For an hour on a small fire in this huge burning summer I doubled-up, adding incident commander to my role as duty officer, which is a no-no in anyone’s SOPs. Duty Officer should stay big-picture. This was a Red Flag day and I’d planned to meet a patrol engine in the field — so she and I are near the smoke report and first on-scene to a five-acre fire that could flash into a 500-acre sagebrush burn. It’ll be an hour before the up-IC and engine crew scrambles through sage and forest and call on scene. As duty officer I know we need more engines and a helicopter (and that morning I’d learned the helicopter was off-line).
A mile away, dirt roads turned to solid sage. I smelt smoke in the wind and my switch turned. Every fire needs an IC so I called in as IC for long enough to get the interagency resources and safe response we needed. A helicoper plus engines from park, forest and county. Then I transitioned the fire to the ICT4.
Later, when the helicopter manager met up with me and asked how he could help, I asked him to look around: any other smokes or hazards? He laughed. Is that what they teach at duty officer school? And I laughed and said yes — safety first — then look for the next problem, the second fire, the incident within the incident.
We can’t be a moth to the flames. A lesson taught by so many mentors. Yet the flames are a core part of many of our jobs and on a Red Flag day I chased flames, a moth, like so many of us fire-chasers in this crazy summer. Though it’s our calling to flock to flames, we must manage our response. This is the lesson I take away when looking into our cover photo and After Action photos (page 51). The photos are by Ben Covault, a McCall, Idaho smokejumper I got to know in April when we taught fire management in Malawi (with the prevention officer who was first on scene with me on the fire). Now, looking at his cover photo, I wonder — are we so small against this flaming landscape? Is this firefighter tromped by our huge season? Or is this the summer’s truth — there are more fires than firefighters yet as the sun sets the firefighter is working and winning. It’s mop up and he’s doing what we need to do — to manage, with care and reflection, the fire at our feet.
There are other stories in this issue, including the long delay getting this issue to print — as fires and work and life have delayed so much this summer. Our apologies. I also have a specific duty-of-care concern: Is the crew safe? As the cover was being designed we learned that photographer Ben was en route to hospital. He fell while on a climbing assignment on a fire lookout. Doctors called first for surgery; now we hear a back brace and light-duty may heal the injuries. Which may give Ben time to focus on his fire photographs. And I sense we all will need time to focus, to measure a summer when fires ran hotter, faster, bigger. We may be called heroes but we’re flesh, prone to gravity and weather as we face our new climate of drought and mega-fires. The flames call and it’s harder to manage the moths inside as we simultaneously serve our duty to crews, community and landscape. At Wildfire we wonder — what are we learning? And how will we adapt?