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What's NIFC? Explaining the wildfire center ahead of President Biden's Idaho visit

The National Interagency Fire Center is the top tier of support for agencies fighting wildfires, from the local to the national level.

BOISE, Idaho — President Joe Biden is spending Monday in the West, and one of the stops will be the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. He'll visit the center before heading to California and Colorado to survey wildfire damage and appear at political events.

Maybe you've heard of the center - also known by the acronym "NIFC" - or seen the sign along I-84, but the specific nature of the organization, its functions and why it's on the White House radar may be less clear.

NIFC, located on a 55-acre campus near the Boise Airport, is the nation's support center for wildland firefighting.

The NIFC campus has areas for administrative functions, firefighting equipment storage and refurbishment, retardant tanker operations, and aircraft ramp operations -- such as refueling, loading and unloading, and maintenance. NIFC's Predictive Services Group turns weather reports and fuels data into forecasts for firefighters working on the ground and in the air.

Now, a word about what NIFC is not: it's not a single agency with a single director or its own top-down command structure.

Eight different federal organizations are part of NIFC, including the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, NOAA, the Dept. of Defense and the Dept. of Homeland Security.

Those agencies and state agencies share firefighting supplies, equipment, and personnel. They also work together to develop and implement wildfire training and policy.

According to the NIFC website, the BLM operates the NIFC campus, but decisions are made using the interagency concept.

"Nationally we're broken down into geographical units. So NIFC helps support those units," said Carrie Bilbao, NIFC Public Affairs Specialist.

NIFC is the third tier in a three-tier system. It's not the first organization to respond to a wildfire; a local agency is, whether that's a city or county fire department, a rural fire district, a range or timber protective association, a state lands agency or a local unit of one of the federal agencies under NIFC's umbrella.

Local dispatchers answer calls for their agency's jurisdiction - for example, the Boise District BLM - and stay in communication with incident commanders on the ground.

"So (the incident commander) basically gives me the size up - lets me know if he needs anything beyond what we've already sent to him. And tells me what the fire's doing," said Mark Rich, Lead Dispatcher for Boise District BLM.

Rich or another dispatcher enters into a national computer database information about a fire, including what resources are being sent to the fire.

KTVB was with him earlier this summer when he answered a call for a wild fire near Lake Lowell in Canyon County.

"I can put in the lat (latitude) and long (longitude), and then when I hit the response tab, like today we're in a high so it says I need to send an AirTac, six engines, a dozer, a water tender, a battalion and an investigator," Rich said.

Rich can also use his own discretion. The key is not to over-send or under-send crews and equipment.

"Because of the fire report and what they told me, I was able to tone that down to just one crew and an investigator," Rich said.

Rich's decision to downgrade the response was spot on. Firefighters were able to quickly extinguish the fire near Lake Lowell with no added resources needed.

If a fire grows beyond what one local agency or district can handle, and help from neighboring agencies is either unavailable or not enough, the response goes to the second tier -- one of ten larger geographical units across the U.S. Each unit is responsible for allocating resources to fires within their unit.

The Boise BLM is located in the Great Basin geographical unit. If it had been necessary, Rich would call fire managers at the Great Basin headquarters for additional resources to help fight the Lake Lowell fire once local, tier one efforts are exhausted. Each geographical unit has the capability to quickly mobilize additional crews, aircraft, equipment and other resources from a broader area within its geographic region.

If the fire continued to grow in size or complexity, or there were multiple incidents burning in the Great Basin area that exhausted the area's resources, fire managers at the Great Basin headquarters would then call the National Interagency Coordination Center at NIFC.

NICC provides support and assistance by mobilizing response resources across geographic areas and across the nation; from Florida to Alaska and Maine to California. Whether it's getting an air tanker from South Dakota to Arizona, smokejumpers from Alaska to Oregon, engines from Idaho to Florida or hand crews from California to Texas, the National Interagency Coordination Center manages the mobilization of everything from a single resource to entire large incident management teams.

"They've been dispatching things like equipment such as engines dozers trying to find crews like hand crews hot shot crews, they have an aircraft desk that supports you know where aircraft is going as well and supplies," Bilbao said.

But there are only so many air tankers, hot shot crews, engines and the demand can be great. That's why top fire managers at NIFC prioritize resources. Top priority goes to fires threatening life, followed by fires threatening property, including natural and cultural resources.

"At that point you're definitely scrambling more," said Rich. "Because we may have to let some fires go while we're staffing the ones that are considered more critical."

Having enough resources has always been a dilemma for fire managers. How to go about solving the issue is another ongoing dilemma. Some want to allocate more money and resources and increase firefighter pay. Others argue the nation needs to be more proactive at mitigating fires rather than reactive. There's even a push to let smaller fires simply burn out on their own.

The same dilemma, the same conversation, every fire season, while those on the front lines keep fighting on.

"We kind of live by the mantra you fight the fire you've got," Rich said. "So if we're not getting fires and somebody else is, we need to be helping them."

NIFC also supports responses to other types of emergencies, including floods, earthquakes and terrorist attacks, but wildfires are NIFC's focus.

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