When a wildfire is reported through 911, the call is referred to one of five Regional Interagency Fire Centers (RIFC). Fire center personnel then dispatch the closest local resources with the capability of fighting the fire. The first fire fighter on scene takes command and conducts a “size-up” to report back to the RIFC.
The commander will then direct the firefighting action using the resources on scene and, if needed, order more firefighters and equipment to be dispatched. Most of the time, brush trucks and other high clearance engines can get to the fire in short order. Fire crews often hike long distances to access the fire.
Often, aircraft are the first on scene. Sometimes, a “Helitack Crew” (10-12 person crew flown in by helicopter) arrives and can get to remote, high-elevation areas.
Sometimes an “Air Attack” platform (a fixed-wing plane with a pilot and spotter) will fly over the area first and provide valuable intel on location, fire behavior and accessibility. This plane is also in place as an airborne traffic control point for planes and helicopters working on the fire. Helicopter bucket ships are another valuable aerial firefighting resource and can drop anywhere from 100 to more than 2,000 gallons of water or fire retardant. Air tankers including Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) and Heavy Air Tankers (Heavies) drop a fire retardant mixture that slows the progress of fire in light to medium fuels.
A wildfire typically begins as a “Type 5” incident. This “typing” classifies the fire into a standardized scale of complexity with 5 being least complex and 1 being most complex.
A “complexity analysis” is performed within the first few hours of the fire’s start in order to determine the type of management structure needed on the fire. A type 5 fire will be handled locally within a few hours and not involve more than a handful of firefighters. A type 4 fire will involve more personnel, but will still be handled by local firefighters and resources within the first day. Once a fire is classified as type 3, it will usually go beyond the first day and will require more management personnel. Firefighting resources from out of the local area will be dispatched and can number up to 200. Type 2 and type 1 fires require a higher level of skill, training and experience to manage. When a fire reaches this level of complexity, a pre-formed Incident Management Team will be given the authority to oversee the fire by the local city, county, forest or other agency.
All wildfires are fought with the same priorities in mind:
- Safety of firefighters and public
- Safety of homes, businesses and property