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The calm in the eye of the fire storm

by Erika Kirsch Western News Editor
| September 5, 2007 12:00 AM

There's nary a dull moment during the high season at the Kootenai National Forest dispatcher's office.

The season for dispatchers begins when prescribed burns are started, which is in April and May, according to U.S. Forest Service Dispatch Center Manager Frank Waterman. In the early spring, dispatchers head to training for the upcoming fire season.

The dispatch center has five full and part-time employees who coordinate firefighters and equipment during the fire season. All the dispatchers working in the Kootenai District office started their careers as firefighters.

Waterman began his career with the Forest Service 30 years ago and became dispatch center manager on April 15. Waterman worked in the field for most of his career and continued to move up through the administration side of the Forest Service and found himself in dispatch.

Forest Service Dispatcher Mickey Carr started as a firefighter six years ago and began working in the dispatch office in 2003.

"I really liked firefighting, but I wanted to do something different but still wanted to help out," Carr said. "I tried dispatching and loved it."

Beginning his career as a firefighter approximately five years ago, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Initial Attack Dispatcher Cobey Williamson began dispatching at the Kootenai National Forest Supervisor's Office this season. As to why Williamson made the switch to dispatching, "Life just led me here," he said simply.

During the height of fire season the office becomes chaotic, but the site of "organized chaos," Waterman is quick to add.

"We have all the phones ringing, all the radios are going and then someone walks in," Carr explained. "We take all the calls, but the firefighters are our number one priority."

There are many human-caused fires and the season generally lasts from May to October. Employees stationed in the lookouts find many fire starts, Waterman said. There are lookouts in the Blue Mountain, Black Butte, Marston, Calx, Swede and Ziegler areas.

"They're amazing, they find a lot of starts," he continued.

Residents and visitors are also helpful in identifying fires in the surrounding forests. Air patrol is also on the duty of fire spotting and daily air patrols are done as needed, Waterman said. The local district has two helicopters and two air observer planes.

When a fire is spotted, dispatch order engines, equipment and manpower for the fires present in the district. They will also help out as needed with firefighters and equipment at other fires in other districts and states.

Summer storms are a frequent cause of many fires on the national forests.

"The good lightning bursts are when the fun starts," Waterman said.

During the storm on June 19, when several trees were blown over and the Libby Drive-In Theatre was demolished by high winds, there were roughly 100 fires started by that storm and the ensuing lightning strikes.

There are dispatching clerks in the offices throughout the district that also help dispatch during the fire season, Williamson said.

"We have extremely effective fire suppression here," Waterman said.

"The initial attack and fire suppression organization does an outstanding job. Others don't have the success we have had," Williamson continued.

When there aren't any fires that need the attention of dispatch, the crew retrieves fire information from the Internet and gets all the information from other districts to find what engines and other equipment is available between all the districts, Williamson said.

"We know what resources we have available and we get the weather and other information from each district so we're ready for the next day," Williamson explained.

Local loggers also help out during the fire season. They will donate their time and equipment to help aid the Forest Service and other agencies during the fire season.

"We couldn't do a lot of it without them," Waterman said.

When the fire season slows down for the year, the dispatchers battle paperwork and update logs from the fire season. They must document what personnel were on the fires, record times worked and add names and training for each person on the fires to log books, Carr said. There are 450 individuals who participate in some form of fire suppression on the Kootenai district. Updating regional and office manuals is also a crucial component to the dispatchers' job.

Although the job is stressful, the crew still loves coming back every day.

"It's totally random," Williamson said.

Carr agreed, saying the career of Forest Service dispatcher was "an adrenaline rush."

Although Williamson and Waterman were new to the office this year, they took many cues from Carr and Forest Service Assistant Center Manager Steve LeFever, who have been in the dispatching field a bit longer. They also thank the community for their ongoing support.

"The public watches and is very helpful and tells us about fires, we could not do it without the help of the public," Williamson explained. "They stopped going out in the forests and quit having campfires even before there was a heavy restriction. It helped us out a lot and we just had to watch for lightning."