Media Guide

Introduction: Getting Your Story

Wildfires and other catastrophes are major news and attract considerable media attention. This is particularly true for Eastern Idaho, a smaller market where stories about wildfire often lead the broadcast news and make headlines in the local papers. The public definitely has a right to information about such incidents; however, access to incidents is often complicated by the emergency nature of what is occurring.

The purpose of this website is to help you better understand the organization, policies and terminology associated with suppression of major wildland fires. This information will help you cover your story more easily, so that you can keep your audiences better informed. This website also introduces you to the major fire organizations in eastern Idaho responsible for the suppression of wildland fires.

The public agencies involved in the suppression of wildland fires invite media coverage. In fact, these agencies recognize that news media coverage of wildland fires is an integral part of keeping the public informed and spreading the wildland fire prevention message. Our biggest concern is that everyone approaches wildland fires safely and in a manner which does not interfere with emergency efforts.

The principles discussed in this website also apply to other emergency or incident management situations that involve federal and state land management agencies operating under what is called the National Interagency Incident Command System (ICS). More on this valuable tool coming up soon. Read on!

 



Interagency Coordination

There is no way one agency can fight all the wildland fires that occur in Eastern Idaho. For the past several years, various land management and fire fighting agencies of government have worked together under a very carefully coordinated system to fight fires as they arise.

The command center for most fires in Eastern Idaho originates at the Eastern Idaho Interagency Fire Center (EIIFC) in Idaho Falls. Housed at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service offices, the main staff consists of personnel from the BLM and the Forest Service. Additional help comes on-demand, as fire needs dictate, from city and county fire departments, and from fire crews from the Ft. Hall Indian Reservation, the Idaho National Laboratory, the Idaho Department of Corrections and other partners.

In addition to local resources, EIIFC staff can also draw upon fire fighting resources from throughout the country through the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), the national interagency command center located in Boise. When wildfires are burning in several parts of the country, or when local fires become increasingly complex, NIFC can dispatch specialized teams to help local firefighters plan and coordinate their resources.

Incident Command System

All wildland fires follow a very flexible command structure called the Incident Command System, or ICS. The ICS was adopted by wildland fire fighters in 1981 after a national study of management systems. Under emergency situations, the ICS develops from the top-down, unfolding as the situation grows more complex. For instance, on small fires only the Incident Commander and Operations staff (comprised of an engine crew) will be needed. As fires grow more complex, more firefighters are added into the organization.

The ICS organization is able to handle rapid fire growth and resource expansion by keeping responsibility for functional performance at the highest level possible. By placing responsibility within functional areas, it is possible to keep the size of the organization at the right level to get the job done.


Photo of ICS structure

Who to Contact when a Fire Breaks

When a fire erupts in Eastern Idaho, the first reaction may be to jump in the van and follow the smoke. However, that's not always the best option. A smoke column may not be a wildland fire. If it is a wildland fire, you should thoroughly check things out beforehand and make sure you're not running headlong into a dangerous situation. The story is important, but safety is our primary concern. After all, you can't tell your story from the back of an ambulance, or worse, from the morgue!

So, when the fire breaks out, follow this little checklist before you run.

Is it a Wildland fire?

    Eastern Idaho derives much of it economy from agriculture. Farmers found long ago that the quickest way to break down leftover organic matter after a harvest was to burn it. As the season progresses, agriculture fires (commonly called "ag burns") become more common. These fires are generally well contained and burn out within a short time. EIIFC"s Fire Prevention Office works all year to help local farmers and private property owners practice safe fire behavior when burning fields, ditches or debris.

It is a Wildland fire! Who do I call?

    If you are the first person to see the fire, please report it to the Dispatch Center (208-524-7600). You can also call on your U.S. Cellular Phone by dialing toll free #FIRE (#3473).

Who is my main source for information on the fire?

    If a fire has already been reported and EIIFC has responded to it, the next person you want to talk to is the local Fire Information Officer (FIO). Often the dispatcher are busy coordinating resources, so EIIFC has several FIOs on rotation throughout the fire season to help handle information requests like yours. These information officers are most likely the local Forest Service and BLM public affairs specialists. It is the FIO's job to collect complete and accurate information about the incident's size, cause, statue, people and equipment involved, and respond to matter of general interest. Although the FIO is usually on staff at the Dispatch Center, he or she may report to the Incident Command Center and the fire if it is close to an urban area or of significant size.

Who else should I call?

    If the fire is particularly complex, sometimes a special overhead team will be called in to help manage the fire. This team might also have a Fire Information Officer (FIO) on staff.

What is an FIO is not available? What's next?

    In the unlikely event than an FIO is unavailable, some information might be available through the Incident Commander (the IC). The IC manages all aspects of a fire, including tracking firefighters, the fire's growth or movement, and requesting additional resources. However, you can imagine that this is a busy position! If the IC is unavailable to talk about the fire, you can be an Information Officer is not far away.

Is there any way I can help?

    Occasionally, the Information Officer may request that the news media help with sending out information the public needs to know about. Frequently the public is curious about the excitement and will venture close to the fire lines for a better look. The added traffic can block engine access to the fire, or nearby cars may reduce a plane's ability to drop retardant from the air. The media plays a very important role as an information resource to help local residents stay informed and safe.

The Fire Information Officers are there to help you get the best story you can. Sometimes they may limit your access to the fire because of safety reason, bur for the most part, they are there to help you avoid the "run - around." They may escort you to the scene of the fire, and can also help arrange interviews with the firefighters and the Incident Commander. The Information Officer should always be your first call when a fire breaks.

How to Get to the Fire Line:

There is one overall rule for covering wildland fire stories: SAFETY FIRST!

