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Putting a 'face' on the fire

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Information officer said Incident Team is “the best.”

By Arin McKenna

Parked just outside the evacuee shelter at the Cities of Gold Casino is a tractor trailer with two large satellite dishes on top. This vehicle, provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is serving as a remote “spike” station for Incident Commander Joe Reinarz’ Type I Incident Management Team,

“FEMA has made it possible for us to operate beyond perfect,” said Information Officer Joe Helmich.
“A spike is designed to take care of significant issues that are not necessarily treatable at the incident command location,” Helmich said. The incident command location is at Jemez Springs. “All of their operations can be duplicated at a remote location such as this.”

The station is staffed with five information officers devoted to giving the public current information about the Las Conchas fire. Those evacuated from Los Alamos and those affected by smoke in the area are their main concern. Helmich called their work “putting a face on the fire.”

“Everybody’s very concerned and curious about these issues,” Helmich said. “What we do is act as a point of contact for all of the folks that are out there.”

“Our job is to interface between the command team and the public as effectively as we can.
And vice-versa. If we get information which is valuable for the command team to know about, we try to move it back to them as well. We move information in both directions as efficiently as we can,” Helmich said.

The officers run what they call a “trap line,” posting informational updates at locations like post offices, grocery stores and gas stations in areas “where people have a very significant level of curiosity.” The team is dispersing information as far north as Velarde and south to Tesuque, and providing updates on the Pacheco Fire as well.

Helmich said that people’s greatest concern seems to be about the level of smoke. “Everybody is asking, has it burned into Los Alamos? Has any structure been lost in Los Alamos?” Helmich said. “And I do believe that is because the smoke is highly visible from our location. The smoke is giving them a good broadside view, giving them bleacher seats. And everybody has a good memory of the Cerro Grande Fire.”

“One thing I feel is not well communicated to everybody is that smoke is not a bad thing in and of itself,” Helmich continued. “When you have a team on hand, the way they fight fire is literally with fire. And that is how they put these fires out. They create a situation using fire to eliminate the fuel that an uncontrolled fire has to burn. So fire is not fought with water. Yes, nearing the end of an operation, water is used to put hot embers out, but the main strategy is using fire to fight fire.” This “back burning” accounts for a fair amount of smoke people are seeing.

Helmich stressed that people need not fear radioactive material in the smoke. :”At present time, the fire has not burned into LANL. Nothing like that is taking place.”

A Los Alamos resident came into the trailer obviously very stressed about the situation. Helmich spent 10 minutes using a map and patiently explaining where the fire was and what efforts were being made to stop it. After she left, Helmich said, “Truthfully, I don’t feel I helped her very well, because I know nothing I could have said would have been satisfactory. So I just try to give her as much as I know without embellishment or making up stories.”

One thing Helmich did tell her was, “I’ve been with this team three times now. It is absolutely the best team I have ever seen in action.”

He reiterated the point after she had left. “Joe Reinarz is a wonderful commander,” Helmich said. “In my opinion, people here cannot do any better in the world. There is nobody that’s better. I personally think he’s a genius when it comes to this stuff.”

Reinarz’ team’s most recent deployment was two weeks on Arizona’s Wallow Fire and two weeks is the longest any team can deploy without a break.