Oregon fires have burned about a million acres

An Area Command Team has been mobilized to assist local units in the state

structures burned Almeda Fire Phoenix Talent Oregon
Devastation from the Almeda Drive Fire in the area of Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon. Screenshot from video shot by Jackson County on September 8, 2020.

It could take some time to count all of the structures that have burned in western Oregon. What is known so far about the huge fires that have burned approximately a million acres in the state is the deaths of seven people have been documented according to state officials. Dozens more, they said, are unaccounted for, but many of those could be safe and are having difficulty communicating with friends and relatives.

The number of people that have evacuated has been fluctuating wildly. The Oregonian reported that the state in a news release Thursday night said an “estimated 500,000 Oregonians have been evacuated and that number continues to grow.” The half-million figure received widespread attention, but after an analysis by the newspaper determined that number could not be accurate, Gov. Kate Brown acknowledged Friday the true number to be far lower, about 40,000. She explained that the higher figure included everyone in some category of evacuation, including “Be Set,” and “Be Ready.”

Map heat wildfires western U.S.
Map of heat detected on wildfires in the western U.S. by satellites September 12, 2020.

The weather next week is expected to be cooler, with decreasing winds and a slight chance of rain on Tuesday and Thursday. This should slow the spread of the blazes and enable firefighters to shift from evacuations to constructing fireline on the perimeters. Up until now, a very, very small percentage of the edges of the fires have containment line.

Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said eight of the large fires “will be on our landscape until the winter rains fall. Those fires represent close to 1 million acres … We will see smoke and we will have firefighters on those fires up until the heavy rains.”

Three Area Command Teams (ACT) were mobilized Thursday to assist local units in suppressing the fires in the western states. One of them, led by Area Commander Joe Stutler, will be coordinating the efforts in northwest Oregon. The other two will be California.

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.

structures burned Almeda Fire Phoenix Talent Oregon
Devastation from the Almeda Drive Fire in the area of Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon. Screenshot from video shot by Jackson County on September 8, 2020.
Satellite photo smoke wildfires
Satellite photo showing smoke from wildfires at 5:17 p.m. PDT September 11, 2020.

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.