As a common sense rule, nothing will be allowed to jeopardize the safety of the news media or those involved with suppression activities. The Fire Information Officer will explain to you the rationale for any specific access restrictions. If you want to go out to the fire line, you will be advised of the danger. You will be discouraged from going off by yourself. In some locations, the Fire Information Officer or other responsible official will escort you to the line. Usually, there are always areas you can safely go and see the action.

Although no physical test is required, the Incident Commander may deny access to any individual who appears to be at risk if exposed to hazardous conditions on the fire line, or who may be a risk to others involved in managing the fire. Denial of access is usually the exception, though, and not the rule.
Here are some other things to consider before going out to the fire line:

1. Location. Access to wildland fires in Eastern Idaho can be easy or difficult, depending on the location and availability of access roads. In some remote locations, access by non-emergency personnel may be limited to foot travel or four-wheel drive. Some wilderness locations do not allow motorized access at all. The key to finding the fire is by getting in contact with the Information Officer before you start chasing smoke columns.

2. Personal Protective Equipment. All fire fighters are required to wear personal protective equipment while out on the line. You are no different. Most of today's synthetic clothes are not fire retardant, and some may actually be harmful to you if a fire got too close to you. Likewise, some hair sprays and makeup may be flammable if you got in close proximity to a fire.
Again, SAFETY FIRST!
Today's personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by fire fighters is designed to ensure safety, and must be worn by all persons at or near the fire line. Sometimes personal protective gear will be available for your use at the scene. This will include:

  • A hard hat
  • Nomex fire resistant pants and shirt
  • Gloves
  • An emergency fire shelter and instructions on how to use it
  • An escort to the fire line when needed

If you don't have these at your place of work, EIIFC can issue you the clothing on a temporary basis. You will need to provide your own leather boots (no sneakers, sandals, or dress shoes allowed); boots should be 8" high, lace-type exterior leather with Vibram-type, melt-resistant soles. You will also need cotton undergarments (synthetics are more combustible or tend to melt to skin when exposed to high temperatures).

How about a Plane Ride?

One question that is frequently asked is, "Can we get a ride in one of your planes for some aerial shots?" The simple answer is, no. Aerial attack crews are often too busy fighting the fire to accommodate media requests for flights. On rare occasions we may be able to allow a reporter or two to ride in a helicopter, but such incidents are the exception, not the rule.

If you decide you want to contract with a local pilot for your aerial coverage, that's fine, but be aware that there may be aircraft restrictions in the area around and approaching the fire for safety reasons. Any aerial access to a fire must be cleared in advance (Talk to your pilot about FAA flight restrictions under 91.137a). Pre-approved flyovers can usually be arranged, but they must be coordinated by the Incident Commander first. This is something the Fire Information Officer can help arrange for you.

Other Parts of the Story

There are numerous angles to follow when reporting a wildland fire beyond the simple facts of the fire. Here are some ideas:

Detection.
While many fires are man-made, some are naturally caused. EIIFC and its partners use a variety of methods to find fires. Some are simple, such as a toll-free cell call. Other are very complex, such as using infrared satellite imagery to find hot spots, mapping locations and fire perimeters using the Global Positioning System, or detecting potential fires with a sophisticated lightning detection system.

Logistics. Getting people and resources to a fire is no easy task. Fires can break any time, day or night, and EIIFC uses a small army of people to get equipment and fire fighters to the scene.

Planning.
The Planning Section of the fire collects and evaluates the latest information on the fire, evaluates suppression strategies and shift plans, and distributes information on the fire to other sections of the Incident Command System. Sometimes this function is located at EIIFC's Dispatch Center, but sometimes it is located right at the site.

The Camp.
Fire camps are often small communities within themselves. The men and women who are our fire fighters can range in age from 18 to 60+ years old, come from all different nationalities and backgrounds, and generally work 12-hour shifts. Fire camps may contain as many as 500 fire fighters, depending on the size and complexity of the fires.

Services within the camp also vary in size depending on the number of people involved. If a base camp as been established, a media representative can usually find an Information Officer to help. The Information Officer will orient you, the reporter, to what facilities and services are available, including:

  • Access to team members for interviews
  • Maps, shift plans, special interest items and general information
  • Contacts or coordination with local law enforcement, security personnel, or government officials
  • Access to telephone or other media service
  • First Aid or medical needs
  • Sanitation facilities and wash area
  • On a case-by-case basis, they may also help with ground or air transportation, food service, shower service, and overnight accommodations.

Fire Prevention. EIIFC has had a very active Fire Prevention program, especially in locations outside cities and towns near public lands. Many serious wildland fires are caused by the careless acts of people. The news media is especially valuable in making the public aware of potentially dangerous fire situations, the conditions that contribute to wildland fires, and what can be done to prevent fires.

Rehabilitation. Now that the fire's out, what next? There may be many reasons we would choose to rehabilitate a burned area: to reduce wind erosion, to prevent the invasion of cheat grass or noxious weeds, or to prevent damage to water quality, among others. Rehabilitation can include re-seeding an area with native or non-native vegetation, smoothing or removing berms in fire line roads, protecting stream channels and soils, or other activities. A team of specialists from the local land management agency is usually assigned after a fire to determine what rehabilitation, if any, needs to be done. Sometimes the plan is developed and implemented while the fire is still burning.

Tactics. Aircraft are one of the tools used to fight the fire, and often many different types of aircraft are used. Many are helicopters that transport small amounts of people or equipment to remote areas. Some are large tankers filled with retardant, a chemical mixture added to water and designed to slow a fire's progress. The retardant is usually a fertilizer-based mixture that's used to slow the rate of spread and cool the flames. Once the fire is out, the fertilizer in the retardant will help spur plant growth. These are just a few of the many tactics fire fighters may use.



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