Interview: A primer on fire season with the ‘Pentagon of Wildfire Response’

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise brings together nine land management agencies to respond to summer wildfires. How does it all work?
A photo of a large wooden sign with text "National Interagency Fire Center"

Photo courtesy National Interagency Fire Center

Sprawling more than 50 acres, this regional command center is home to a partnership of nine land managing agencies all working together to meet the best outcome for people and land when managing wildfires. 

This is critical work in the West, as a recent report from Climate Central shows. In fact, Nevada now has about 57 more days of weather that helps fuel wildfires every year than in 1973. To better understand how the center runs, what challenges they encounter and what the upcoming fire season has in store, the Sierra Nevada Ally’s Richard Bednarski spoke with the National Interagency Fire Center’s public affairs officer, Kari Cobb.

Bednarski: What is the overall mission of the National Interagency Fire Center? 

Cobb: The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) serves as the nation’s support center for wildland firefighting. Nine different agencies and organizations are part of NIFC, and make decisions related to wildland firefighting and other emergency response situations using an interagency concept that provides the most efficient and cost effective response that best serves the public and cooperating agencies.

What makes it the national fire center and why is it located in Boise, Idaho?

NIFC supports many kinds of emergency responses, including floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, riots, and terrorist attacks. However, the center’s primary focus is on wildland firefighting. Agencies that are represented at NIFC share firefighting supplies, equipment, and personnel, which helps ensure efficient and cost-effective incident management. They work together to establish policy, exchange information, and train personnel. When the national fire situation escalates, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) is activated to set priorities for critical, and sometimes scarce, equipment, supplies, and personnel.

NMAC is comprised of an official from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and U.S. Fire Administration/FEMA. Depending on the National Preparedness Level, NMAC will meet from once per month to twice per day to discuss the national fire situation and allocate resources (fire crews, aviation resources, radios, etc.). NMAC is also responsible for setting the National Preparedness Level and prioritizing Geographic Areas (based on fire activity). NMAC does not prioritize individual fires; that is a function of the Geographic Area.

NIFC became operational in 1969 and was originally placed in Boise out of a need to have a fire center located in the West. Initial fire management was done from the east coast, which didn’t allow for the best fire management given the distance away from one of the most highly active fire areas of the country. When it first opened, it was originally called BIFC (Boise Interagency Fire Center) but was later changed to NIFC in 1993 to better reflect the center’s national mission. 

What makes the fire center unique?

NIFC is a place, not an organization. Nine different agencies and organizations are represented at NIFC and there is no single fire director over the center. NIFC is home to the national fire management programs of each federal fire agency, along with partners including the National Association of State Foresters, the U.S. Fire Administration, and the National Weather Service.

I toured the center back in April and was amazed at the warehouse cache of goods. Can you talk about what this is and why it is important during fire season? 

The Great Basin Area Incident Support Cache (GBK) is one of 16 National Incident Support Caches in the U.S. GBK is one of the largest (80,000 square feet) and employs 28 fulltime BLM personnel and up to 50 temporary emergency hires during fire season. Their mission is to provide material support to wildland fire and other forms of national/international disasters or emergencies. Inventory at GBK typically houses around $35 million in supplies and primarily supplies all wildland firefighting agencies in Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho, and a small portion of western Wyoming. On average, GBK issues over $60 million of inventory annually.

When a geographic area’s incidents needs surpass what the host/local unit can provide, supply orders are routed to GBK. GBK restocks supplies/equipment according to incident demand, placing emphasis on refurbishing durable used inventory to ready-for-issue status as quickly as possible and borrowing from [others] to minimize inventory costs. GBK is also responsible for shipments of all outgoing radio and Remote Automatic Weather Station (RAWS) orders to fire/all-hazard incidents, along with prescribed fire events, specialized training courses offered throughout the country, and including but not limited to other activities, such as POTUS inaugurations, D.C. 4th of July firework show, Burning Man, and Rainbow Gathering events.  

What government agencies reside at the center and in what ways do they work together? 

