Three Area Command Teams activated for COVID-19 pandemic

They will develop protocols and wildfire response plans for maintaining dispatching, initial attack, and extended attack capability

area command team

(UPDATED at 9:00 a.m. MDT March 18, 2020)
Three Area Command Teams  (ACT) have been activated in the United States to assist in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) finalized the decision to activate all three of the ACTs today, March 17. Wildfire Today was given this information by individuals closely associated with emergency incident management within the federal government but we are not at liberty to disclose their names at this time.

The mobilization of the ACTs was not typical. In fact, there was little, if any actual mobility. The team members will all work remotely, teleworking from their home units. Since traveling during the pandemic can be dangerous, especially by air, ensuring the health and safety of the team members was job number one. They will conduct business by sharing documents and talking on conference calls. Presumably they will take advantage of applications like ZOOM that use web cameras to enable multiple participants to appear on a screen at the same time during meetings.

Any time an Incident Management Team or ACT is activated they work for someone, usually a Park Superintendent, Forest Supervisor, or similar position.  They are given a Delegation of Authority that defines their duties and authorizes them to make decisions and take action in locations where the individuals would not normally have any authority or responsibility.

In this case the ACT’s delegation directs them to coordinate with Federal, State, local, and Tribal officials to identify issues related to COVID-19 and wildland fire response. They will develop fire response plans for maintaining dispatching, initial attack, and extended attack capability. The ACTs will also develop procedures or protocols for mitigating exposure to COVID-19 during an incident, and for responding in areas with known exposure to COVID-19.

The teams will work directly with each Geographic Area’s Coordinating Group Chair, dispatch and coordination centers, and local units to establish appropriate plans. The documents will be based on templates, striving for standardization while ensuring they address the concerns of the Geographic Area.

The Delegation states, “Area Command will work as a support function and not a control function, to develop Wildland Fire Response Plans as identified in the tasking.”

The teams will work under the direction and supervision of the NMAC through an Area Command Coordinator, Joe Reinarz, who is the Incident Commander of the Boise National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) team.

Area Command Team Mobilizations Chart

Several years ago the four ACTs were reduced to three, since they had not been used on a regular basis. The teams have been activated during four of the last ten years.

The work of the three teams will be divided by Geographic Areas. The Area Commanders of each team are listed below, with their assigned area:

  • Team 1, Tim Sexton: Southern, Great Basin, & Northern Rockies.
  • Team 2, Joe Stutler: Rocky Mountains, Northwest, & Alaska.
  • Team 3, Scott Jalbert: Southwest, and both Northern and Southern California.

Sexton’s team will coordinate with the Eastern Area Coordinating Group Chair to activate an Eastern Area Type 2 Incident Management Team to implement the taskings given to the ACTs.

Geographic Areas
Geographic Areas

The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group that made the decision to activate the three teams provides a management mechanism for national level strategic coordination to ensure that firefighting resources are efficiently and appropriately managed.

Typically an ACT is used to oversee the management of large incidents or those to which multiple Incident Management Teams have been assigned. They can take some of the workload off the local administrative unit when they have multiple incidents going at the same time. Your typical Forest or Park is not usually staffed to supervise two or more Incident Management Teams fighting fire in their area. An ACT can provide decision support to Multi-Agency Coordination Groups for allocating scarce resources and help mitigate the span of control for the local Agency Administrator. They also ensure that incidents are properly managed, coordinate team transitions, and evaluate Incident Management Teams.

National ACTs are typically comprised of the following:

  • Area Commander (ACDR);
  • Assistant Area Commander, Planning (AAPC);
  • Assistant Area Commander, Logistics (AALC);
  • Area Command Aviation Coordinator (ACAC); and
  • Two trainees.

They usually have an additional 2 to 15 specialists, including Fire Information, Situation Unit Leader, Resource Unit Leader, and sometimes others such as Safety, Long Term Planning, or assistants in Planning, Logistics, or Aviation.

