Journal of an Alabamian fighting fires in California

In the photo, standing, back: Jim Coker Hoover PD; Bill Hunter Mobile Fire; Gene Coleman Birmingham Fire; front row: David Thornburg, AL Fire College; Shane Lovitte, Saraland Fire; Donnie West, Center point Fire; Matt Russell, Birmingham Fire.
In the photo, standing, back: Jim Coker Hoover PD; Bill Hunter Mobile Fire; Gene Coleman Birmingham Fire; front row: David Thornburg, AL Fire College; Shane Lovitte, Saraland Fire; Donnie West, Center point Fire; Matt Russell, Birmingham Fire.

Los Angeles, CA (WBRC) - Alabama's Type III Incident Management Team (IMT) sent seven members to Los Angeles County to assist with command and control functions related to the state's massive wildfire. This fire has consumed hundreds of thousands of acres and claimed the lives of two firefighters. These team members will  gain additional experience in managing large-scale incidents, while also providing staffing augmentation to the existing command staff at the event. Captain Jim Coker of the Hoover Police Department is sharing his stories with us daily.  Visit and watch FOX6 News at 6:00 for updates on the situation from the eyes of Alabamians. 

Below are entries from Captain Coker since he and the team left on Wednesday, September 2:

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Alabama IMT was "Demobed" (demobilized) today.  Our mission here is complete; we will return home Wednesday evening.  We experienced many things while in California, ranging from trying conditions to five-star hospitality on the part of our hosts.  The high point was at the Planning meeting today.  The team presented the Incident Commander with the Alabama State flag, and the firefighters on the team also presented him with the Alabama Firefighters flag.  

We take away a very high level of respect for the men and women who responded from many areas of the country to work on this incident.  They risk their lives daily, without complaint.  Their off hours are spent planning, and trying to bank some rest to prepare for the next trying day.  Compared to what many of them have gone through, our having to be part of a tent city seems to only be a minor inconvenience.

We will take home many lessons learned; our mission was to watch the overall command and control of a very large incident.  We will be able to translate these lessons to incidents which may occur in Alabama, or elsewhere if needed.

We are very grateful that our home agencies (Birmingham, Center Point, Hoover, Mobile, Saraland, and the Alabama Fire College) allow us to prepare to help our citizens and neighbors.  We have truly had an experience which will never be forgotten.

We are also overwhelmed with the interest that developed in Alabama in our response to California.  We would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to contact us, email us, or text us with their support. It has meant a lot to everyone on the team...and yes, a big thank you for all the football scores!

So, from the Alabama Incident Management Team:     We Stand Ready.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The fire, which even though it is 56% contained, made a breakout today.  The total area burned is, as of this morning, 157,220 acres, or 246 square miles.  The cost to date to fight this fire is 57.6 million dollars.

Two firefighters have been killed, a homicide, and 10 injured.

It will take a week, or longer, to totally contain the fire.  It will take many months, or years, after that to rehabilitate the forest.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The scope of this incident is almost beyond belief.  To put this in perspective, the City of Birmingham is approximately 150 square miles (96,000 acres); the City of Hoover is 43 square miles (27,520 acres), and the City of Mobile is 118 square miles (75,520 acres) (rough figures).  The fire involves, as of 0600 this morning, 157,220 acres. 
At one point since we arrived, the active fire line was over 112 miles long; nearly the distance from Bessemer to the Mississippi state line.  The fire has moved with varying speed; one of the speeds we heard was 6 miles in 45 minutes.  At other times, the fire has moved much more slowly.   It is 51% contained, but continues to develop and move eastward.

We sit in on all the briefings every day.  These include the planning meetings, the operations meetings, logistics meetings, etc.  We also have had opportunities to go in the field; our team members have made runs into the line areas, flown aerial recon missions, and have been involved with other missions.
One constant theme during the briefings is the safety of the personnel involved in the operation.  This fire has already caused deaths and injuries, and the Incident Commander has made safety his top priority.  The fire continues to approach MT. Wilson; this is a multi-billion dollar communications facility (a forest of is attached in the previous email).  The operations personnel are doing everything they can to safeguard lives and property in the path of the fire.