NIFC is home to the national fire management programs for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, along with partners including the National Association of State Foresters, the U.S. Fire Administration, and the National Weather Service. A Department of Defense liaison was added as a permanent partner at NIFC in 2008. Working together, these partners provide leadership, policy oversight and coordination to manage the nation’s wildland fire programs.

Photo courtesy National Interagency Fire Center

Can you describe the campus and what it is like during the winter and conversely, during the height of fire season? 

There are 650 employees who work year-round at NIFC, while the number of employees during fire season increases to up to 1,000. Due to its nature, NIFC is typically busiest during pre-fire season, during fire season, and directly post-fire season. Prior to the start of fire season, personnel are busy preparing to ship out supplies and other resources for when fire season actually starts. During fire season, these same individuals are working to continue providing support to incidents across the country, while also accepting the return of supplies and personnel as early season wildfires wind down and other wildfires begin. Post fire season sees time spent on restocking supplies, refurbishing equipment, and tracking down missing paperwork or supplies.

What are some of the biggest challenges the fire center faces?

When many Geographic Areas are experiencing high fire activity, the prioritization of resources and Geographic Areas can be challenging. And, depending on the weather and the outlook, it can change on a weekly and even daily basis. Making sure to provide support to all Geographic Areas so they are successful fighting wildfires is always a challenge and requires an understanding of the overall fire situation at many locations.

How about successes? What makes the fire center so successful? 

NIFC’s biggest success is the efficiency and ability of its interagency nature. NIFC houses numerous wildland firefighting agencies, each with different missions and management styles, yet every year, they all come together to provide support during times of emergency response. Each agency has a role and each agency respects and trusts in the leadership of one another.

With all of those agencies present, there must be a wealth of resources available for the public. What are some resources the fire center offers to the public, in terms of fire prevention, mitigation, etc., and where can they be found?

Not only does each agency have their own websites they run focused on wildland fire, interested people can also check out the website. There is a lot of good information, as well as links to other resources, that could be of interest. Of course, many of the fire agencies (as well as NIFC) also have social media sites that provide good information on everything wildland fire focused. 

I know the West has had a tumultuous and wet winter, which translates to higher fuel loads in some areas. With this in mind, how does the fire center see this year’s fire season shaping up?

The most recent outlook suggests much of the West can expect normal to below normal wildfire activity through August. However, like with any year, there are some exceptions. The most recent winter brought historic snowfall and above average precipitation in many areas, which are key factors that can sometimes delay and calm fire season. However, this same moisture can also mean more intense wildfires in parts of southwestern Idaho and northwestern Nevada.

When lower elevations receive excessive moisture, it means more grasses and brush that can easily burn once dried out. So, although we are not expecting fire activity in the near future, this could pose a problem later in the summer. Another area we are watching for potential above average wildland fire activity in July and August is for the eastern slopes of the Cascades in Washington.

Can you describe the management hierarchy of managing a wildfire? For example, the Dixie fire of 2021 started small, but quickly grew in size and intensity. At what point does the fire center begin assisting local agencies and/or overtaking management of wildfire?

Through the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) located at NIFC, we use a three-tiered system to dispatch resources to a fire: Local, Geographic, National. 

For example, when a wildfire is called in, it will be called into the local dispatching area. That local dispatch will mobilize local resources to that fire. If the fire grows too big for the available resources, or there are simply not enough local resources to be sent, that local dispatcher will send the resource request up to their Geographic Area Coordination Center (GACC). The GACC will then attempt to fill the request for resources with resources from all around the Geographic Area. If, for some reason, the GACC is unable to provide enough resources, the request will then be sent to the NICC (here at NIFC) to fill the order. The NICC will pull resources nationally to send.

Fires are “typed” by size and complexity, ranging from Type 5 (being the smallest) to Type 1 (largest and most complex). Once a fire is categorized, that will help determine what type of management is needed on a fire. Typically, Type 5/4/3 fires can be handled by the local unit. However, once they’re a Type 2 or Type 1, then an Incident Management Team is requested by the local unit to manage the response to the fire.  Cobb said that when a fire is large enough to have an Incident Management Team on them (now called Complex Incident Management Teams) they have a command structure.

Kari Cobb is the public affairs officer for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.


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