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The California Wildland Fire Coordinating Group (CWCG) is the interagency body in California that helps arrange and manage agreements, develop standards and stand-up eleven IMTs each fire season to manage increasingly deadly and destructive wildfires.  These teams have a set number of members in the four functional areas:Operations, Plans, Logistics, and Finance. Each team member has specialized training and experience to hold that position (sometimes Command is considered the fifth functional area).  Aside from the four Section Chiefs and the the Incident Commander (IC), the Command and General Staff (C & G) is rounded out by the Safety, Liason and Public Information Officers, as well as a Deputy IC.  There are usually more than one Operation and Plans Section Chief (e.g. Day Ops, Night Ops, Planning Ops, Day Plans, Night Plans) and one or more Deputy ICs.  All told, there is a core C&G of about a dozen folks. All the rest of the personnel fill out the myriad of unique specialty positions within the four functional areas so that a fully-staffed team, both Type 1 and Type 2, represents fourty-four people. CWCG currently manages four Type 1 and seven Type 2 IMTs.

IMT Types

Incident Management Team typing starts at Type 5 as the least complex (e.g. a single tree snag with fire in the top), with Type 1 and Type 2 incidents being the most complex. For instance a Forest or local interagency group may roster a Type 3 IMT, but CWCG maintains these rostered Type 1 & 2 IMTs for assignment through California year-round as needed.
CALFIRE separately retains command and control of six Type 1 IMTs in the State.  Together, it is these CalFire and CWCG IMTs that are expected to manage the largest and most dangerous fires in California, and the Federal government is having a hard time providing staffing for these voluntary team assignments. The number of available teams is shrinking right as the need is peaking.  Climate, inadequate prescribed burning and ill-conceived development are all coming to the fore as issues stoking the flames.  Managers on National Forests, Parks, Refuges and and other Federal jurisdiction rely on these teams to meet a wide variety of objectives far from the wildland urban interface (WUI).  CWCG has just released a sustainability analysis addressing the succession problem. The report minces no words, coming directly to the point.

Over the last 5 years agencies continue to see a reduction of applicants to a level which is making it difficult to sustain the current number of CA IMTs. Participants who are rostered are many times not able to participate because of pressures and expectations from home units. There is currently not a broad approach successional plan resulting in limited movement across teams. Reduction of federal participation continues. Agency usage of IMTs is not in alignment with agency participation [italics added].

Many reasons are given for the shortfall in staffing.  Pressures from the home unit to not allow participation, not enough trainees in the pipeline, and just a decreasing number of people willing to make the commitment to be in the field away from friends and family for months on end, all add up to what has been known for some time.  This isn’t the first time CWCG had had to shrink the number of available IMTs, due to a lack of key positions, especially in Finance, Aviation and Command.

Over 40% of the eleven team members come from local government, that is to say, mostly fire departments around the State, including many from large, well-paid Departments in Southern California.  These folks from local government have no training or interest in incidents being managed for anything but suppression objectives.  “Put the wet stuff on the red stuff” is the extent of their sophistication, such that natural resource objectives or concerns of any type are often downplayed or neglected.

20% of IMT members are “non-full time agency employees”, including part-time active and retired agency employees.  20% is about right for retirees, overall, as they participate both as ADs and through local government. In the latter arrangement many retired Federal employees have negotiated cherry deals getting on local fire departments that include high hourly wages and portal-to-portal pay, like CalFire.  The fire departments, in turn, skims a nice administrative fee, as the invoice winds its way through CalOES.  This leaves only about 40% of the teams that include full-time rostered employees, who currently work for an agency, presumably having the greatest motivation to see the latest science based risk-management and highest regard for resource protection being brought to bear on these fires.  Wilderness fire management, in particular, is a specialty restricted to the Federal agencies.  Those outside the Federal land management agencies might go the extra yard to get the requisite training and experience, but they are few, in a dwindling pool of expertise and experience.

This report offered several options, including Option 3, which include a short team “for wildland fire management incidents not needing the traditional full size IMT,” with the goal to “Implement and asses the long- term application of Wildland Fire Management Teams for California.”  CWCG couldn’t bear to utter the old designation, Fire Use Management Team (FUMT), because many would complain, “Why, there is no more fire use,” so I guess we’re stuck with WFMT, but this is all given in the report with no context or explanation about what the short team really does.  They carry additional positions in planning and fire behavior, and include specialists, who are experts in wilderness tactics, risk management and public information.  They were companions to the Fire Use Modules (now called Wildland Fire Modules), back when fire use was a thing. A FUMT definition from back in 2004 described them as an…

Interagency team who provides a specialized management organization to fulfill the need for assigned resource support to fire use actions that exceed local units’ management capability at activity levels experienced during long duration situations or when preparedness levels are high and high priority fires with protection objectives are requiring large resource commitments.

