Former hotshot's perspective on Las Conchas Fire

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By Jesse Sievers

As a former hotshot, I just wanted to give a little perspective and credit to some people that often get overlooked. This is no way meant to take credit away from anyone. Bless the efforts of the entire town in our second run in with fire. This is a very brief summary.


One of last, true, dirty, gritty, gun-slinging job in the United States is that of a wildland firefighter. These firefighters slip into the community as a shadow, relatively unnoticed and unconcerned with the spotlight eyes of the media. During fires such as the one we have witnessed, these wildland firefighters set up an entire “tent” city in the midst of disaster for command and control.  

They have fine-tuned the art of disaster management to the point that it is so efficient – it often goes unnoticed.

Although they are managing the entire operation and personnel of a fire, when it starts to settle down, these folks simply slip off into the night without anyone knowing who they were, where they were from, or what they did. Instead, they give all credit to the community where they visited and move off to save the next town in need of help.

To put things in perspective, the Los Conchas fire is managed by IQCS Red Card Certified Wildland Firefighters. These prestigious certifications come at no easy cost. They require extensive classroom training supported by task books (requires practical, real-life experience and are signed off by more experienced firefighters).

To even become an Incident Commander Type 1, which is required for incidents of this size, you are looking at nearly 20 years of nonstop fire experience and task books. By nonstop experience, I mean that these firefighters are gone more than six months of the year, on 14-21 day tours, and working 16 hours a day.  For rest, they are given two days off, and then they are gone again.

Figure this one out: It takes eight to10 years of school to be a brain surgeon; 20 years to become a manager of wildland fire. As you could imagine, family life and even maintaining a significant other for those 20 years is an added feat.

There are three incident management teams on this fire. One Area Command and two Incident Management Teams divided in north and south. When a management team comes in to manage an incident, they bring in a team to control all activities of a fire.  

The command staff is made of the incident commander, safety officer, liaison, and public information officer. Although here you often see local fire chiefs giving press briefings (who are doing a great job), they are not in charge or in command of the fire. The local chief is assisting the incident command staff’s public information officer’s duties to disseminate information from the Incident Commander to the public.

Below Incident Commander's command staff sits the general staff. These section chiefs are known as operations, logistics, finance, and planning. Operations control all events that are operational on a fire – “the rubber to the road.” Logistic orders all of the supplies for the 1,000 plus firefighters in this new city and coordinates where people are located.

The finance section deals with the costs and procurement of equipment needed to support the massive operations.

Finally, planning deals with items such as mapping, fire weather forecasts, extended plans and more.

Operations are the most highly visible, so I will discuss further into their structure. Underneath the Operation Section Chief sits different Division Supervisors and Group Supervisors. Divisions on a fire are marked by geographical locations.  Groups in a fire are for specific duties such as structure protection and are assigned to the Structure Protection Group Supervisor.

Within both the divisions and the groups are resources such as hotshots, engines, and other hand crews (the local fire department would typically be working for the Incident Command’s Structure Protection Group Supervisor). 

In addition, the Operation Section Chief may also manage Air Operations, if it is not already assigned a general staff position, to coordinate aircraft during the fire.
I will stop the structural breakdown here, as this is just an overview and could go on for days. Point being, this is highly structured and the amount of cumulative experience amongst these managers is in the hundreds to thousands of years. 

So who are these folks? These managers as well as the hotshot crews, helitack personnel, and wildland engine members are from all over the nation. Their nomadic life is spent traveling from their homes to nearly every national emergency possible and providing management and lifesaving work on a large scale.

So what is my point? My point is that when you hear about any decision made on what is happening during this fire, these wildland managers are the folks who make that decision. These wildland firefighters are the crews that do the backbreaking line construction for 16 hours at a time, grab a bite to eat, and start again in another eight hours until the fire is out.  

These are the folks that are managing the entire fire and personnel involved. These are the folks that are away from their loved ones and hometowns to silently assist a community in need. These are the folks that slip in as a shadow and leave without anyone knowing their names. These are the unsung cowboys and cowgirls of the American West. These are the folks that deserve a true tip of the hat.

Again, this is a simple, short, overview of what a blessing these people bring to our lives. The wildland fire management teams who are commanding and controlling the Los Conchas Fire are as follows:
•Area Command Team 1 (Area Commander Dan Oltrogge)
•Type 1 Incident Management Team (Incident Commander Dugger Hughes)
•Type 1 Incident Management Team (Incident Commander Joe Rienarz)

Rienarz and his Type 1 Incident Management Team will manage the north zone of the fire and Hughes and his Incident Management Team will manage the south zone.