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.”

12 Questions for Dave Nelson

Today we have the 13th article of our series in which we ask current and retired leaders in the wildland fire service to answer 12 questions.

We appreciate everyone who is cooperating with this project. Some of their responses may add to the knowledge base of our new firefighters coming up through the ranks. If you would like to nominate someone who would be a good candidate for these questions, drop us a line through our Contact Us page; and their contact information would be appreciated.

Below we hear from Dave Nelson. When he retired from the U.S. Forest Service Mr. Nelson was the Forest Fire Management Officer for the Tahoe National Forest in California. He was an Area Commander, and also served as a Type 1 Incident Commander on an Incident Management Team from 1975 through 1983.

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When you think of an excellent leader in the fire service, who comes to mind first?
I have had the privilege to work with many, but Doug Leisz and Lynn Biddison stand out. Why? Doug was the Line Boss on the Volcano Fire in 1961 (one of my first major fires as a sector boss with 100 farm workers and Lynn was the Fire Boss on the Wellman Fire in 1966 when I led a smoke jumper crew on the first jump on a Southern California fire. Doug was a well respected leader throughout the USFS and wildland fire management and was the primary supporter and mover on the “Safety First” effort in the PSW Region. Lynn was a well respected leader in wildland fire management throughout the USFS and particularly in the SW and PSW Regions. Both gentlemen continue to be active leaders in national fire management.

Dave Nelson
Dave Nelson

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment as an Incident Commander?
Delegate authority to your primary staff and hold them accountable – and pay attention to the details – especially the basics.

If someone is planning a prescribed fire, what is one thing that you hope they will pay particular attention to?
Obviously it is important to establish good parameters and conform to them, but most of our prescribed fires do not escape during ignition. Most escape after the primary burning phase has ended. Advice – pay attention to the weather and get out there before the wind starts blowing.

One of the more common errors in judgment you have seen on fires?
Pounding a rolling fire with aerial retardant drops.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
Really – I wish “I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then” – that we would ignore the basics like fighting fire at night, going direct, hanging in tight to the fire edge.

The stupidest mistake you have seen on a fire?
Keeping ground forces in camp due to light rain, but continuing to drop water and retardant from helicopters plus what I said earlier about using aerial retardant on a fast, moving fire – especially one advancing uphill.

Your most memorable fire?
Lots, but probably the Marblecone (1977) on the Los Padres National Forest and the Panorama (1980) on the San Bernardino National Forest as a Fire Boss and IC, but also the Bear Fire (1970) on my district (Big Bear) also on the San Bernardino while the district ranger.

The first very large fire you were on?
Alaska, 1956

Your favorite book about fire or firefighting?
Burning an Empire

The first job you had within the fire service?
Fire Control Aide for the BLM in Alaska

What gadgets, electronic or otherwise, can’t you live without?
I prefer to have my laptop and cell phone, but I think I could live without them.