Wharton: New center on front line of fighting wildfires
When a wildfire in a big swatch of northern Utah starts, a small staff of 10 workers from the State of Utah, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management quickly go to work in their new state-of-the-art facility near the Point of the Mountain.
"As soon as we get an initial report of a fire, we try to establish either a geographical location for the fire or the legal township for the fire," said Sean Lodge, assistant center manager for the Northern Utah Interagency Fire Center. "We have pre-identified responses based on fire danger for that particular area for that particular day and a set number of resources that go to that fire."
At first glance, the interior of the $3 million facility that opened March 30 looks like something out of a CSI television show. There are three giant projection screens in the large room, where workers study computers.
The day I visited was quiet, with no fires burning. That said, by late July, dispatchers working at this center had already dispatched 260 fires including the huge 5,507-acre Dump Fire near Saratoga Springs and a fire in Alpine the dispatchers could see looking out their window.
The reality is that modern firefighting operations resemble a military campaign. There is even much acronym-filled jargon describing maps, equipment and computer programs that almost seems like a foreign tongue to someone not versed in the language of fire.
This is one of five Utah dispatch centers. Their purpose is to provide support and services to firefighters in the field to help extinguish fires and keep them at the smallest size at the lowest cost. They are part of several national geographic areas. Each of those areas has a geographical coordination center. The national coordination center is in Boise, Idaho.
Dispatchers in each small center have certain local resources, including people and firefighting equipment that they can use. If the fire meets certain standards, especially those that threaten homes and buildings, dispatchers can request additional firefighting resources from their geographic area. If those resources run out, they request help from Boise, often involving the use of tanker planes and helicopters.
One of the big screens on the wall of the facility tracks all of the federally contracted aircraft, showing dispatchers their exact location, their flight altitude and their speed. There is a radio frequency management board that helps separate radio frequencies so firefighters battling a fire in one area don't get confused with orders or requests from a nearby fire. The third board tracks available resources and tells dispatchers where all equipment that runs on wheels is located.
Three of the 10 employees are full time while the other seven are "temporary permanent," which means they are furloughed when fire danger decreases. Normal hours are 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. but the center is staffed 24 hours when a fire is active and one worker is on-call at all hours.
In an era of federal and state government conflict, fire centers such as this one combine workers from the state as well as two different federal agencies.
Building the new LEED certified facility, for example, occurred because the BLM had money budgeted, the state had a piece of property it could provide near the Utah State Prison and the Forest Service saw the need and participated as well.
When a big wildfire hits Utah, threatening homes, animals and livelihoods, the response follows a prepared plan based on years of experience designed to limit property losses, save lives and maximize resources while saving as much money as possible.
This year in Utah, and throughout the West, such unsung centers and agencies have been facing huge tests.