Q & A with the National Interagency Fire Center

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?

Sprawling over 50 acres, this regional command center is home to a partnership of nine land-managing agencies 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. Nevada now has about 57 more days of weather that helps fuel wildfires every year than in 1973. The Sierra Nevada Ally’s Richard Bednarski spoke with the National Interagency Fire Center’s public affairs officer, Kari Cobb, to better understand how the center runs, what challenges they encounter, and what the upcoming fire season has in store.

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

Cobb: The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) is 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 emergency responses, including floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, riots, and terrorist attacks. However, the center’s primary focus is on wildland firefighting. Agencies 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, sometimes scarce, equipment, supplies, and personnel.

NMAC comprises 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, a function of the Geographic Area.

NIFC became operational in 1969 and was initially placed in Boise instead of needing a West fire center. Initial fire management was done from the East Coast, which didn’t allow for the best fire management given the distance from one of the country’s most highly active fire areas. When it first opened, it was initially called BIFC (Boise Interagency Fire Center) but was later changed to NIFC in 1993 to reflect its center’s mission better. 

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 each federal fire agency’s fire management programs and partners, including the National Association of State Foresters, the U.S. Fire Administration, and the National Weather Service.

I toured the center in April and was amazed at the warehouse cache of goods. Can you discuss this and why it is essential 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 most enormous (80,000 square feet) and employs 28 full-time BLM personnel and up to 50 temporary emergency hires during fire season. They aim to support wildland fires and other 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 needs to surpass what the host/local unit can provide, supply orders are routed to GBK. GBK restocks supplies/equipment according to incident demand, emphasizing 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, and 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. These partners provide leadership, policy oversight, and coordination to manage the nation’s fire programs.

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

Six hundred fifty employees work year-round at NIFC, while the number of employees during fire season increases to 1,000. Due to its nature, NIFC is typically busiest during the pre-fire season, fire season, and after the fire season. Before the start of the fire season, personnel are busy preparing to ship out supplies and other resources for when the fire season starts. During fire season, these same individuals are working to continue supporting incidents across the country while accepting the return of supplies and personnel as early-season wildfires wind down and other wildfires begin. The post-fire season sees time spent restocking supplies, refurbishing equipment, and tracking missing paperwork or supplies.

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

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

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

NIFC’s significant 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 emergency response times. Each agency has a role, and each agency respects and trusts in the leadership of one another.

With all those agencies present, a wealth of resources must be available to the public. What resources does the fire center offer the public regarding fire prevention, mitigation, etc., and where can they be found?

Not only does each agency have its website focused on wildland fires, but interested people can also check out the NIFC.gov website. There is a lot of good information and links to other resources that could be of interest. Of course, many fire agencies (NIFC) also have social media sites that provide good data on everything related to wildland fires. 

The West has had a tumultuous and wet winter, leading to higher fuel loads in some areas. With this in mind, how does the fire center see this year’s fiyear’sson 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 vital factors that can sometimes delay and calm fire season. However, this same moisture can also mean more intense wildfires in southwestern Idaho and northwestern Nevada.

When lower elevations receive excessive moisture, it means more grasses and brush that can quickly burn once dried. So, although we are not expecting fire activity shortly, 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 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. When does the fire center begin assisting local agencies and overtaking the wildfire management?

Through the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) located at NIFC, we use a three-tiered system to dispatch resources to a fire: Local, Geographic, and 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 not enough local resources to be sent, that local dispatcher will send the resource request 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 cannot 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 (most significant and most complex). Once a fire is categorized, that will help determine the type of management needed. Typically, Type 5/4/3 fires can be handled by the local unit. However, once they’re there or Type 1, the local unit requests an Incident Management Team to manage the response to the fire. Cobb said they have a command structure when a fire is large enough to have an Incident Management Team (now called Complex Incident Management Team).

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

This story was originally published with the Sierra Nevada Ally on June 26, 2023.

Copyright Richard Bednarski
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