brakes and turn.

Down Idaho Street, turning right on Main, I pass the school and a city park, then a swimming pool.  No one seems alarmed.  The road changes into gravel, I pass an

“Report wildfires” sign

impossibly large dairy farm, then turn when the road ends, turn again when I need to get closer, race down more rutted gravel.  The road rises toward a fence line, a dead end, and I am only slightly surprised to see a full sized fire engine and crew backing into the brush and turning around.  They are chasing the same smoke cloud.  They need to find another way in.

I could follow them, I think, but I know I would be in the way.  I can see the fire site.  I’m more than a mile away, but my camera has a long lens, so I set up the tripod and try to capture the event.  Even so, I’m too far away for clarity.  Three fire engines arrive.  I still do not know what’s burning, but the flames are outside and the grass is dry.

Fire in the distance

Back on the highway, fifty miles east of Boise, near the town of Mountain Home, all the land on the north side of the highway is charred black.  I’ve been watching the fire maps every day, the large incident maps, and I’ve seen these fires erupt.  But a circle and a name on a map do not convey size.  The burnt sage and grassland is tremendous and huge.  It fills the picture until the land falls away into a valley.

East of Boise, Idaho

Fire an event.  It is also history and imagination and fear and experience.

When I get to Boise, I check into the hotel and walk to a restaurant.  A fire crew from the Sierra National Forest comes in after me and settles around a back table.  When I return to my room, I learn the Billings Gazette is reporting in their Montana Digest section new fires west of Ashland, near a town called Crow Agency.  Mostly scattered fires, each less than one hundred acres.  There was lightning in the area overnight.  And several firefighters working the Taylor Creek fire have been treated for sulphur dioxide poisoning.  Their exposure came from a coal seam.

 

 

A Week In Fire ~ Saturday

 

Equipment

Saturday morning begins in a garage at the fire base on the north side of the Billings, Montana, airport.  The day is already hot.  Crew members form a large circle in the bays for fire engines, standing under the second floor equipment cache, their backs against red wire cages with name tags for the personnel, hooks and shelves for protective clothing and equipment.  T-shirts and caps signal which agency they work for.

LeRoy Evans, an Engine Module Leader, simply starts speaking—“Ok, who has the weather report?”

A crew member across the room signals that he has the paper, and he starts reading out loud.

LeRoy

“Critical fire weather conditions are expected across eastern parts of the district today and this evening.  Gusty southeast winds will develop with gusts up to 40 mph along with hot temperatures that will cause humidities to range from 15 to 20 percent.  Thunderstorm activity will also increase with initial thunderstorms being dry….”

Morning ground meeting

This is the morning routine.  8:30 a.m., the Daily Ground Resources briefing.  At 9 or 9:30, the aviation briefing two buildings away.  No one has to ask what’s going on.  This is the news of what the day may bring.

LeRoy asks who has the lightning report.  Another crew member waves a sheet of paper.

“Yesterday there were 1,052 lightning strikes in the district.  One thousand and seven of them were negative.  Forty-five were positive….”

Positive strikes are five times more powerful than negative strikes and last ten times longer.  They begin in the top of the thunderhead and hit the ground several miles away, well outside the rain shadow of the storm.

The daily situation report is next.  Crew members nod as the numbers are read.  There is nothing abstract in these figures.  Every one of them is attached to a tree, a grassland, a home, a life.

Morning aviation meeting

After the reports, LeRoy gives the day’s assignments, who is going where, to patrol or work on fuel reduction, and then the meeting ends.

Because of its location, the Billings Interagency Dispatch Center is an important staging ground. It has the air base for heavy tankers and SEATs (Single Engine Air Tanker).  Heavy helicopters are also often here. It houses the staff for  Interagency dispatch, for the Billings Field office fire staff, the State Aviation and Fire staff, and the Montana state department of natural resources.  The building with the bays for the fire engines holds the local resources cache, while the large Northern Rockies Cache gets its own building a short distance away by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.  Fire crews sleep in tents or down the hill in rented space at the University.  From Wyoming and Colorado, up through Montana and the Dakotas, fire resources tend to see Billings at some point in their process.  Today there are probably two hundred people on site.  Two weeks ago, there would have been four hundred.  It’s the type of place that could dissolve into organizational chaos.  In truth, however, it runs nearly seamlessly.

Today, Billings is the staging ground for initial attack resources.  Everyone at the morning briefing knows they will be first.  Sometimes they arrive after the local volunteer fire department knows the situation is beyond their skill, sometimes they get there before anyone else.  Sometimes the public calls 911.  Sometimes they call the Fire Base direct.  Initial attack is the time when anything can happen.  It’s creative—a way to bring a lifetime of experience and history to a new crisis—and dangerous as hell.  The fire engines are equipped for three days of crew isolation and survival.  Today they will be looking at the lightning map and the available fuel maps and patrolling to see what might flare next.

Carmen

Carmen Thomason, the Fire Education and Mitigation officer, walks me from one meeting to the next.  She’s worked for the BLM since she got out of high school and has a college degree in education.  A great deal of what she does is public education and outreach.  “I tell everyone I’m Smokey’s secretary,” she says.  “It’s like managing a rock-star.”

