Refuge Notebook: Incident Command System adapts to record-setting wildfires

The August Complex Fire of 2020 on the Mendocino National Forest in northern California is officially the state’s largest wildfire in history. At over 1,000,000 acres, it started being referred to as a “gigafire.”

It dwarfs the second largest fire on record, the Mendocino Complex Fire in 2018 at about 459,000 acres, by almost two times. With new wildfire records for size and complexity seemingly being set on a yearly basis, agencies are being challenged to adapt like never before.

One component of fire management that will likely remain mostly unchanged, along with our love for using acronyms, is the system that all fire agencies follow when managing any fire event within the United States. It is called the ICS or Incident Command System.

ICS was originally developed in the 1970s by an interagency group in Southern California called FIRESCOPE. The impetus for the development of the system came after a particularly active fire season of 1970. At the time, multiple fires occurred simultaneously, and the confusion and lack of coordination caused many problems.

Individual Command Posts and fire camps were established by multiple agencies for the same incident. Resources were frequently passing each other, some going north while others were going south. The chaos caused chaos among first responders. A better, more coordinated, more efficient system was painfully needed.

The ICS system we use today was derived in part by leveraging some parts from the previous fire management system called LFO (Large Fire Organization). LFO had been developed after World War II by returning soldiers who applied their military command experiences to wildfire management. It bore some resemblance to the military system, but not so much that it could be directly linked.

The design was intended to ensure that uniform terminology, incident organization, and procedures were used which would be required to ensure that actions would be coordinated when two or more agencies were involved in a combined effort.

Other problematic areas that were addressed included the concept of span of control, and how differing policies, procedures, facilities and equipment could be integrated into one uniform organization.

New areas were identified that would need to be included in the new system, as well, such as resource monitoring and tracking, situation assessment, logistics, communications and clear responsibilities for how decisions are to be made.

In 1974, the framework for today’s system had been developed. The new system included five separate functions including command, planning, logistics, finance and operations. Each of the functions contain sub-units that have specific responsibilities.

Frequently, these functions are formed into what are known as Incident Management Teams, or IMTs.

The largest teams are rated Type 1, with approximately 45 to 100 members. Type 1 teams respond to the biggest, most complex incidents with most or all positions filled by separate individuals. Some positions may have more than one person assigned to help with span of control or to adapt to whatever the situation requires.

Then the teams get progressively smaller based on complexity, going from Type 2 all the way down to a Type 5 incident. On a Type 5 incident, one single person can fill all the positions at once (incident commander, plans, logistics, operations and finance).

While ICS was developed to solve the incident-level management challenges, MACS (Multi-Agency Coordination System) was developed to address the off-site coordination issues above the incident level. MACS operates at either a local, regional or national level to help with planning, coordination and operational leadership, as well as coordinating and prioritizing resources to ensure that incidents are efficiently managed in a cost efficient manner.

MACS is designed to work in conjunction with ICS to be an independent yet interrelated system, and is an equally critical component of successful incident management.

While the intent in 1974 was for ICS and MACS to be used to manage wildland fire field activities, it was almost immediately recognized that it could be useful for many other all-hazard/all-risk type situations. It would work just as well responding to many other types of incidents such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and even terrorist attacks.

The ICS system has been used for many different types of incidents since its inception. As of 2005, this system is the model currently being used as the national standard for the Department of Homeland Security, Department of State for responding to international emergencies, FEMA and the Coast Guard.

It has also served as a model for other countries to use in the way they manage fires and all risk type situations. Australia and Canada both utilize their own versions of ICS, which is slightly different than ours, but the core concepts are the same.

During the infancy stage of ICS and MACS, unofficial trial runs first occurred on several incidents in California beginning in 1975. The system was also used by the Los Angeles City Fire Department on a high rise fire, which proved it could be utilized for many different types of risks, not just wildfire. Initially the deployment of the system in the field occurred in southern California with varying degrees of buy-in and success.

In 1978, the Pacoima fire on the Angeles National Forest became the first large incident to officially be managed using ICS and MACS. Training an influx of first responders to the incident proved very difficult, and after only three days the fire went back to the old LFO system.

However, implementation was inevitable. First responders gradually began to learn and accept the new way of doing business, and eventually by the mid-1980s the entirety of the United States fire response agencies had adopted the new system.

What struck me the most about the August Complex other than the sheer size was the complexity associated with managing it. A MACS group coordinated response from the regional level, an area command team coordinated activities and allocated resources among four (four!) different Type 1 Incident Management Teams that had split the fire up geographically.

Starting around mid-September, the Alaska Type 1 team was assigned as one of the four teams and spent about 21 days helping to manage the incident. Never before have so many teams been needed for a single incident, which shows the benefit that it theoretically can be as large or small as needed.

Anecdotally, there were some issues with coordination and communication with the incident, and there are always lessons learned and things that can be done better. Agencies try to learn and improve from past experiences by holding after-action reviews, which identify problematic areas and options for improving. However, overall the system is performing the way it was designed and is being tested like never before.

Nate Perrine is the Acting Southern Alaska Refuges Assistant Fire Management Officer. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at