Fire Center Beehive Of Activity With PM-Western Fires
BOISE, Idaho (AP) _ In a small room at the Boise Interagency Fire Center, 15 people work unceasingly to match firefighters, airplanes and supplies against what federal officials say is the largest fire mobilization ever.
The center directs six federal agencies’ efforts in the war against fires that have charred hundreds of thousands of acres of brush and timberland in 14 Western states.
″We think this is the worst fire situation in recent history,″ said Bill Baden, Forest Service director of the center.
Baden said some 16,000 to 17,000 people are now manning fire lines throughout the West, and counting support personnel, as many as 20,000 are active in the effort.
The nerve center is in Logistics Support, a room packed with clusters of desks. Each worker has a computer terminal and a telephone to make sure airplanes are where they are needed, supplies arrive on time, and firefighters are sent to top-priority fires.
″Sometimes crews are diverted in mid-flight because we decide they’re needed elsewhere,″ said fire information officer Bill Bishop.
Since the center’s latest fire emergency started late in June, the logistics center has been manned 24 hours per day. Seldom is a telephone not in use. Its nearby ″intelligence″ center is constantly gathering information for fire bosses to determine priorities.
″Top priorities are fires threatening life or property,″ said information office Arnold Hartigan. Next come fires damaging minerals or other resources.
The fire center stocks enough firefighting supplies to support 8,500 firefighters in the field. With twice that number now on duty, mountains of boxes on parking lots were evidence of a continual stream of supplies coming into the center by air and truck. Two semi-trailer trucks were parked waiting to unload more.
The piles of boxes contained hoses, fire gear, axes, fire shelters, portable cots, tents, pumps, sleeping bags, garbage sacks, hot food containers, fuel cans, chainsaws, flashlights and other items.
Nearby, the federal agencies have a fleet of aircraft lined up to transport crews and supplies.
Baden said workers at the center are getting tired after more than a week of pressure. But it’s worse for firefighters in the field.
″We have one crew that’s on its eighth fire without a major break. We’re worried about the fatigue factor - that’s when injuries start going up.″
The center also operates a full-scale meteorological center for fire weather information. It hasn’t had much good information recently.
Baden said severe drought conditions for weeks have led to fire conditions that couldn’t be much worse - temperatures are hot, vegetation is dry and nightly thunderstorms with lightning that sparks more fires.
″We got a lot of snow early this year, but since then it’s been a very hot, dry summer,″ said Hartigan.
Baden said officials are concerned the fire crisis could continue for a long time.
″This is only the second week in July. Normally, we don’t get into the peak fire season until August or September,″ he said.