We were hiking back to the trucks after bucking out a trail. It was one of those projects we’ve found ourselves being employed primarily by this summer, due to an abundant lack of lightning. But the radio came on. Dispatch wanted squad Bravo (our squad) and squad Charlie to respond to a new fire start. Hazard pay we started thinking. Hell yeah. Not building piles or feeding a chipper? Hell yeah! We enthusiastically got back, unloaded our gear, refurbished saws, grabbed a gatorade, and motored our way towards the provided legal.
I didn’t know I’d be the Incident Commander trainee until after falling the hazard trees. The thing was a quarter acre, smoldering, some old mans’ beard was torching near the ground, but mostly it was relatively inactive with 1-2 ft flame height. I was instructed by my sqaudee to abandon my saw in exchange for the role as Incident Commander type 5 trainee. I thought I’d be thinking “finally!”, but instead was filled with the impending emotions of responsibility. Running saw is tiring, hectic at times, requires endurance, requires the operator to look out for the well being of those around them. But running saw is somewhat narrow minded in comparison to being the Incident Commander.
On saw, you look out for how your cut influences the saw teams behind you, you direct your swamper on where to stand, when to hit your wedge, to fill up the gas; you decipher leans and the proper felling direction, which cut to use, where to put the face, and whether the tree is sound or not. On saw you maintain the machine, you sharpen the chain, clean the bar, empty saw dust from he air filter, check the spark plug, adjust the chain tensioner, tighten bar nuts, loosen bar nuts, calibrate the saw according to elevation, to the density of air.
As Incident Commander (IC), your influence resides in people, in the firefighters on your incident, the ones who drop the trees and dig the line and the ones who mop it up and bear crawl through, looking for heat. You’re assessing the situation: What’s the fire doing? Where is it going? what’s influencing it? What are the hazards? What can be mitigated? Who is on scene? Do we have enough equipment? Is there water to the fire? How much water is available? What’s a good anchor point? Where is our escape route and where is our safety zone? Of course dispatch wants to know all the ins and outs too. Are the resources on scene adequate? Are there values at risk? what is the spread potential? Who the hell is in charge of that fire? And as a trainee, you are given as much latitude as your trainer warrants. I was briefed as to what line had been put in, what hazards remained, our LCES, what Dispatch did and did not know, what resources were in route, and what was expected of me as IC.
During the next 3 hours as IC I learned a few things worth mentioning.
1). We had a few trees torch out and I immediately called for saws. While the trees were bucked, flames continued growing. We stood by for a couple minutes before the idea of water only a few feet away was suggested to me by the AFMO in a respectfully ”you dumbass” sort of way. I realize now how even the simplest, most straightforward tactics of our job can be forgotten by those immersed in a specific action (i.e. digging line, running saw, watching trees torch out). It is the responsibility of the IC to understand the importance of each tactic and how they work together, how they must support one another at various stages, and to not be bogged down by singular aspects to the whole picture.
2. As IC it is up to you to ensure everyone has a clear understanding of LCES, knows the mission and what you expect of them. With squads arriving on scene at different times, I had to make sure each one was briefed on where they would tie into, who’d they would work with, what the mission was and to answer any questions they had.
3. The IC acts as a middle man/ liaison to everyone on scene and some not on scene. Sure we want to stop the spread, put it out and get home. But we also want to work overtime. And we have to balance the demands of the fire, of dispatch, of resources on scene and those in charge of our district (the FMO’s and AFMO’s) who dictate hours and how big or how small our paychecks are.
I was mentored by one of the greats on this fire. By greats, I mean a beatin’ up retired hotshot supervisor, doling out his days as our overqualified prevention tech. He was the actual IC on this fire. He said “people are going to be giving you all kinds of shit. You’re going to have engine’s and crews and division and dispatch and all of these people trying to tell you what and how to do something. You’ve got to stand your ground. You’ve got to do it the way you want to do it. It’s you’re fire, you’re in charge.”