She is also the human-caused fire investigator.  If there is a fire that seems to be caused by humans, she is the one who tracks down witnesses and suspects, who tries to discern how a fire was started, who passes the information along to the BLM attorneys.  “There was one time,” she said, “I went out to a site, looking for tiny black clues in a large black charred ocean, and I felt really bad because I couldn’t figure it out.  There was no lightning in the area, but this was way out there.  This would have been a very strange place for humans to be starting fires.  Turns out it was a coal seam.  Just this crazy coal seam that got hot enough, and the surface fuels were dry enough, that a fire started.  That’s not something they teach about in fire investigating school.”

Two buildings away, the aviation briefing begins with the weather and the lightning, humidity and winds aloft, slope and ridge-top winds. Ramp Manager Tyler Crofutt sits at one end of a long conference table, while Jim Hassler, Air Tanker Base Manager, sits at the other.  A heavy tanker from Saskatchewan sits on the ramp outside the building, a twin-engine “bird-dog” rests a short distance away.  Canadian pilots sit around the table and listen to the reports.  There are no calls for air support yet, but there rarely are this early in the day.  Later today, there could be heavy tankers, C-130s, and SEATs waiting in line to be filled with fire retardant slurry.  Those decisions are made in some other place.  The relationship between Montana and the Canadian airplanes is new and the rest of the morning works out procedures and decision-making.  So far this year, which so far includes a little more than 15 days, the Billings tanker base has dropped 331,742 gallons of retardant.  “Our job is to be ready for anything,” says Jim.

“What does your gut tell you about this year?” I ask.

“It could be bad,” he says.  “This year, all the indices say it’s going to be a pretty impressive year.  Then again, we could shut down tomorrow.  These monsoonal rains are supposed to come in late tonight through early next week.  But the growth is done, so all the rain is going to do is wet it down.  Then it will dry out and we’ll be right back where we were ten days ago, ready to rock and roll.  We’re talking to the engine captains who are here and they’re saying they’re seeing fire behavior they’ve never seen before. It’s unpredictable.   It’s burning hot and it’s burning fast.”

Carmen and LeRoy and Jim and I share stories for most of the morning, but in truth what we are doing is waiting.  Near Ashland, crews are ending their time on a major fire—a job well done.  North and west of here, local crews work to keep new fires small.  Crews from this base are patrolling potential sites, while others are cutting and stacking wood, removing fuel before the next storm.  But every ring of the phone could be the call that moves the huge machine.

Yesterday, on my way here, when I crossed the 100th meridian—for many people the beginning of the West—near Steele, North Dakota, just east of Bismarck, I saw grains and soy beans.  Clear sunny sky.  Cottonball cumulous clouds.  There was nothing to suggest a fire story here, or a fire history.

East of Bismarck by 20 miles, though, a haze grew thicker in the air.  At first I thought it was just summer haze, the soft focus of heat or, if it were later in the year, the dust of harvest.  But the farther I drove into this, the more I believed it was smoke.  Smoke from wildfires in the mountains now drifting slowly over the prairies.

You can smell woodsmoke.  You can feel it against the corner of your eyes.  The fires near Colorado Springs and the fires near Ashland are over, but they are not out.  They are contained, but they smolder.    This was not dense smoke—I could see through it to the horizon—but it reminded me that what happens in one place is never an isolated event.  The haze thinned, then came back even thicker.

A field biologist would tell you that grassland fires used to be essential.  They burn hot and travel fast.  They do not burn deep but they refresh the soil.  An historian would tell you about native cultures setting the prairie on fire.  Another historian would tell you about fires taking crops, and then taking farmsteads and children.  East of the Missouri, we do not think about grassland fires very much anymore.  The haze was an unexpected reminder.

West of the Missouri, it is easy to imagine fire on the brown earth.  Easy to imagine fire racing up the buttes and slopes and falling into ravines.  Coming into Billings, I spent the last hours watching storm clouds on the western horizon.  I could see rain showers fall from some.  I could see lightning strike from nearly all.

 

A Week In Fire ~ Preview

Danelle Chiefstick, from Rocky Boy crew No. 1, is among firefighters the Ash Creek Fire on Tuesday, July 3, 2012, near Ashland, Mont. The 320-square-mile wildfire jumped U.S. Highway 212 and triggered evacuations between Broadus and Ashland. (AP Photo/The Billings Gazette, Larry Mayer)

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?

This Tuesday, July 10, 2012 photo provided by Mitchell Marks shows the 1,000-acre Willow Creek Fire burning north of Livingston, Mont. Officials say lightning sparked new fires in southern Montana, including one that forced people from about 30 homes near Livingston. Park County Commissioner Randy Taylor says the 1 ½-square-mile fire northeast of Livingston began Tuesday night when lightning struck a tree. (AP Photo/Mitchell Marks)

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?

A helicopter drops water as it assists in firefighting efforts at the Taylor Creek fire 25 miles southeast of Ashland, Mont., in this photo made Thursday, July 5, 2012, and released by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Fire officials said most of Thursday’s fire activity was on the blaze in southeastern Montana, which was fueled by high winds. (AP Photo/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Gerald Vickers)

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,

In this July 7, 2012, photo, members of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management start a back burn while battling the Kinyon Road Fire near Castleford, Idaho. The fire has burned 190,000 acres.(AP Photo/Times-News, Ashley Smith)

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.