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Taking Command of the WUI Fire

Issue 10 and Volume 9.

What started out as a grass fire now has your entire fire department assigned, moving up or staged. You have the city manager on hold as you rush to get accurate intelligence on just how many structures were lost in the short-lived conflagration. When you established command, this appeared to be a four-company fire, but now you’re considering your plan B.

Social media is buzzing with both factual and erroneous information, while the news media is reporting what it hears from your tactical net, and they all want interviews from your information officer at different times. Today you have 10 minutes to get the word out or anyone can and will post an “expert” opinion.

Nothing will test your agency’s resolve as much as this quick-moving 200-acre wildfire running through a few suburban subdivisions in a two-hour push. The fast-moving wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire may have started behind the golf course and has now evolved into a hard-to-corral, multifaceted blaze that’s handing you your lunch. What do you do?

Inquiries for Aid

Automatic aid and mutual aid are your best friends right now. Do you know what you have available and in what time frame you can get it? Do you know how long you can use these resources? If you’re working with state or federal resources, what are their limitations and capabilities, and do they have any expectations or contractual agreements of cost share for the expensive aircraft and engine strike teams? These are reasonable questions that the agencies supplying your mutual aid will ask, as most extended attack incident commanders don’t have the authority to make these decisions on the fly.

Relationships are best made before the fire. A quick meeting at lunch or an annual resource roundup will keep the kinship between agencies alive and real. Annual operating plans take time to build, but they will answer these questions well before your mental capacities are taxed as a command officer in the heat of the moment.

Bulldozers, hand crews and aircraft are all working in concert with your engine companies on this wildfire. Do they all understand the leader’s intent and objectives? It’s imperative that all members have this information, and your responsibility is to ensure briefings are timely and accurate. You may be using old school paper-based incident command system (ICS) forms or high-tech tablet/computer systems that automatically push out key information and maps. Either way, ensure all members are receiving the objectives and proper briefings to ensure an effective and safe response. Using the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG) is a great way to get all agencies on the same page, especially utilizing the briefing outline on the inside back cover.

Remember that size-up is continuous and you’ll have to take time to share the updates on the incident as it progresses. Painting a succinct picture of the incident will assist others with their situational awareness and help them better understand the leader’s intent and objectives.

Ignoring planning and logistics functions until the last minute isn’t a wise decision. Tracking resources, mapping, radio batteries, communications plans, water, rehab, food and fuel are a few key issues that are mandatory for a safe and effective operation. You also don’t want to be the guy who has to decide if you need regular or extra-crispy chicken for your 100 box lunches while you try to coordinate a two-blade dozer line with an air tanker on Division Bravo. Delegate it to someone or own it. These are your only choices, and it is far better to have made them well in advance.

Outside Resources

Some evacuations have been done, but more are to come. Will your law enforcement be part of a unified command or will they support and function at the branch level? This is yet another great question you don’t want to dance around during this escalating incident. The key for evacuations is early response and it’s wise to have pre-determined and pre-approved evacuation facilities. Will you have the capacity to phase the evacuation? Are you considering shelters? These decisions are often made in the first 15 to 20 minutes of the WUI fire.

Have you provided maps for mutual aid companies with key features (hazards, safety zones, roads) for the area or an incident action plan (IAP)? Either way, these folks deserve more than a short briefing with a pat on the back. Remember: a good map is worth more than gold during this time. We have some great new technology and tools to advance our mapping and situational awareness, but they must be already set up and field-tested; this incident is not a proving ground.

Repopulation of an evacuated area may be two or three cul-de-sacs or an entire subdivision. No matter how small, this must be planned carefully, even if it’s only for a few hours. Your customers may have damaged homes, knocked down fences and incomplete utility services, often without any fire scars to validate them. Planning is essential; be sure you know what elements are required before you and law enforcement agree on how and why to repopulate. Where structural loss has occurred, sending key staff with business cards from your jurisdiction to meet with the victims when they come home shows a real concern and assists them in the recovery phase, which is part of our jobs as well.

Operational periods must be planned for. If you’re unable to put the fire out quickly, you’ll need to plan for a 6–24 hour period to continue the attack. You can’t initial attack this fire to death. It needs coordination and future planning to quench it. Do you need to order a Type 2 or 3 incident management team? Who has the power to order this and who is authorized to sign a delegation of authority? Today is not the day to find out. Make sure you understand the right people for your department operations and emergency operation centers. They exist to support this extended attack, so mobilize them early.

Demobilization is another factor to consider during incident growth. As strange as this sounds, if you haven’t built a plan with reasonable time frames and objectives, you really shouldn’t place an order for more equipment. As confusing as this incident is, you’re responsible to craft a plan to manage both a wildfire and a series of structure fires at the same time. You should demobilize initial attack resources that are worn out, in excess or needed back home while the incident is still moving along. Your job is to get the right resource to the right location at the right time. Release what is unnecessary or isn’t working well based on your objectives. The problem of too many Type 1 engines and too few Type 3 engines needs to be adjusted quickly or your fire will continue to grow.

Take Command

Command presence is an art. Your voice inflection, organizational skills and command of resources will set the tone for the incident. If you sound unorganized and wishy-washy in your command, lack of respect for authority will often end up on the fireground. Build an effective and efficient ICS and follow unity of command as a rule. Radio discipline is yet another art. If you’re explaining tactics on the radio, you’ve missed your opportunity. Use the proper terms spelled out in the national incident management system; this is not the place to try out new ICS positions that don’t exist.

If you have an injury, workers’ compensation benefits are an issue when county and state lines are crossed. Your employees are still your employees no matter where they’re working. Remember: circumstances may be different for your career, seasonal and volunteer employees. You don’t want to surprise anyone on your team after a serious accident with a failure to cover a serious injury or death during this fire. Most firefighters don’t really understand how their benefits relate to these risks, and many chief officers don’t as well. Benefits are like an onion-you have to peel away layers to get deeper in order to really understand them. It’s best to understand the policies, available services and applicable laws that could be involved in an incident before unwanted injuries occur.

Additional Resources

There are great resources to assist you in preparation for this extended attack wildfire. Have you considered a community wildfire protection plan? This will rally key members of your community to discuss how to prevent and prepare for wildfires. Another great tool is the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. If you’re a WUI fire agency, it’s in your community’s best interest and common best practice to engage in reduction strategies before a fire begins.

After Action Reports (AARs) are also key in learning how we can become more effective and safer as firefighters. It’s imperative to encourage informal AARs at all levels before units are demobilized, because it will likely be impossible to get these units and members back together. Follow the outline in the IRPG; it’s simple, yet effective.

Welcome to the world of the extended attack. Maybe you hoped your efforts to establish a fire-adaptive community and resilient landscapes would have prevented this wildfire, but sometimes we still have to suppress and manage the 2% of fires that escape initial attack. Understand and use the tools and strategies outlined here, and make sure to get plans in place before the fire starts … because it will be too late this afternoon.