Now we have new policy that eliminated fire use, which was supposed to make things easier in terms of changing incident objectives.  In practice, the policy has made it easier for those who would rather not accept the risk or negotiate the Byzantine California air quality regulatory environment to ignore management for resource objectives, altogether.

Sadly, the obvious preference in the report is to go to all Type 1 IMTs, like CalFire, the most expensive model of wildland firefighting in America, where suppression is king and training toward the meeting of resource management objectives and even minimum impact suppression tactics (MIST) is minimal or non-existent, like for those coming from local government.  For those without a natural resource background, there is usually no other imagined response to wildland fire than full suppression. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” according to Maslow.

CWCG just released their recruitment for next year’s IMTs.

CWCG’s goal is to move towards having a single Type IMT in California consistent with our state partners [italics added]. In the short term, the goal for 2019 is to retain four Type 1 IMTs, six Type 2 IMTs and one Type 2 short team if there are adequate applicants to fill formal rosters.

Retention of a short team (C&G plus a Strategic Planner, Fire Behavior Analyst and Long-Term Analyst at a minimum) that is flexible, familiar with the latest risk management tools, and willing to shrink or grow with the changing incident risk is critical to management of long-term fires far in the backcountry.  This is the role it was hoped that National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) IMTs would fill, but that never really panned out.  FUMTs never really went away.  In other regions, the FUMT ICs just went on to become regular suppression IMTs when the separate fire use designation went away, but they continued to carry many of the specialized FUMT positions.  In California they simply dumped the organized in-state FUMT, altogether, likely happy to have the qualified folks back in the shrinking suppression team pool.  At least one Type 1 IMT in California, today, carries a Strategic Operational Planner (SOPL). In fact, that person is Wayne Cook, a retired USFS employee, who was once a FUMT IC, himself.

Energy, transportation, and telecommunications corridors are often used as excuses to fight fire aggressively in backcountry settings.  No firefighter life is worth keeping a transportation corridor open, no matter the cost to business. As for energy, as storms and maximum wind speeds increase, PG&E has taken to shutting down electric lines entirely to reduce their own liability from lines sparking fires. Nothing to protect there. This past season, the town of Mammoth, on the east side of the Sierras, almost penned a letter to the USFS, requesting that no fires be managed for resource benefit, like the Lions Fire.  Communities that perceive an entitlement to clean air for the sake of their hospitality industry, should join the ranks of retired USFS employees who clamor for a return of the 10 a.m. policy.  Theirs is a thoroughly debunked worldview.  The science is undisputed.  Until the timber industry can demonstrate that their “active management” of clearcuts, spraying of herbicide, young plantations and salvage logging actually reduce fire rates of spread and the threat to communities, they should lean back.  Similarly, gateway communities that exist because of outdoor recreational opportunities in beautiful, healthy nearby fire adapted ecosystems should expect smoke from time to time.  Patches of blackened forest are not ugly, they are simply in transition to meadow, and, with time and not too much climate warming, back to forest.

Yes, there is always the small, manageable risk that a wildland fire will come out of the wilderness and damage public or private property, but our ability to forecast and estimate fire spread and other risk factors has increased dramatically. Today, we shouldn’t expect the long-lasting footprint  of “heavy metal” deep in the backcountry, like the airtanker and bulldozer impacts highlighted in FUSEE’s recent report on the Soberanes Fire.  Managers of the Soberanes Fire should be lauded for being willing, early on, to allow the fire to burn throughout the wilderness, but impacts to wilderness values were too great and modified suppression tactics (aside from simply going indirect around most of the wilderness) were too few. The resulting “heavy metal” impacts and associated risks to dozer operators and flight crews should be restricted to the proximity of the highest values at risk – homes and communities.  Backcountry fires require patience, commitment, a willingness to accept some risk, but not necessarily great cost.  Coffers will be strained enough with the increasing cost of protecting people first, then their homes, if possible.  Just getting people out of the way in time, at the beginning of the incident, is becoming a pressing concern at a time when no dozer line or retardant is going to stop the fire.  Fire is needed in many ecosystems, especially to build resilience in the face of a changing climate.

Many of our FF [frequent fire-adapted] forests have failed to receive the very management that could increase resilience to disturbances exacerbated by climate change, such as the application of prescribed fire and mechanical restoration treatments (Stephens et al. 2016). If our society doesn’t like the outcomes from recent fires…, then we collectively need to move beyond the status quo. Working to increase the pace and scale of beneficial fire and mechanical treatments rather than focusing on continued fire suppression would be an important step forward.

Let’s be smart, rather than aggressive, when it comes to wildland fire.  And let’s exercise patience and restraint, perhaps a bias for analytics, rather than the current “bias for action.” Sound like our many undeclared foreign wars and lack of diplomacy?  There’s a reason for that. “Never let a crisis go to waste,” as they say in the parlance of our shock doctrine world. The many private firms and agencies making up the Disaster Industrial Complex largely lack any environmental ethic, yet they fully intend to feed at the trough of  fire funding largess.