The Kitchen Table Debrief – CHAOS and ICS
And so I came full circle: Back to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and the United States Forestry Service.
2008 was one of the worst years for Wildland fires in California’s recorded history. Beginning with a severe lightning storm on June 20, 2008, over 6,000 lightning strikes in 26 counties ignited over two thousand fires. In less than two months 2096 fires burned nearly 1.2 million acres of land.
I knew where I needed to go to learn incident command: California, here I come! I made arrangements to go out there and observe and learn from the people who invented ICS. I visited the Lassen-Modoc Ranger Unit Headquarters in Susanville, CA (just north of Sacramento) and spent about a week there.
Although the Lassen-Modoc area saw a lot of devastation (in that district, the Corral Fire alone, consumed 12,434 acres) by the time I got out there in August, all of the fires were either extinguished or under control.
I was very fortunate to be able to interview several chief officers, some from the local city fire department (Chief Stu Ratner, Susanville FD), and several others from key offices including CDF Headquarters, 911 Dispatch, Sheriffs Department, and my host – CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Jim Barry, CDF.
After riding along with Chief Barry and discussing ICS at length, meeting and interviewing everyone, taking copious notes, learning a lot about “Firescope” (the origins of ICS), responding to calls with the fire crews, participating in drills with the fire crews, eating meals with the fire crews, sleeping in their bunk house, and literally walking (even if only for a few days) in their shoes, I learned a little bit about CAL FIRE and ICS.
On my last day at the Ranger Unit HQ, I asked Chief Barry some final questions about the Corral Fire. He had been the IC at that incident and, as a result of his superior handling of that scene, he was promoted to Battalion Chief. Then I asked him how long it took him to establish the ICS structure, because we always seemed to have a hard time getting it off the ground. That’s when he told me it took them almost a whole day. (What?) He told me that it was initially chaos. There were not enough people on scene, not enough equipment, and it took a while to get them.
Then it finally clicked.
The world is a messy place. Normally, it is a messy place. Throw in an unplanned event like a car crash, or a structure fire, or a chemical spill, or a mass-casualty-incident (or a wildland fire)… and you have introduced chaos. Bringing control to chaos takes time. It doesn’t matter if you are from a volunteer fire department, a major metropolitan fire department, or from the cradle where ICS was formed; it takes time to emerge from the chaos.