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 is continued from last week.

The air tankers have arrived and are assigned to drop aerial fire retardant along the Idyllwild rim pretreating the vegetation below the rim. The two copters are dropping water on hot spots to slow the fire spread and help the firefighters working along both flanks hold the fire. The Air Attack Group supervisor (airborne flight control tower) directs all aircraft.

Air Attack recognizes the threat to Idyllwild and requests the incident commander to increase the air tankers from the two initially dispatched to six tankers with the retardant carrying planes reloading aerial fire retardant at Hemet-Ryan Air Attack. He also seeks and receives approval to increase the copters from two to six rotary wing aircraft. Fortunately, no other fires are burning in Southern California, meaning that all requested aircraft will be available for response to the Strawberry Fire.

The threat to life and property worsens so the IC immediately requests Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire and Idyllwild Fire Protection District to enter Unified Command with the BDF (U.S. Forest Service). UC is like a corporate board of directors which collaboratively develops objectives, prioritizes activities and shares resources.

Within the IFPD, which is State Responsibility Area, Cal Fire is responsible for the wildland and IFPD responsible for life and property protection. The Incident Command Post is moved to Mountain Center. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol also enter UC. The Riverside County Emergency Management Department arrives, works with UC and develops plans for evacuations and evacuation centers. The sheriff effects evacuation while EMD continues coordinating all community threats.

Much of the fire planning has already been accomplished and documented by the Mountain Area Safety Task Force. Every responding fire officer and EMD officer carries the MAST evacuation plan. Responders are previously trained on implementing the evacuation plan in context with firefighting efforts.

As the fire fight continues, the IC recognizes that the fire will become a major fire and a very serious threat to Idyllwild, and possibly Mountain Center and Pine Cove. As such, he orders 20 engine strike teams or 100 fire engines and supervisory personnel into the developed areas to provide structure defense. A Joint Information Center is created at a school in Valle Vista. The JIC is multiagency and coordinated so all fire and evacuation messages are issued in a timely manner, consistent across all agency lines and delivered to the public, who deserve and expect the best in firefighting and fire information.

To deal with such difficult time-constrained wildfires, fire agencies provide their personnel firefighting skill training, command training, ICS training and team interaction. Firefighters know that wildland fires are driven by the big three factors: fuel, weather and topography.

Cal Fire has published an operational training manual for wildland urban interface and intermix firefighting activities that best and safely define how structure defense should be enacted at fires like the Strawberry Fire. Firefighters previously conducted table-top exercises and field training sessions to ensure they can operationally interact with each other procedure-wise. They are prepared.

The fire, though, is burning on a hot, dry day. The fire has the upper hand until the weather changes. The fire is escaping initial attack efforts and will become a major fire. UC recognizes the threat. Evacuation is initiated.

Strawberry IC now estimates the fire at 300 acres and burning only a half-mile below the Idyllwild rim. The rate of spread is “Dangerous” (greater than 1 mph). The situation is worsening at this emerging major fire.

(To be continued.)

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.