Grim day at U. S. fire cen­ter

Alaska and the West are burn­ing as fed­eral ex­perts try to coolly plan

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - With John M. Glionna john. glionna@ latimes. com Twit­ter: @ jglionna

The map on the large video screen at the far end of the room pro­vides a re­al­time snap­shot of the for­est fires rag­ing across the western U. S.

On this morn­ing, the pic­ture isn’t pretty. It’s omi­nous in a hold-on- to-your- seat way that casts a pall over two dozen fire an­a­lysts, me­te­o­rol­o­gists and for­est ex­perts. They see a grow­ing scourge of fierce yel­low and red dots, each rep­re­sent­ing a new fire, and they fur­row their brows. Alaska is burn­ing. The in­ci­dent re­port for this day, Mon­day, June 22, at the Na­tional In­ter­a­gency Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­ter — the nerve cen­ter for the whiteknuckle job of fire- con­trol na­tion­wide — shows the state at Plan­ning Level 5, the high­est pos­si­ble.

Sixty- four new in­fer­nos have been sparked since the day be­fore. In all, 12 large fires burn out of con­trol, with 2,000 fire­fight­ers al­ready on the ground.

In drought- baked Cal­i­for­nia, 49 new blazes erupted in the pre­vi­ous 24 hours. The Lake fire in San Bernardino has roared for days, and on this Mon­day is still only 21% con­tained. Two con­fla­gra­tions fur­ther north — the Cor­rine fire near Merced and the Sky fire near Yosemite — have closed roads and threat­ened struc­tures.

The fire watch­ers here at this wooded high- se­cu­rity com­plex hail from a pha­lanx of fed­eral agen­cies — For­est Ser­vice, Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, Na­tional Weather Ser­vice, Na­tional Park Ser­vice, Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice and Bureau of In­dian Af­fairs.

Pre­vi­ously, they met once a month to pool re­sources, man­power and ideas. Now they hud­dle daily. Soon they will meet twice a day.

Sum­mer fire sea­son is here, and this one prom­ises to be a doozy, in­fus­ing the com­mand cen­ter with the gravitas of the White House Sit­u­a­tion Room.

As a re­minder of the mis­sion, the walls bear graphic color pho­to­graphs of hellish fires with their Me­dusa heads, crack­ling front ranges and he­li­copter loads of re­tar­dant dumped to smother and kill them. Agency fire man­agers sit at a cen­ter ta­ble, con­sult­ing pa­per in­ven­to­ries of man­power and ma­chines.

At 10 a. m., Jeremy Sul­lens takes the lectern and the an­a­lysts stop work to lis­ten. Now 33, the wild­land fire an­a­lyst faces his 16th fire sea­son. He de­scribes a per­fect firestorm, the type that man­i­fests it­self only a hand­ful of times each year, a domino- fall of nat­u­ral events that has led to this day.

“I try not to em­bel­lish any­thing — I don’t want to over­sell it,” Sul­lens will say later. “But I have to sell it enough to make sure the sever­ity of the mes­sage gets con­veyed.”

And sell he does: The western U. S., al­ready mired in drought, has in the last few days recorded tem­per­a­tures of 100 de­grees or more. Now a se­ries of gath­er­ing storms pre­pares to throw light­ning strikes onto the arid land, like matches tossed upon brit­tle tin­der.

Al­ready fire con­di­tions are nearly a month ahead of usual. That means the forests, hills and plains across the West are blis­ter­ing like it’s late July.

Sul­lens switches to three com­puter im­ages of the West show­ing the ERC, or Energy Re­lease Com­po­nent, a mea­sure of dry on­the- ground fire fuel. The im­ages show con­di­tions from a week ago, this day and a pre­dic­tion of things to come a week hence.

The dan­ger­ous red ERC ar­eas grow larger with each im­age, like an­gry swelling around a sore.

Pal­try au­tumn and spring rains have pro­duced a thin layer of grass that fire co­or­di­na­tors call “fine fu­els” soon to brown out, cre­at­ing a per­fect lad­der for an op­por­tunis­tic blaze to climb to the tops of drought- stricken trees.

“It’s an al­ready bad sit­u­a­tion that’s about to get worse,” Sul­lens says.

Af­ter the sit­u­a­tion meet­ing, the man­agers hold their own talks. “This is how many re­sources I have,” the co­or­di­na­tors say, de­tail­ing trucks, air­craft and smoke jumpers. “This is where I need to move those re­sources.”

Those de­ci­sions are re­layed to the nearby com­mand cen­ter, a cav­ernous room with rows of work cu­bi­cles fac­ing a se­ries of com­puter maps trac­ing fires and haz­ardous con­di­tions, where the lo­gis­tics of fire­fight­ing are car­ried out.

Each year, 80,000 for­est fires are re­ported through­out the U. S., but only the largest are han­dled here, blazes that scorch 500,000 acres and com­mand the news­pa­per head­lines for days on end.

Randy Eard­ley, a BLM di­vi­sion chief at the Na­tional In­ter­a­gency Fire Cen­ter, says all fires — small, medium and large — are oc­cur­ring more of­ten.

A half- cen­tury ago, many large fires in Idaho that oc­curred nat­u­rally were con­sid­ered 60- year fires. Now many are back ev­ery five years. From 1960 to 2000, an av­er­age of 4 mil­lion acres of for­est burned na­tion­wide each year. Since 2000, an­nual burn to­tals have topped 8 mil­lion for sev­eral years.

In an of­fice down the hall, Ron Dun­ton, the BLM’s as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of fire and avi­a­tion, must make two crit­i­cal tele­phone calls: In­form swamped Alaska fire of­fi­cials they won’t re­ceive any more as­sis­tance to­day. And tell fire man­agers in the Great Basin, a swath tak­ing in parts of Cal­i­for­nia, Idaho, Ore­gon and Utah, to pre­pare for the worst. He picks up the phone.

By week’s end, Alaska will still be at Plan­ning Level 5, with fires burn­ing out of con­trol statewide. San Bernardino’s Lake fire will still refuse to sub­mit, and fore­casts will call for light­ning statewide.

On Mon­day, a few hun­dred yards away, in a com­pound known as the Loft, smoke jumpers pre­pare for word they’ll be dropped into wild coun­try en­veloped by fire.

The sea­son’s staff level is 74, but many are al­ready de­ployed in Alaska and else­where. With those left, there’s a sense of calm as men re­pair para­chutes at sewing ta­bles, await­ing the fire siren, their cue to check the board to see if their name has come up.

Out­side, on the com­pound grounds, stands the Wild­land Fire­fight­ers Na­tional Mon­u­ment, three 8- foot- tall stat­ues and mark­ers com­mem­o­rat­ing the men and women who have died fight­ing fires.

The 1- acre park was ded­i­cated in 2000 for the 14 fire­fight­ers killed in Colorado’s South Canyon fire. Scores of mark­ers have been added since, a re­minder of the gritty gam­bit that re­sults from de­ci­sions made here.

The in­ci­dent re­port for this day, Mon­day, June 22, does not in­clude this: At the me­mo­rial, a woman sits for­lornly fac­ing a marker of a son or daugh­ter, fa­ther or mother who went off to fight fires and never came back.

Randy Eard­ley BLM Na­tional Fire and Avi­a­tion

FIRE EX­PERTS from sev­eral fed­eral agen­cies at the Na­tional In­ter­a­gency Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­ter in Boise, Idaho, dis­cuss the sit­u­a­tion in Alaska, where 12 ma­jor f ires are burn­ing and 2,000 f iref ighters are as­signed.

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