Caryn Haller

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July 25, 2014
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Sierra Front dispatchers control the chaos

Despite working nine active fires last week, the atmosphere on the initial tack floor of the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center was relatively calm.

“It’s been a busy couple of days and it’s probably going to be a busy next couple of days,” center manager Mindy Stevenson said during the July 18 morning briefing.

Opened in 1992, Sierra Front manages resources for wildland and prescribed fires for 11 million acres in Western Nevada and the eastern slope of the Sierra.

“We send resources from point A to point B,” Stevenson said. “We have access to national resources from Florida to Alaska to the Northeast. We mobilize them and relocate them to where the fires are. It requires a lot of coordination and experience. We like to call it managing chaos.”

Resources include one air attack plane, two single engine airtankers, four helicopters, two national hotshot hand crews, six Type 2 hand crews, two camp crews, 30 agency engines and patrols and 100 contract bulldozers, engines, heavy equipment, and water tenders.

Headquartered in Minden, Sierra Front combines money and staffing from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Division of Forestry and Western Nevada Bureau of Indian Affairs in an effort to manage wildfires more cohesively.

“We work closely with local cooperating dispatch centers and fire departments. We also work with Carson, Reno, Washoe and Storey county dispatch,” Stevenson said. “We’ve had 40 or more lightning strike fires at one time. We’re using the closest forces concept, which allow us for better coverage.”

When a fire call first comes in, dispatchers enter the best coordinates they can gather from the information provided into a wildCAD computer system which gives them an estimate of what resources are needed depending on weather conditions in that area.

The system determines the fuel zone type in the area which varies by vegetation, atmospheric climate and elevation, and if it is a low, medium or high fire day.

“It’s not totally up to the computer,” Stevenson said. “We still have to decide whether that’s the best decision. It’s a tool.”

In the summer, 11 dispatchers work 8-hour shifts, seven days a week.

“Staffing numbers fluctuate depending on fire activity,” Stevenson said. “We can escalate up to 20 people to support the various functions we have.”

Stevenson began her fire fighting career in 1981 with the BLM in Carson City. She said having agencies working together during wildfire emergencies is more efficient.

“I’ve been to places where they don’t cooperate, and it doesn’t work that well,” she added. “The communication isn’t there. I’m mighty proud of the Sierra Front as a whole.”

Ryan Gaines, lead aircraft dispatcher, had 18 aircraft working fires July 18.

It’s Gaines’ job to decide what type and how much air support is needed during a fire.

He also has to keep track of where they are all flying.

To do this, he uses automated flight follow where he can see in real time where all the aircrafts are with updates every two minutes.

“That’s how we keep track of them in case of an emergency,” he said. “It follows them and we can figure out where they’re at and send search and rescue.”

Gaines began his career on a handcrew in 2000, and came to work for Sierra Front in 2008.

“I like the part that I get to see both sides,” he said. “It makes you better understand what resources the people in the field are wanting.”

Although Sierra Front dispatchers control the initial calls, it’s ultimately up to the eyes on the ground and in the air to determine if more or less support is needed and what kind.

“There’s a lot of moving parts in our world,” Stevenson said. “We all work together, and I think it’s been very successful.”

Along with handling initial fire calls, the agency also coordinates expanded support such as food, additional crews or engines, dumpsters, bathrooms, or whatever else crews on the ground need to fight a fire for longer than 24 hours.

The Minden site serves as a temporary reloading and refueling center for single engine air tankers, and is a permanent Nevada Division of Forestry helitack base with two helicopters.

“I love my job. It’s exciting and something different everyday,” Stevenson said. “We’ve been out here 20 years doing what we do. It’s been a good program.”

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The Record Courier Updated Jul 25, 2014 03:37PM Published Jul 25, 2014 03:37PM Copyright 2014 The Record Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.