Fire team's inner workings can be as complex as the fires they fight

Mike Alvarez with a fire crew from John Day, Oregon, works on the Cougar Creek Fire on Monday. He and others fighting the fire are based out of a fire camp in Entiat.

ENTIAT — The Cougar Creek Fire began burning more than two weeks ago after lightning strikes north of Entiat.

It’s since consumed more than 30,000 acres in nasty terrain, threatening 300 homes.

Running fire operations is California Interagency Incident Management Team 5 — one of just 16 national Type 1 incident management teams. On Friday, command will transition to another Type 1 team, Pacific Northwest Team 3.

According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, there are 112 large fires in the U.S. For a national Type 1 team to be managing the Cougar Creek Fire says something about the level of difficulty firefighters face in Entiat.

“It’s a pretty complex incident,” said Incident Commander Rick Young, who leads the team. “Just because you’re fighting fire on multiple fronts with values at risk on both sides — like very expensive houses; we’ve got major infrastructure down here with some power lines that we’ve got to protect.

Young is in his 28th season fighting wildfires. Before Cougar Creek, he was in charge of the Carr Fire, the massive northern California fire that’s burned 181,000 acres, destroyed almost 1,100 homes and killed eight.

With 1,225 personnel assigned to the fire, the team’s presence in Entiat doubled the town’s population. Operations were based out of Entiat High School for about two weeks.

Classrooms are used for planning and coordinating, the gym is used for large morning briefings, tents occupy nearly every grassy patch on campus, except the football field. In an adjacent field, vendors contracted by the team serve firefighters food from retrofitted buses. Nearby, crews wash off in portable shower trailers, also contracted.

On Thursday, incident command moved to the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery to clear way for Entiat students returning to school.

The team is divided into five sections: incident command, planning, operations, logistics and finance. Representatives from area agencies affected by the fire, like the fire district and sheriff’s office, work closely with the command staff, as well.

Incident teams of similar and smaller size follow the same basic structure.

Command, logistics and finance

There’s the command section, which consists of an incident commander (Young), deputy incident commander, a safety officer, public information, and a liaison between the team and local agencies and officials.

Aside from overseeing team operations, command also works with local authorities to develop evacuation levels, in this instance, Chelan County Emergency Management.

A Level 1 is an advisory to residents that there’s a fire in the area. Level 2 and 3 advisories — be ready to leave and get out now — are issued via text to anyone in the affected area and door to door.

The difference between 2 and 3 comes from the severity of the threat, said Rich Magnussen with Chelan County Emergency Management. That severity is determined by Emergency Management, the chief of the corresponding fire district, the incident commander and fire behavior analysts.

“And we base our evac levels on that threat,” Magnussen said.

The logistics provide the support that enables the firefighters on the line to do their jobs: From ordering and delivering an enormous amount of supplies, to posting radio repeaters in the middle of nowhere so crews can communicate to contracting food vendors to patching up medical issues.

And finance works to get everyone paid, from firefighters to contractors.

Operations

The physical firefighting falls under operations section, itself broken into four branches: suppression, structure protection, contingency, and air operations.

Suppression is probably most commonly associated with direct attacks on the flames and construction of firelines.

A typical fireline at Cougar Creek is about the width of a bulldozer blade, Young said. Though many sections are hand lines about 18 to 24 inches wide.

In recent days, crews have used controlled burns to extend containment lines and stop fire spread. Sometimes they’re aided by aircraft.

At one point, there were six aircraft assigned to the fire. But where to drop the retardant or water? Simply put, “It’s got to be an area that’s going to help us,” Young said.

Retardant can be used as a direct attack on flames, but that really only works if it’s followed up by a dozer or handcrew because the fire will eventually burn through the retardant.

It works well in areas with light fuels, like grass and brush, Young said, or areas with timber that are open enough for the retardant to penetrate the canopy.

Or it can be used to help establish a containment line. Sometimes crews will do a controlled burn in a specific area to create the line and to keep it from spreading they’ll drop retardant along the edge of that zone.

“So if you’re going to use it you got to use it wisely because it’s expensive and it doesn’t stop fires by itself,” Young said.

Planning

The planning section is made up of nine units, from meteorology to fire analysis to mapping, which develops the often discussed acreage estimates.

Acreage estimates often change. One, because of fire growth, and two, because of a common phrase in wildfire stories: “better mapping.”

Initial estimates can be done as crudely as tracing the perceived perimeter in Google Maps and finding a figure, said Jon Hanke, a situation unit leader.

The most accurate mapping comes from physically walking the fireline with a GPS in hand, Hanke said. Though this option isn’t particularly easy in the steep, rugged terrain at Cougar Creek.

Another option, and the one used by Team 5, is to fly a plane equipped with infrared red over the fire. The IR data is sent to an interpreter who translates what the plane picked up and then puts that information online. A mapping specialist with the fire turns the online info into a map, Hanke said.

Because Cougar Creek is a Type 1 incident, they get an IR flight every night.