Following the Mountain and Silver fires, both burning thousands of acres in his ranger district, Dan Felix, San Jacinto District fire chief (U.S. Forest Service), got an unusual assignment. As a member of a Regional Incident Management Team, he frequently has to leave the local Idyllwild district within hours to help combat a large fire somewhere else in California or the West.
But this time he had some time to pack bags for a 12-hour flight to Fiji and then more layovers until he got to Vanuatu, an island nation further west than Fiji and 1,000 miles east of Australia.
From Port-Vila, Vanuatu’s capital, eventually he arrived at Sola Island in the Torba Province. Its population is about 300 to 400 and lacks many amenities, which are ubiquitous here, such as running water.
Felix was part of a team selected to instruct local officials and residents on how the Incident Command System works. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tropical cyclones and volcanic eruptions are the types of natural crises that might occur on the islands.
The ICS is employed throughout the U.S. for responses to many natural disasters. For example, the huge influx of assistance and emergency responders to Louisiana in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina was organized and managed through the ICS process.
Both the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Forest Service’s International Program had already been consulting with Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Organization, but this project required on-the-ground instruction and Felix was one of the team’s members.
Since the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region already encompasses Pacific Islands such as Hawaii and Solomon, the headquarter’s International Program office asked the local region to take on this project.
Trudie Mahoney, PSR assistant director for Fire and Aviation Management, headed the team and Mark Courson of the same office also was a member.
“The people were respectful, almost shy, but very interested. And during meals and outside of class, they were very friendly,” Felix said, describing his Sola Island audience, which included the police chief, head of the local hospital and many village people. While a small language barrier existed, Felix and the other team members used overhead presentations and made sure their students could understand the concepts.
Before the team left the U.S., Mahoney had suggested they consider bringing some small tokens or gifts. Instead of simply handing out his gifts to all during dinner or a ceremony, Felix decided to use his uniform ribbons as recognition during the classes held at the community center, similar to our Town Hall.
“I was surprised the next day; they were proudly wearing them, including the police chief,” he said.
Obviously fish was the principal entrée, cooked on an open fire. “But I tried a lot of what was served,” Felix said with a smile.
“We do about one or two trainings similar to this each year,” Courson said. “It’s possible that next year we’ll do the southern islands if funding is available.”
Course participants were from targeted communities in the most hazard-prone provinces. The program’s goal is to effectively and efficiently improve the management, mobilization and coordination of resources (personnel and equipment) during all phases of disaster management (preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery) and enhance local communities’ effectiveness in managing the initial emergency phase of disaster response before the arrival of outside assistance.
J.P. Crumrine can be reached at [email protected].