Fort Belvoir, Virginia –
Through September 2017, more than 49,000 wildfires across the United States burned more than 8 million acres, destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of property, took scores of lives and injured countless people, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Fighting these fires requires thousands of employees from multiple federal, state and local agencies. And they often need critical equipment delivered in short order to remote areas.
Fortunately, the Defense Logistics Agency has been part of the fight since 2014, working closely with the U.S. Forest Service, state governments and local fire departments to get the firefighters and their support staff the equipment they need.
DLA does this by supporting the Forest Service’s nationwide National Interagency Support Cache system. Each regional support cache stockpiles items like gloves, goggles, fire-resistant clothing, canteens, hardhats, hand tools, chainsaws, radio kits and other critical equipment to meet short-term needs.
This is a particularly important partnership each June through November, the wildfire season, said Jon Hill, DLA customer account manager and the liaison officer to the U.S. Forest Service.
He said the number and intensity of fires can vary greatly based on the summer heat, the amount of rainfall, high winds and the presence of potential fuel for wildfires, such as fallen leaves or pine needles and dead branches.
Hill has been with the program since its inception.
“We took over management of the Forest Service program through a logistical reassignment from [the General Services Administration] in May 2014,” he said.
The task previously fell to the GSA, which managed the program for 50 years.
When the program transferred, there were 296 items being managed. The program has grown and now includes 344 firefighting items for the Forest Service, Hill said. The items are sourced through DLA Troop Support, DLA Aviation, and DLA Land and Maritime, assisted by people in DLA Distribution centers, primarily the one in San Joaquin, California.
Steve Dubernas is the newly appointed chief of the DLA Whole of Government Support Division. He’s already visited the National Interagency Fire Center headquarters in Boise, Idaho, to get a firsthand understanding and coordinate with his counterparts.
“A month into the position as division chief, you begin to realize quickly you’re supporting a customer who is literally saving lives on a daily basis,” he said. “This is a mission DLA needs to support as a critical interagency partner.”
Dubernas was struck by the challenge inherent in the smoke jumpers’ mission.
“Firefighters actually jump into [areas threatened by fires] from aerial platforms to cut fuel away … to try to stop the fire from burning over homes and doing more damage,” he observed.
The NIFC supports state and local firefighters who work to protect infrastructures all over the country.
“We work very closely with them to maintain their critical reorder point levels on fire equipment,” Dubernas said.
Hill added, “We participate in a daily Forest Service call with the National Interagency Support Caches … and I have several representatives in the [DLA major subordinate command] whose critical-item listings we look at. There are 25-30 high-priority, recurring items; we monitor those items. And as we see stock levels getting low, we initiate a replenishment.”
DLA provides the materials through a system of 10 interagency support caches, the Forest Service equivalent of DLA’s distribution centers, Hill said.
At the end of each year, DLA and the Forest Service establish how much inventory to maintain for the coming year at DLA Distribution San Joaquin, based on stock levels from the previous year’s use.
Then throughout the year, DLA monitors and responds to support to Forest Service preparedness levels, on a 1-5 scale, from least to most prepared.
The level is influenced by the number of fires in a particular region, the number of fire-suppression crews deployed to manage those fires and the severity of the fire itself.
As regional fires continue to spread, they have a distinct impact on the national preparedness level. And as they intensify, they require different levels of management and different suppression methods, Hill explained.
In the most severe fires, “evacuations are taking place, there’s structural damage and homes are being threatened,” he said.
The fire type also determines the types of incident-management teams that will deploy to help. Teams are rated as 1, 2 or 3, based on the level of help they’ll provide and how long they plan to deploy.
“For initial fires, a Type 3 team deploys and stays on site about 12 hours,” Hill said. “They make assessments, coordinate fire and containment efforts and then turn [operations] over to the next-higher level, beyond that 12- to 16-hour mark.”
The Type 2 team has more training and more access to resources than the Type 3 team. The Type 1 team has the highest level of expertise, Hill said.
“They are very well-trained with movement of on-site materials, personnel, equipment to containment areas and fire-suppression efforts,” he said. “And that team will generally consists of 27 personnel, with the ability to increase by 15 more.”
Even fires that start small can quickly escalate into large fires. The Detwiler fire in Southern California made national news in July when its reach spread from 2,500 acres to 47,000 acres in just three days, Hill said.
“The Detwiler fire grew by 900 percent overnight.,” he said.
“I have access to Forest Service websites and monitor these different type fires,” Hill said. “But sometimes, the data changes from morning to evening, from day to day, from hour to hour. It’s quite comprehensive and widespread in terms of how those fires change.”
Because Hill keeps such a close watch on the changing data, he’s constantly engaged and ready to help DLA mobilize needed materials.
“I get a daily update that is an actual fire map; I can see how many critical fires are on there,” he said. “I will generally reach out to the cache managers in the area where we’re seeing a large spread of fires in a very short period, and we will intervene to help expedite materials going to them as needed.”
Hill said when preparedness levels reach 4 and 5, he sometimes must travel to the area to help on site.
“That involves the full array of looking at materials, reaching out to the various field activities, working with our distribution centers, being involved with the transportation aspects,” he said.
When severe fires intensify quickly, the Forest Service calls in additional resources and suppression-management teams.
“The Forest Service will then go in to action going through several iterations of fire crews until they get the right containment level,” Hill said. “The focus continuously shifts; while we’re having all these very severe fires in Southern California, we’re also having a large number of fires in the northern Rockies.”
While not all fires are Type 1, there are enough Type 2 fires to warrant the presence of more crews and equipment. When a fire has been suppressed, the resources are brought back into the interagency support system, cleaned up and dispersed to the next most severe fire.
Once a fire is contained, the Forest Service and DLA will continue to monitor it in case it jumps outside the containment area. And when full containment is achieved, the crew can be demobilized.
“It’s a matter of prioritizing their resources in the right way to support or suppress the most critical fires across the U.S.,” Hill said. “We are always going to face challenges, merely because fires have spread so quickly that resources we had projected [to last] through a fire season are exhausting rapidly.”
Dubernas agreed there’s room for improvement in DLA support, specifically by honing the critical-items list and increasing inventory levels when necessary.
“That’s something we’re going to work on with the Forest Service — looking at demand levels, reorder points and some things that DLA can do to support the mission seamlessly,” Dubernas said. “We don’t want to go into an emergency contingency response scenario with the Forest Service; we want to have the stock levels that they can use to support these fires from June to November.”
That requires management at all levels. And while Hill manages the program at the federal level, Tracy Shepherd manages the state and local level.
“Tracy works with those state and local fire departments that do not always gain the credit our federal firefighters get,” Hill said. “They play a very vital role in the fire suppression teams and what happens within their individual states — and Tracy champions those efforts.”
Both rely heavily on the major support activities as they perform this critical mission. Hill likens the work of all the firefighters to the warfighters DLA supports.
“They also put their lives on the line — protecting people, federal lands and government entities across the board,” he said.
Both Dubernas and Hill touted the importance of the program and its growing mission, a priority for the DLA director.
Dubernas noted DLA’s support to wildland firefighting is just one way the agency partners with its sister federal agencies to help with disaster relief across the nation.
“Other agencies that have heard of us have not always known what our capability was,” Hill said. “We’re proud of what we’ve done to this point and for the program being seen for what it truly is.”