Tucson, Ariz. – Every year, in early spring, a small group of people meet in Tucson to set major wildfires.
Nothing actually burns. The fires are hypothetical, staged ‘incidents,’ as they’re called, and fought entirely by computer and on paper in a comfortable room with a large table. The group is made up of highly-trained incident managers who will oversee suppression efforts at the country’s biggest wildfires, the ones that make national headlines.
They often become the public face of the firefighting effort, issuing statements and ordering evacuations. Behind the scenes, they work to predict fire behavior using computer models and maps, and then direct crews and equipment.
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These people already know a lot about wildfire. In many cases, they’ve been handling smaller fires for years. When they’re ready to take on the big blazes, they head to Tucson’s National Advanced Fire and Resource Institute for training.
After several days of intense coursework, the students simulate a major wildfire. The fire’s characteristics are borrowed from actual past incidents. Armed with maps, weather reports and imaginary crews, they learn to ‘manage’ the fire.
The training is thorough. A wildfire manager must learn to direct ground and aerial support, order evacuations, and deliver media briefings, all during an event where many lives could be at risk.
“These are the best of the best,” training co-chairman Charles “Boo” Walker told me one year.