Fire triage: Expert talks large-scale incident command

WUI conference speaker will give fire chiefs a behind-the-scenes look at Washington's largest wildfire incident in history


All fires start small — some stay that way, others don't.

The Carlton Complex fire in Okanogan, Wash. was one that definitely didn't stay small.

Triggered by four lightning strikes in the Methow Valley last summer, the fire raged for a month wiping out 260,000 acres — that's 4½ times the area of Seattle.

That fire destroyed more than 300 homes and forced a massive evacuation. Also left in the wake are a series of lawsuits and accusations of mismanagement against various agencies.

It was the largest fire in Washington history.

First-hand account
Unpacking the lessons of this fire will benefit any chief looking to be better prepared for a large-scale incident. To that end, Chief Bobbie Scopa will be exploring the command issues at that fire during the International Association of Fire Chief's Wildland-Urban Interface conference in Reno, Nev. March 24-26.

Chief Scopa knows a little something about commanding large-scale incidents like the Carlton Complex fire. She began her career in 1974 as a wildland firefighter, became a Hotshot, joined a career department and rose to fire chief.

She is currently the assistant fire director for operations for the U.S. Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska as well as the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon and Washington. She was part of the command team for the Carlton Complex fire.

The biggest issue chiefs need to control in a WUI fire, or any large-scale incident, are expectations, she said.

"Getting the resources wasn't necessarily the issue," Chief Scopa said. "I don't care how many resources you have available, the public perception is that the fire department is going to show up and take care of it."

People need to take responsibility for their community, she said.

"I've been involved with this for 41 years and I get upset when we kill young firefighters trying to save homes where the people thought 'it couldn't happen to us,'" she said. "I'm a survivor of a fatality fire and have strong opinions about putting people's lives at risk in order to save homes that the owners took no responsibility for."

Resource allocation
Part of managing expectations is managing the vast amount of resources needed to combat a fire the size of Carlton Complex. At the time of the Carlton Complex fire, there were several other fires in the region competing for the same resources, she said.

There were about a dozen large-scale fires and as many as 100 smaller-scale fires happening simultaneous with Carlton. Large-scale commanders review incident reports and resource requests each morning for each incident; they then must decide what resources go where.

"When the fire is running and doing things that nobody has seen before, the limiting factor isn't how many fire engines you can get to show up," she said. "The limiting factor is getting things organized and resources deployed in the right places with a good understanding of what the strategy is. We are never going to have enough resources; it is the rare fire that you are going to get everything you need."

Chief Scopa likens it to triaging active fires. And she was directly involved with that resource priority setting.

Controlled chaos
Because moving resources takes a long time and fires can change quickly, incident commanders ideally stage all of the resources in the geographic area that a fire may need early, as it is growing. And that doesn't just apply to crews and equipment.

"We got to the point where we were staging incident-management teams," Chief Scopa said.

"It's always going to be hectic," she said. "It is always going to appear to be disorganized. Even if you are the best at it and have 20 years of experience, it is going to be so fast-moving and so dynamic that you have to trust people to do their job."

That's made all the harder as you often work with people you've never worked with or ever met. That's tough, she said. There's no easy, magic-bullet fixes.

Pre-planning on parts of communities and departments can mitigate the incident management problems.

That was an incredibly complex fire in terms of management and fire conditions. It ran so fast that there was no way to be well prepared for that.

"Our success was that we did not kill any of our responders," she said. "No one got killed fighting that fire and that was my measure of success."

Visit IAFC to learn more about registering for the Wildland-Urban Interface conference

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