Since the ACTs have been so rarely used in recent years, some of the existing team members are in danger of losing their currency and there have been very few opportunities to assign trainees so they can become qualified. Last year an Area Command course in California, S-620, graduated several dozen, creating a fresh list of trainees who need assignments. Most likely these three teams will have an unusually high number of trainees working with them.

National MAC Group encourages use of Area Command Teams

Some members of the teams may lose currency due to a lack of assignments

Total wildfire Acres Burned 1985-2018The use of Area Command Teams has been declining in recent years in spite of the trend of more acres burned nationwide and increasing average size.

In two of the last three years, 2016 and 2018, there were no assignments for Area Command Teams. In 2017 there were a total of five: Joe Stutler-2, Tim Sexton-1, and Rowdy Muir-2.  The number of ACTs was reduced from four to three in 2015.

The National Multiagency Coordinating Group (NMAC) which manages the ACTs, is concerned that if the teams do not receive assignments some individuals on the teams may lose currency in 2020.

Below is an excerpt from a letter sent by the NMAC on May 17, 2019 to Federal and State Agency Administrators:

NMAC is requesting your support with maintaining currency of the three federally sponsored Area Command Teams (ACT). These teams are a valuable part of our large fire management organization and have been underutilized during some of our most complex incident management situations.

Currently, within federal agencies (excluding Coast Guard), there are only three fully qualified Area Commanders (ACDRs) in the system. While the Area Command course, S-620 has been delivered this year, the lack of assignments may cause loss of currency of the ACTs in 2020.

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.

We are concerned perceptions exist that ACTs can be barriers to direct communications between agencies and IMTs. As agency administrator, through your delegation of authority communicating your expectations to ACDRs, you have the opportunity to determine the role in which ACTs can best serve your needs. ACTs are committed to ensuring enhanced communications between agency administrators, fire managers, and IMTs.

NMAC request the support of agency administrators to exercise current ACTs in 2019 if and when appropriate.

It is surprising how many large complex incidents do not get a chance to benefit from the help that an ACT can provide. Even in 2016 when there were many large fires burning in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina at the same time, no ACTs were mobilized. You might wonder if any of the fires, including the one that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee, would have turned out differently if there had been a group of highly skilled personnel looking at the big picture, helping to obtain resources, analyzing the weather forecast, and utilizing short and long range fire behavior predictions.

An ACT may be used to oversee the management of large incidents or those to which multiple Incident Management Teams have been assigned. They can take some of the workload off the local administrative unit when they have multiple incidents going at the same time. Your typical Forest or Park is not usually staffed to supervise two or more Incident Management Teams fighting fire in their area. An ACT can provide decision support to Multi-Agency Coordination Groups for allocating scarce resources and help mitigate the span of control for the local Agency Administrator. They also ensure that incidents are properly managed, coordinate team transitions, and evaluate Incident Management Teams.

National ACTs are comprised of the following:

  • Area Commander (ACDR);
  • Assistant Area Commander, Planning (AAPC);
  • Assistant Area Commander, Logistics (AALC);
  • Area Command Aviation Coordinator (ACAC); and
  • Two trainees.

They usually have an additional 2 to 15 specialists, including Fire Information, Situation Unit Leader, Resource Unit Leader, and sometimes others such as Safety, Long Term Planning, or assistants in Planning, Logistics, or Aviation.

Average Wildland Fire Size, United States, 1985-2018
Average Wildland Fire Size, United States, 1985-2018.

Firefighters are busy in the Northern Rockies

12 Incident Management Teams and no Area Command Teams are assigned.

The National Incident Management Situation Report (IMSR) shows 28 large fires in the Northern Rockies Geographic Area (NRCC), which is comprised of Montana, Northern Idaho, and portions of North Dakota and South Dakota. The screengrab below from the IMSR shows 18 of the 28 fires.

northern rockies geographic area fires

The IMSR and the NRCC web site have different criteria for reporting their statistics, but according to the NRCC they have the following 12 Incident Management Teams committed:

  • Type 1: Four
  • Type 2: Five
  • Type 3: Three
Wildfires Lolo National Forest
Wildfires on the Lolo National Forest listed on Inciweb at 10:43 a.m. MST July 28, 2017.

