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Wildland Fire Leadership is Down to You. Yes, You!

January 15, 2010

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issue of On Scene

IAFC On Scene: January 2010

Over the past several decades, the fire and emergency service has become virtually everything to everyone. There are few, if any, response calls we don’t heed.

Why then, do so many fire and emergency leaders still say, “Who, me?” on the subject of wildland fire? While portions of the U.S. and Canada are more susceptible to wildland fires or magnitudes of extreme fire behavior, virtually every region of North America faces wildland fire and the rapidly increasing growth of the wildland urban interface (WUI).

While fire will always be fire, how we fight the fire, the fuel, weather conditions, actions of the public and the layers of resources are becoming more dynamic than ever—and it’s you who must be ready.

In the west, years of fire control have led to dramatic increases in ladder fuels, brush and trees that have now become a substantial fire problem. Fire commanders are facing hotter, faster and more extreme fire behavior than in recorded history. Climatologists continue long-held predictions that fuels issues, drought and other environmental factors will drive these types of fire beyond the western, midwestern and southeastern U.S. regions where they are typically found.

But the physical environment isn’t the only one changing. For most chief officers, wildland fire tends to be a seasonal risk that our suppression forces can train and prepare for each year.

Meanwhile, the fire department is engaged at multiple levels of policy, prevention and education efforts: from encouraging home owners to prepare their homes to be defensible to contributing to myriad other planning functions, such as working with urban planners to consider parameters that minimize risk and allow adequate egress during emergencies, to being up to date on the most recent state/provincial/federal response and administrative policies.

While the host of these activities can tax any department—particularly in these difficult economic times—volunteer departments can face further challenges. Preparedness efforts require additional training, planning and resources that may already be in short supply. However, it’s absolutely critical, since the toll of a 15-day fire on a community and department designed around responses typically lasting 15 minutes to several hours can be devastating if you aren’t prepared.

Wildland fires and severe weather events don’t distinguish between department types, political boundaries or regional distinctions. They tax responders’ closest force or automatic-aid agreements, move-up systems, communication systems and unity of command. Unlike a typical building fire, large-scale wildland fires bring private, state and federal firefighting resources with their own incident-management teams, priorities, air and ground resources—and contracts ready for your signature upon arrival.

If you’re not accustomed to wildland fire response, you may be surprised at how much who is paying the bill plays into response. There’s no time to say, “Who, me?” when a wall of flames is rolling toward your town, and a pen is your best defense.

Many local governments that have been hard hit by the economy are reducing staffing and reducing or eliminating training and will undoubtedly limit deployments to neighbors in need, which often drive up personnel costs for either the deployment itself or the inevitable backfill. While many deployments are reimbursed, many don’t cover the portal-to-portal costs and full backfill expenses associated with the deployment.

Likewise, at the federal level, fire managers are more assertive about expecting local fire chiefs to sign contracts that articulate everything from cost-sharing formulas to decision-making and resource-sharing parameters. Like everyone else, the federal government is trying to contain its cost of battling wildland fires, and unfortunately for us, we are part of their solution.

So How Do We Lead?

So with all these challenges, how do we lead—and prepare to remain in the lead of—our departments and communities in such an environment?

First, every chief officer should educate him- or herself about the local and regional wildland-fire management environment.

Who’s legally responsible for what and under what conditions? Who’s responsible for the costs of wildland fire prevention and suppression in the area? If faced with a wildland fire in your jurisdiction, do you know how to access assistance and what your revenue options are? Do you know how to access federal or state financial support, such as the FEMA Fire Management Assistance Grants?

In reviewing your local response plans, be cautious of assumptions that someone else will provide the only solution or resource. Understanding the global perspective ensures that if help doesn’t arrive—or arrives differently than expected—you understand the full spectrum of options and can maximize your limited decision-making time.

Second, maintaining a healthy relationship with your local, state/provincial and federal fire officials before the fire happens will pay huge dividends. The hood of your truck is no time to first have a discussion about who does what and who pays for what.

Third, maximize closest-force agreements with neighboring departments. Supplement this with strong mutual-aid agreements and well-tested regional and statewide deployment plans. Know what federal resources are available and under what circumstances they may engage. As with any natural or manufactured disaster, don’t assume federal resources will be able to swing in with immediate assistance.

Fourth, practice your communications plan to ensure operability and interoperability exist and your people know how to access and use the tools.

Fifth, embrace any defensive, education and prevention tool at your disposal to reduce your risk during the firefight and reduce the civilian exposures and evacuation problems. Programs like Ready, Set, Go! can dramatically reduce the complexity of the firefight and evacuation.

Lastly, network with other professionals to learn from their experience and seek better ways to accomplish the job. The IAFC’s Wildland Fire Policy Committee hosts resources and discussion boards online. The IAFC Wildland-Urban Interface Conference provides an excellent opportunity to learn, network and mentally focus on the wildland fire problem that is just around the corner for many of us.

The IAFC has been at the leading edge in the effort to gain local fire service leaders a voice on the national, policy-level discussions on wildland fire. But, if we truly want to enhance our ability to address this growing and deadly issue, the desire and ability to fully participate at a national level must be mirrored with the desire and ability to lead at the local level across the nation.

Chief Jeff Johnson, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, is the IAFC’s president and chairman of the board. He serves as fire chief and administrator of Tualatin Valley (Ore.) Fire & Rescue.