'War room' type effort places firefighting assets

Flames eat through the second story of a home in Colorado as a car sits in the driveway. In the background, an entire neighborhood glows orange as it goes up in flames.

A wall of fire consumes the front of a home as a lone firefighter futilely blasts it with water.

A heavy air tanker working to slow the flames is dwarfed as a massive plume of smoke looms in the background.

The dramatic images provide just a glimpse of this year's fire season — one that has broken records in New Mexico, forced thousands of people to flee their homes in Colorado and left a black scar across more than 1.8 million acres of the nation's forests.

"It's been characterized that fire is war, and I suppose in a sense it can be characterized like that," said Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service.

Holed up in makeshift war rooms packed into school gymnasiums or nondescript warehouses on the fringes of wildfires burning around the West, incident commanders spend nearly every waking hour huddled around big maps, looking at computer screens or glued to the radio, trying to plot their next move.

Their decisions come after pouring over intelligence that's flooding in from crew leaders on the fire lines, weather forecasters, fuels analysts and experts who know the terrain.

Elsewhere, teams of specialists surrounded by computers, monitors tuned into the news and maps smooth out the logistics of shuffling firefighters and equipment around the country. They tap into databases that list the nation's resources and every firefighter who's qualified to fight wildfires.

There are thousands of firefighters on the front lines, from Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona to Utah and Montana. Hundreds of engines, air tankers and helicopters have been mobilized.

"We've got competition for firefighting assets, but we're still at a point where we've got lots of available assets to mix and match on individual incidents," Harbour told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

It didn't feel that way Friday in Utah, where fire commanders battling six wildfires in that state said a shortage of crews and air support left the largest of the blazes with only three ground crews.

"With so many fires out here," said fire investigator Brandon Jensen, "we can't get the resources to fight these fires the way we'd like."

The National Interagency Fire Center on Wednesday ratcheted up the nation's wildfire preparedness level to the second highest level. There are five levels in all, and ever since it hit No. 3, staffers say it's been "a beehive of activity."

This makes for only the third time in the last 20 years the nation has reached this level by late June, with the others coming in 2008 and 2002.

"This is one of the busier June's we've had in quite a while," said Kari Boyd-Peak, a NIFC spokeswoman in Boise, Idaho. She said that while all resources requested are currently being provided to tackle existing fires, shortages can't be ruled out if the weather doesn't cooperate.

"If conditions stay this way, and we get more fires, and these get worse, we could get to that point soon," she said.

Of roughly 15,000 firefighting personnel nationwide — including everyone from the people on crews digging the actual fire lines to public information officers — more than 10,400 have been deployed.

Colorado's High Park Fire in Larimer County, where flames have destroyed 259 homes, is requiring more than 1,100 personnel and 79 fire engines, along with aircraft. Another 1,100 firefighters are working on the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, where almost 350 homes were estimated lost.

The Forest Service on Friday was also training a Fort Carson Army battalion to serve as firefighters to boost the number of crews available nationwide.

In New Mexico, more than 200 firefighters continue working on record-setting blazes that have been burning for weeks — one that has destroyed more than 240 homes and another that has blackened 465 square miles.

Despite some criticism, Harbour said the U.S. Forest Service has been working to position resources where they're needed most.

There's a difference between what incident commanders want and what they need to fight a fire effectively, he said. For example, a commander's order for 10 hot shot crews — among the most elite firefighters — might be filled instead with a mix of hot shots and initial attack crews, which can be just as formidable but with less experience.

Nineteen large air tankers, 170 helicopters and a number of single-engine air tankers are assigned to wildfires across the region. A large DC-10 air tanker capable of carrying 11,700 gallons of fire retardant is also on call, and four military C-130 tankers are positioned to cover the blazes burning near Colorado Springs and Fort Collins as well as the entire Front Range if more fires break out.

To date, the C-130 tankers have dropped 138,400 gallons of retardant in the region. Their focus has been the Waldo Canyon Fire.

On Friday, the U.S. Forest Service activated the four remaining C-130 tankers to help in Colorado and elsewhere.

Overall, there have been fewer fires and less acreage burned for the first six months of the year than there was for the same period last year. Some states are seeing fires earlier this year, but Harbour said there are resources in reserve.

"With over 10,000 firefighters in the Forest Service and the ability to get over 700 aircraft of all types, we're feeling cautiously confident when you look at the season as a whole," he said.

Once an incident commander, Harbour said he understands the urgency felt by the firefighters and the heartache of residents who are watching their homes burn.

Homes can be rebuilt and more firefighters and pilots can be trained for future seasons, but Harbour said land managers and communities that border dry forests and woodlands need to get to the root of what's resulting in fires that are making 10-mile runs in one day or doubling in size overnight.

"We've got to ask ourselves why these kinds of fires are happening and why so many homes are burning," he said. "And we've got to remind ourselves that response — a good, strong, effective and aggressive response — is just one part of the triangle."


John Miller reported from Boise, Idaho. Associated Press writer Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report.


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