As you can see in the image above, the Lolo National Forest alone, which sprawls out in three directions from Missoula, has six fires larger than 1,000 acres plus three others. The workload on the fire management staff managing all those fires, procuring and allocating resources, and supervising the incident management teams has to be overwhelming.

In spite of this intense fire activity, no Area Command Teams have been assigned according to today’s IMSR. This is consistent with how the teams have rarely been used in recent years. In 2015 the number of teams was reduced from four to three.

Area Command Team ordered for southeast Arizona fires

Rowdy Muir’s Area Command Team (ACT) has been mobilized to the Coronado National Forest. This is somewhat surprising because ACT’s have, in my opinion, been significantly underutilized for the last several years.

The June 26 National Situation Report listed two large fires on the Coronado.

coronado national forest fires

The Saddle Fire, not listed above, has burned almost 5,000 acres 19 miles northeast of Douglas since it started June 24.

In the 24 hour period that ended Sunday morning approximately 392 lightning strikes were detected in the Forest.

National Forests R3
Map showing the Coronado National Forest in southeast Arizona and the other Forests in the Southwest Geographic Area.
Even last year when there were many large fires burning in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina, no ACT’s were mobilized. You might wonder if any of the fires would have turned out differently if there had been a group of highly skilled personnel looking at the big picture, helping to obtain resources, analyzing the weather forecast, and utilizing short and long range fire behavior predictions.

An ACT may be used to oversee the management of large incidents or those to which multiple Incident Management Teams have been assigned. They can take some of the workload off the local administrative unit when they have multiple incidents going at the same time. Your typical Forest or Park is not usually staffed to supervise two or more Incident Management Teams fighting fire in their area. An ACT can provide decision support to Multi-Agency Coordination Groups for allocating scarce resources and help mitigate the span of control for the local Agency Administrator. They also ensure that incidents are properly managed, coordinate team transitions, and evaluate Incident Management Teams.

National ACTs are managed by the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) and are comprised of the following:

  • Area Commander (ACDR);
  • Assistant Area Commander, Planning (AAPC);
  • Assistant Area Commander, Logistics (AALC);
  • Area Command Aviation Coordinator (ACAC); and
  • Two trainees.

They usually have an additional 2 to 15 specialists, including Fire Information, Situation Unit Leader, Resource Unit Leader, and sometimes others such as Safety, and Long Term Planning, or assistants in Planning, Logistics, or Aviation.

In 2015 the number of ACT’s was cut from four to three.

This year, besides Rowdy Muir, the other two Area Commanders of the teams are Joe Stutler and Tim Sexton.

Number of Area Command Teams reduced from 4 to 3

area command team

The lineup for the Area Command Teams (ACT) has been announced and the number of Teams has been reduced from four to three.

Jennifer Jones, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise, told us the reason for the change:

Based on analysis of Area Command Team use over the past 15 years, it was determined that 3 Teams were adequate.

An ACT may be used to oversee the management of large incidents or those to which multiple Incident Management Teams have been assigned. They can take some of the workload off the local administrative unit when they have multiple incidents going at the same time. Your typical Forest or Park is not usually staffed to supervise two or more Incident Management Teams fighting fire in their area. An ACT can provide decision support to Multi-Agency Coordination Groups for allocating scarce resources and help mitigate the span of control for the local Agency Administrator. They also ensure that incidents are properly managed, coordinate team transitions, and evaluate Incident Management Teams.

National ACTs are managed by the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) and are comprised of the following:

  • Area Commander (ACDR);
  • Assistant Area Commander, Planning (AAPC);
  • Assistant Area Commander, Logistics (AALC);
  • Area Command Aviation Coordinator (ACAC); and
  • Two trainees.

They usually have an additional 2 to 15 specialists, including Fire Information, Situation Unit Leader, Resource Unit Leader, and sometimes others such as Safety, and Long Term Planning, or assistants in Planning, Logistics, or Aviation.

