July 4, 2008

Calif. Command Center Predicts Hot Spots, Oversees Fire Crews

REDDING, Calif. _ Gazing out a wall of windows, Mike Lococo watched lightning stab the horizon, over and over, like a bizarre light show gone awry.

Three decades of battling blazes in remote corners of California told him one thing: That was trouble hurtling from the heavens.

Lococo is part of a unique national network that launches at the first sniff of wildfire.

When hundreds of California wildfires sprang from lightning strikes June 20-21, the Northern California Geographic Coordination Center here geared up. It is part of an 11-center network reporting to a national center in Boise, Idaho.

Members of the Incident Command System calculate fire movements, monitor weather and try to pinpoint where the next trouble spot will ignite so they can marshal the nation's air and ground resources.

Information and decisions that have run up and down the chain of command have been used to move firefighters and equipment from 48 states into Northern California.

In the offseason, 80 people normally work at the Redding center. When the season erupts, nearly 300 people are pressed into sometimes 14-hour days.

"The first five days were frantic," said Lococo, 57, a retired U.S. Forest Service firefighter and fire intelligence officer.

The center is run by the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and covers the northern part of the state and some of Nevada.

Housed in a sprawling complex in the shadow of the Redding Municipal Airport, the center is close to the epicenter of this year's fires, engulfed in a smoky haze that for days has dulled the setting sun into an orange globe.

Here, the tools are as sophisticated as satellite and infrared imagery and as low-tech as the magnets used to chart fires on maps or the sweatshirts frantically bought at a local Wal-Mart for Samoan firefighters.

This is how fires _ racing through forests and fields _ are fought, with every fiber of knowledge that people like Lococo can muster.

Eleven days into this year's fires, in an office designed for two, Lococo and five or six others squeezed behind desks, almost shoulder to shoulder. Others were cubbyholed in offices along long hallways. Some staff overflowed into trailers.

Maps cover almost every wall, and they're constantly updated as conditions change.

In one day, the map printer grinds out 300 feet of paper.

"You've got to get into a routine in here _ or else," Lococo said, focusing on a computer screen. As an intelligence officer of what is called Predictive Services, Lococo gathers information from wildland analysts and weather forecasters huddled in another room in front of whirling weather patterns on screens.

Even though weather forecasts can predict up to 16 days out, the one thing that is not predictable is lightning.

Lococo can tell you how dry the timber is at one spot, how the wind moves across terrain with big trees or no trees. He knows how easy or hard it is to get way back into remote spots, or where fire is best left alone until snow finally chills it out.

With his 18 years experience as a wildfire firefighter, he attempts to figure out the next hot spots.

The information he compiles is given to fire managers, who decide where to move air tankers or firefighters or where to drop smoke jumpers.

If local resources are tapped out, the national center can fill the order.

Decisions about where resources go or how they're used are considered sensitive and are shielded from the public.

Nearly two-thirds of the 30,000 wildfire firefighters in the country are now in California, most in Northern California. Fire engines from as far away as Maine are on the road to fires here, ordered up by Lococo's predictions.

Equipment to supply firefighters in Northern California _ $1 million a day of hoses, tools, toilet paper _ moves from a warehouse hangar here, trucked out or air-dropped into fire camps.

Once the lightning fires started, Lococo's days began at 5 a.m., lasting until at least 7 p.m.

A predecessor once worked 81 days straight, a record no one wants to top.

Tapping his computer screen, Lococo showed one of dozens of weather indicators that he monitors. Green lines tracking normal fire danger levels diverge wildly from blue lines showing current conditions.

A map on a nearby wall shows all the remote weather stations tracked by satellite and downloaded to his screen. At least nothing major has flared overnight.

But there's plenty to worry about.

On this day, a fire in the Santa Barbara area, though not in his area, could be a problem: "That's going to tap resources."


(c) 2008, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).

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