August 23, 2020 | 6:48 p.m. MDT
It is not very often that there are more than 400 crews or 25,000 personnel assigned on fires at any one time, but those numbers have been exceeded with the rash of huge fires in California and Colorado.
The chart above compares the number of resources assigned to wildfires today to the total number mobilized in all of 2019, which was slower than usual. The acres burned in the lower 49 states in 2019 was 39 percent of the previous 10 year average. And the fires in 2019 were spread out over months — there was no extraordinary sudden need for massive mobilizations like is being required now in California and just before, Colorado. When there is an almost instant need for 15,000 or 20,000 firefighters, even the best-oiled mobilization system can struggle to keep up with the demand.
(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the lightning fires in California, including the most recent, click HERE.)
There are only 16 of the highest qualified National Type 1 Incident Management teams that run the largest fires and all are currently assigned. If more were available they would probably be deployed as well. Some fires are possibly being staffed by Type 2 teams when a Type 1 team was requested. But most likely, they will do fine. (Correction: there are 16 National Type 1 teams, but some of the 16 Type 1 teams currently on fires today are organized at the state level.)
In the first three or four days after the lightning started August 16 in California we were aware of multiple situations on emerging fires that were severely understaffed by ground and air resources. On some incidents personnel were asked to work back to back shifts because there was no relief, and requests for engines, hand crews, air tankers, and helicopters were often unfilled. Those conditions have improved now that the system is fully geared up and aid is arriving from out of state, but there are still requests for resources that are unable to be filled (UTF).
One thing that is striking is that no Area Command Teams have been dispatched. This situation is what they are made for. None were assigned in 2016, 2018, or 2019. All three AC teams received limited administrative assignments earlier this year to help put together plans for the COVID-19 pandemic, but in three of the last four years they were not used on fires.
In 2019 the National Multiagency Coordinating Group (NMAC) which manages the AC teams was concerned that if they did not receive assignments some individuals on the teams could lose currency and qualifications in 2020. That issue may have been ameliorated with the COVID mobilization. But a person might wonder how similar pandemic planning is to managing multiple wildfires.
Here is how the NMAC described the function of Area Command Teams in a letter encouraging their use last year:
ACTs provide strategic leadership to large theaters of operation while significantly reducing the workload for agency administrators and fire management staff. Common roles of ACTs typically include facilitating Incident Management Team (IMT) transitions, in-briefings, and closeouts. Additionally, ACTs coordinate with agency administrators, fire staffs, geographic areas, and MAC groups on complexity analysis, implementation of objectives and strategies, setting priorities for the allocation of critical resources, and facilitating the effective use of resources within the area.