In the team photo, we are all wearing the yellow wildland fire shirts.  These are required any time you go anywhere near the fire line, as well as other protective gear.  You don't see these very often in Alabama!

The Incident Commander, in his briefing last night, stated that today could be "the pivotal day".  I should have some interesting information tomorrow for you about today's activities.

Also, in spite of the distance, via text messages from family, we managed to keep track of the football games.  Roll Tide!  War Eagle!   Go Jaguars! (Univ of South Alabama, who had their first football game yesterday in Mobile).

Saturday, September 05, 2009

In addition to shadowing our respective positions, some of us have had an opportunity to fly the area.  Matt Russell and Donnie West have made flights with the fire crews; I flew yesterday with the LA Sheriff's Dept Air Unit.

Here are some stats we got in the morning brief:

Acres burned:   154,655
The fire is now 49% contained
Cause:  Arson (this is a homicide investigation, being conducted by the LA Sheriff's Department)
Assigned personnel:  5, 244
12 Helitankers
7 Helicopters
8 Air tankers
Fire Engines:  343
Hand crews:   148
Bulldozers:  66

The fire has burned 242 square miles of land within the Angeles National Forest and the surrounding communities of La Canada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Acton, Soledad Canyon, Pasadena, Glendale, and Sierra Madre. 

The Alabama IMT continues to shadow operations being conducted by the Incident Management Team at the Command Post.  The Alabama team members are observing both Fire and Law Enforcement operations.  The Team expects to return to Birmingham Tuesday night.


Without the complete support of our home agencies, the members of the Alabama IMT would not have had such a fantastic opportunity to observe and learn.  The disaster management operations structure would be the same structure which would be used in the event of a major disaster in Alabama, such as a tornado or hurricane.   Our home agencies (City of Mobile, City of Saraland, City of Birmingham, City of Hoover, City of Center Point, and the Alabama Fire College) realize the need to prepare to work within events which call for large scale coordination among many agencies.  This is a team effort; not only among the team members, but among the local governments as well.

The structure itself is called "Incident Command", or in this case, because of the large number of agencies involved, "Unified Command".  This is part of what is known as the "National Incident Management System".  There are requirements for employees of government agencies to receive training in different levels of the Incident Command System.  The requirements differ based on position and responsibility.  


Sponsoring agency for the Team:  The Alabama State Fire College. Much of our training goes through them, as well as the funding which supports the Team. Alan Rice, the Director, fully supports the Team. David Thornburg, who is on the Team, and is here in CA, works for the Fire College.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Now, for the human cost. The body of the LA County Fire Captain was just driven by the command post as a final tribute. The procession included CHP, LASD, and LACFD. Patrol cars and fire apparatus lined the roads with their emergency lights on. The firefighters and law enforcement officers stood quietly at attention, arms extended in salute. This is a homicide investigation, as the fire is an arson. The other firefighter who died was expecting his first child in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A couple of the guys (Donnie West and Matt Russell) spent a good part of the afternoon flying in the helicopters through the canyons. The air crews were looking for further fire extension. It is amazing to see the command and coordination which is taking place...and to look at the tired crews as they come in off the lines. Many of the teams working the line are called "hot shot" crews. They are put in harms way with chainsaws and shovels. When walking through the camp, they walk in a single line. It is a matter of tradition, and pride. The "hot shot" crews are brought in from all over the country. Tomorrow we anticipate more work in the field.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Tomorrow we begin our "Shadowing" assignment. We each have specific positions we work with and observe. Examples:  Operations, Planning, Logistics. The purpose of the Alabama IMT is to respond to an area in need and assist the local authorities. We do not take over the incident, but provide resources and planning in hazard situations of all types. It has been interesting to see things we don't normally see; this includes a fleet of 20 helicopters and 8 aerial tankers. In addition, a DC-10 and a Boeing 747 tanker have been ordered for tomorrow. This is an incredible operation. We have been received with a level of hospitality which is beyond our expectations. Everyone is busy, but still take the time to explain operations. The same Incident Command system would be used if we had a major incident in our state. One last note:  they have 26 PIO's assigned to this incident.