What is the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO)?
By Josh McDaniel
The Zaca Fire
received national attention for its duration (two months), size (240,000 acres), and its cost ($118 million), and many may be tempted to chalk it up to another example of federal firefighting agencies throwing money at a fire to no avail. That would be sorely missing the point.
Zaca was a complex fire from ignition. The fire moved through dense, critically dry fuels in difficult-to-access terrain with few opportunities for firefighters to use the natural barriers to their advantage in direct attacks on a spreading fire front. The fire was burning primarily in a wilderness, with all of the requisite wilderness values to protect; but at the same time, it was also burning in proximity to 31 million people and billions of dollars of private property values in one of the most densely populated areas of the country.
“The political pressures that surround a fire on that piece of real estate are enormous,” says Bernie Bahro, the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region (R5) for the Wildland Fire Decision Support System. “Given that, I think the management teams did an excellent job in minimizing damage to wilderness values – not letting dozers run all over the wilderness. They developed a long-term set of tactics and strategies based on a trigger point system, and resisted the political pressures for as long as possible.”
While the fire was large and costly, it is difficult to criticize the results – a large fire burning in extreme fuel conditions near a major metropolitan area with no major injuries and minimal structure loss. The successful management of the fires was established early on by the newly-formed National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Boise Incident Management Team (IMT). The Boise IMT established an approach that emphasized patience and planning, and then working to transfer that approach and plan to subsequent, traditional IMT teams.
Flexible and Agile Fire Management
The idea for NIMO grew out of various internal reviews and reports by land management agencies, Congressional subcommittees, the General Accounting Office, and the Office of Management and Budget. These reports all recognized that changing climates were leading to longer, more intense fire seasons; and that expanding housing development in the wildland urban interface was creating more complex, costly fires. The result has been longer deployments for incident managers, and subsequently, less time spent on resource management programs on home units – a development that has fed back into problems in fire management.
In response, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group developed the idea of seven full-time, standing Incident Management Teams (IMTs) positioned across the country that could support complex wildland fire incidents, and also be trained for all-hazard deployment outside of fire season. These teams would support complex incidents, enhance training, develop non-traditional partnerships and enhance home unit capabilities for fuels projects. To test the concept the U.S Forest Service agreed to host two NIMO teams – one based in Atlanta Georgia, and the other in Boise Idaho.
In addition to their full-time status, these teams also differ from the traditional Type 1 IMT teams in that they are smaller. Instead of the 33-member configuration that normally makes up a Type 1 Incident Management Team, NIMO teams have 7 members. The teams aren’t formed on the militia model that has dominated firefighting since its inception. The teams work and train together full-time, year-round, and are trained for all-hazard events. In fact, the Boise Team’s first deployment was to the Greensburg, Kansas tornado in the spring of 2007.
The Boise IMT, which managed the Zaca Fire from mid-July to early August, was the second NIMO to deploy to a wildland fire. The first was the NIMO Atlanta IMT who managed the Bugaboo Fire in Florida in the spring and summer of 2007.
These teams represent a significant change in the culture of fire management. With longer and more intense fire seasons, rapidly expanding development near public lands, and a constrained federal budget, new approaches are not only needed but are essential.
“The reality is that we are now fighting fires with fewer resources,” says Elizabeth Cavasso, a planning section chief with the NIMO team. “So, what we are trying to determine is – what does that look like? We are looking for opportunities to do less and accomplish the same objectives. You have to look at other ways of accomplishing suppression than the traditional approach – put out fires with flexibility and opportunistic actions rather than overwhelming force.”
Managing the Zaca
The Boise IMT was determined to take a different approach in managing the Zaca. The team placed a heavy emphasis on strategic planning early on in the fire. And, for the most part, the plan was carried out.
Amazingly, for such a large fire, none of the perimeter control lines were outside of the Wildland Fire Situation Aanalysis (WFSA) box drawn in mid-July, and most of the fire’s big runs in August that received so much public attention were anticipated in the FSPro projections used in the strategic plan developed on July 20.
“We planned large strategic containment lines, and there was really no other strategic option. All of the strategic lines that we decided on in July held.” says Gelobter. “A few times, there were places that we thought we had opportunities to hold the fire, and we invested resources to put in control features. This is when the costs really escalated.”
Gelobter says that the fire would have been even more costly if it had not been managed under a strategic plan utilizing Appropriate Management Response (AMR). “The real cost savings resulted from being able to plan out ahead of the fire – to know what resources we needed and get them in place.”
One of the key lessons that the Boise IMT learned during the Zaca was that they needed to communicate their approach and strategy much more clearly with both the public and their state and local partners. The team knew early on that this was going to be a long- duration fire, but that message was not clearly presented to the public. Gelobter says, in hindsight, he would have spent more time preparing the public for the magnitude of the smoke and ash that were going to fall in surrounding cities as a result of the fire’s rapid expansion–it was expected but not effectively communicated.
“We never really communicated anything other than that we were following a strategy of full suppression,” Gelobter says, “It is difficult to explain that while we were working towards full suppression, we did not want to use overwhelming force. We planned large containment lines, but we were not letting it burn to the lines. We were just looking for tactics and strategies that had the best chance for success—in this case that meant patience.”
On the positive side, the Boise IMT found that coming in early in a support role to the Forest was a huge advantage. They were able to begin work on a strategic plan that set the stage for management of the Zaca incident for the next two months by six IMTs. This is not a common practice, but one the team feels should be used whenever possible.