Chief concerns: What does the incident commander do at an emergency wildland fire?

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Editor’s note: Chief Hawkins uses an imaginary, but realistic, scenario to describe the thought process and actions of an incident commander during a fire on the Hill.

This will be the first of four articles explaining how a fire officer assesses, strategizes and tactically implements an incident action plan to combat a rapidly escalating, life-threatening wildland fire. We will take you into the strategic mind of a fire officer as we develop the story. A follow-up article will further explain what happens at a major wildland fire.

Mountain residents have experienced several life- and community-threatening fires with the 1996 Bee Canyon Fire and the most recent 2013 Mountain Fire and let’s unfold the fire story …

“911, what is your emergency?” the Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department dispatcher asks the reporting party. Frantically, the reporting party states, “I live on the west side of Idyllwild. I can smell smoke, lots of smoke. Wait a minute. I can now see flames at the base of the mountain. Please, hurry. Don’t let us burn. Save my house.” The dispatcher asks, “Please confirm your address.” The reporting party screams, “Double View Drive, almost to the Overlook. Hurry.” “We are on the way sir, 1230 hours,” the dispatcher concludes the 911 call. Using Enhanced 911 and a state-of-the-art, computer-assisted dispatch program, the dispatcher determines the street address, cross street, nearest response resources (ground and air) and much more.

The first alarm dispatch goes out, “Beep, beep, beep; Brush fire Highway 74 near the Strawberry Creek Bridge; San Bernardino National Forest (BDF); Battalion 11, Idyllwild Chief 6200; Idyllwild Brush (engine) 621, engines 72, 26, 23, 3172, 53, 3161 and 3162; Dozers 3140 and 3141; Bautista Crews 2 and 4; BDF Copter 535; Hemet-Ryan Air Attack with all aircraft (Air Attack 310, Copter 301, Air Tankers 72 and 73); time out 1232 hours.”

The Cal Fire/RCF Perris dispatcher confirms that dispatched units are now responding and directly communicates with the San Bernardino National Forest to ensure common communications, resources dispatched, unified ordering point, etc.

Throughout the U.S. and particularly California where it was originated following the September 1970 Fire Siege, the Incident Command System is used as the common operating platform for the command and control of all emergencies. The ICS is composed of these key management concepts: unity of command, common terminology, management by objective, flexible and modular organization, span of control, comprehensive resource management and integrated communications. ICS is to emergency management much like Windows or iOS operating systems are to computers.

The San Bernardino National Forest San Jacinto Ranger District Battalion 51, along with BDF engines 54 and 56, would arrive first at the fire near the Strawberry Creek Bridge. After a brief assessment or size-up, Battalion 51 determines that the fire is starting on the north side of Highway 74 just east of the Strawberry Creek Bridge in jurisdiction of the local ranger district. Although 5 acres in size, it could be a threat to Idyllwild in one to two hours.

The battalion chief confirms the initial dispatch and shifts the unified ordering point to the BDF Emergency Command Center because the jurisdiction is BDF. After mentally balancing the initial dispatched resources versus what he deems necessary, Battalion 51 orders the nearest two Type 3 engine strike teams (10 engines and two leaders) to a staging area near Oak Cliffs at Highway 74 below Strawberry Creek, orders the nearest four more Type 1 engine strike teams into Idyllwild to a staging area near Marion View Drive and Highway 243, and further orders the nearest eight more Type 1 fire crews. The BDF ECC names the fire the “Strawberry Incident” and the IC “Strawberry IC.”

Now, the strategic thought process with attendant tactical execution begins. The IC completes his/her assessment and determines fire priorities. First comes development and communication to all firefighters of the incident objectives. (Place an imaginary strategic containment box over the fire): 1) protect life and the communities; 2) hold the fire out of Idyllwild; 3) keep the fire west of highways 74 and 243, and Mountain Center, 4) secure the left- or down-canyon flank; and 5) don’t let the fire cross Highway 74 to the south. He creates Division A on the left flank, Division Z on the right flank, and Division F on the top or on the Idyllwild rim.

Resources arrive and are assigned to the divisions with immediate attention to objectives 1 and 2. Since wildland fire control is all about perimeter control along with structural defense woven into perimeter control, tactical containment actions are initiated on both flanks. These actions mean laying fire hose and cutting fire line (clear away the flammable vegetation) while working a pincer attack from Highway 74 up both flanks (divisions A and Z). Engines are deployed into the Marion View area of Idyllwild to begin the process of structure defense.

(To be continued next week.)

John Hawkins is the fire chief for the Cal Fire Riverside Unit and Riverside County Fire Department. He is entering his 54th year with Cal Fire and has served as the fire chief for going on 11 years. Chief Hawkins values leadership, fire and life safety and community involvement. He has been involved with the Riverside County Mountain Area Fire Safety Task Force since 2004. 

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