This year the ACT lineup looks like this, according to the ACT website:

Dugger Hughes ACDR
Paul Summerfelt ACPC
Rich Rusk ACLC
Yolanda Saldana ACAC

Boo Walker ACDR
Jim Jaminet ACPC
Butch Hayes ACLC
Mike Dudley ACAC

Bill Van Bruggen ACDR
Joe Ribar ACPC
Martin Maricle ACLC
Rich Webster ACAC

The Area Commander not on the list this year after serving on ACTs for nine years (2006 – 2014) is Jim Loach.

Area Commanders serve for a three-year term, after which they can apply for any of the other three Assistant Area Commander positions if they wish to continue to serve on the team. They may be selected as an Area Commander for up to an additional 3 years, if there are no other qualified applicants.

Type 1 Incident Commanders are managed in a similar manner for the most part. Generally they serve for three years and then must re-apply.

We have been told that the National Wildfire Coordination Group has been pushing to “re-form” the Type 1 teams each year, with a yearly application and re-selection process. It seems to us that would be a detriment to the TEAM concept.

Wildfire briefing, February 25, 2014

Sign at the Myrtle fire
Fire Prevention sign at the Myrtle Fire in South Dakota, July 23, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Insurance companies cancel policies

Some homeowners in the Scripps Ranch area near San Diego have received notices that their policies are being cancelled. The residents live near the areas that burned catastrophically in 2003 or 2007, fires that destroyed thousands of homes and took 16 lives. According to an article at 10news, one of the homeowners said, “They canceled us and also several people on our street, saying they couldn’t renew our policy because we were too close to the brush line.”

Which area near Colorado Springs will be next?

Some residents in the Colorado Springs area are a little concerned about the vulnerability of their homes after the fire disasters of 2012 and 2013. Last year the Black Forest Fire just north of Colorado Springs destroyed approximately 480 structures, and in 2012 the Waldo Canyon Fire on the other side of the city wiped out 347 homes. There is concern now that the Broadmoor area could be susceptible to fires that start in the Cheyenne Mountain area. Fox21 news has more details.

Two Senators on the same page as President Obama about fire funding

Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have praised President Obama for proposing that wildfires be funded in a manner similar to other natural disasters. Monday the President met with most of the nation’s governors and told them that wildfire funding in the administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 would be similar to provisions in a bill introduced in the House, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 (H.R. 3992), which would create an emergency funding process for fire response. If enacted, it would mean the federal land management agencies would no longer have to rob dollars from routine ongoing non-fire activities to pay unusually high fire suppression expenses.

Tom Zimmerman lectured at the University of Montana

Tom Zimmerman, a former Area Commander and Type 1 Incident Commander, lectured at the University of Montana on February 20. He was the first speaker in the Mike & Mabelle Hardy Fire Management Lecture Series which was established through an estate gift from Mike Hardy, a 1939 alumnus of the School of Forestry. Now the President of the International Association of Wildland Fire, Dr. Zimmerman, had a key role when he worked for the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service in promoting, training for, and establishing procedures for managing wildfires that are not fully suppressed. In fact, he has the dubious honor of being instrumental in coining some of the terms for these fires, including “fire use fire” and “fire for resource benefits”. Below is an excerpt from an article in the Missoulian about his lecture.

“…Fire has a natural role in the environment and we need to embrace that and accept that,” Zimmerman said. But we also need to keep preventing human-caused, unwanted fires. And we have to understand that the firefighting tools we have aren’t designed to protect the thousands of private homes that now stand at risk of wildland fires.

“You’ve got to keep working with your communities to explain what’s going on,” Zimmerman said. “You’ve got to keep laying out the facts. But there’s a threshold to understanding, and I don’t know if you can keep that buy-in for very long when people are breathing smoke all summer. We talk about restoring fire as a natural process, and then you have one that burns five times as much as the plan calls for. You can’t say, well we won’t burn anything for the next five years.”