With resources stretched thin, wildfires requires some juggling 8-07

HELENA, Mont. (AP)
– Helicopters, air tankers and other resources are in short supply as wildfires continue to scorch the bone-dry West.

Fire managers say they’re sharing the best they can, but the onerous task of prioritizing the nation’s largest fires and doling out resources falls on the shoulders of seven people who meet twice daily in an Idaho conference room.

Known as the National Multi-Agency Coordination Group, its members represent federal land agencies like the Forest Service, as well as state foresters and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They look at everything from the size and danger of the fires to the weather forecast.

It’s a delicate balance, and one that’s increasingly difficult as fire seasons start early and last longer, with available resources shrinking due to tight budgets, military conflicts and other issues.

“We’re constantly getting requests for resources, whether it’s incident command teams or hot shot crews,” said Brian McManus, fire director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is part of the seven-person team based at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. “Right now the real issue is where are the resources needed most and what are our highest priority fires?”

By Sunday, 42 large fires in nine states had burned 900,265 acres, or more than 1,406 square miles. All but two were in the West. Montana, where the fire season started two to three weeks early this year, had the most fires at 19.

Last year was one of the most severe fire seasons. More than 96,000 fires burned 9.8 million acres, and crews from Australia and New Zealand were called in to provide resources, according to fire officials.

Fires have so far burned more than 5.5 million acres nationwide this year, about 1.4 million acres more than the 10-year average, according to the NIFC. And while international help hasn’t been called in, it could be in the coming weeks if resources are stretched too thin, said Tina Boehly, an information officer for NIFC.

“It’s manageable right now, but that’s not to say that’ll be the case if we get a lot of wind in a certain area,” she said. “A couple weeks ago we were maxing out our resources, and it might be that way again in another couple weeks.”

Regionally, fire managers are making do with what they have by sharing, said Glen McNitt, the incident commander for a large wildfire burning near Seeley Lake, northeast of Missoula.

That fire has scorched some 16,800 acres, or 26 square miles, in less than a week and has been threatening 1,500 homes and 100 businesses. For several days this week, it was the nation’s highest priority blaze.

Every night at about 6 p.m., McNitt said he and other fire managers in the region talk about their critical needs in a conference call. If someone needs a helicopter, for example, another team typically loans them one – even if just for a day.

“I think that’s allowed us to stretch our resources or use them more effectively than in the past,” said McNitt, who has more than 30 years of firefighting experience.

While he was concerned about the resource shortage, he said fire managers understand the situation and are digging in for what could be a long and arduous fire season.

“By the time we could train additional resources to get ready we would be through the fire season,” McNitt said. “I think this year we have the resources we’re going to have and we will continue to share them as best we can.”

In Boise, McManus and his colleagues follow a similar model at the National Interagency Fire Center’s headquarters – a 52-acre compound at the city’s airport.

The center, which employs about 600 people at the height of the fire season, is made up of the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Association of State Foresters, the United States Fire Administration and the National Weather Service.

It was created in 1993 to help coordinate responses to wildfires from Alaska to Florida and has helped standardize techniques and terminology to make it easier for firefighters from different agencies to work together. That allows for quick responses with cobbled-together crews.

The center’s buildings include a cavernous warehouse that is the nation’s main repository for firefighting supplies. With fire season in full swing, the center is shipping ready-to-eat meals, tools, crates of fireproof pants and shirts and everything else needed to keep thousands of firefighters going in the field.

Twice a day, the resources group meets around a long table in a first-floor conference room. They are briefed by staff members on the number of large fires, which ones are contained or growing and what resources are assigned to each.

They then receive a report from meteorologists trained to predict what area of the country has the greatest fire danger that day, or even that morning and afternoon if conditions are changing quickly.

The group looks at the dryness of trees and grass, as well as the potential for lightning storms – which spark the majority of fires – and high wind and other conditions that can fuel fire growth.

They then prioritize the fires and move crews and other resources around if necessary. The closed-door meetings typically last 90 minutes. McManus said the meetings are cordial and calm, despite the pressures outside.

“Even though we represent different agencies, when we step in that room our goal is to do the right thing regardless of land ownership,” he said.

McManus, 48, and other staffers are working 12 hours a day, seven days a week in the height of the Western fire season. And while it can be draining, he said wildfires are “my life” and have been since he started fighting the blazes in 1977.

“It’s wild and crazy but this is a wonderful place,” McManus said. “It’s a big family. Working with so many great people from so many different agencies, you really feel like you can make a difference and that you’re doing great things.”

On the Net:
National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov