The Los Cuchillos Fire started as a result of a private aircraft crash in the rugged Los Cuchillos Hills area. Local firefighters responded at 8:00 a.m. By noon, as the fire quickly grew to 20,000 acres in scrub brushland, the Los Cuchillos Fire Department invoked its mutual aid agreements.
This bolstered the firefighting force by two teams. Even with five wildland fire strike teams on the fire, the fire had spread to 40,000 acres by 6:00 p.m. At 6:15 p.m., with all department and mutual aid fire assets committed, Fire Chief Ed Blakely called the County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and requested that Emergency Manager Fran Tinsley ask for outside help. Mrs. Tinsley phoned the duty officer at the State EOC, Ellen Burgess. Mrs. Tinsley requested that the State Emergency Response Act be invoked. Under the Emergency Response Act, the State Director of Emergency Management could commit State assets (people, equipment, and money) to the fire.
Ellen Burgess contacted Chief Blakely in the field. He quickly communicated the situation: “This fire is taking off and I cannot hold it. I have got three of my strike teams committed and two mutual aid teams on site. The well has run dry. Not only that, but this fire is headed straight for the Tres Rios Nuclear Power Plant. In fact, it just crossed the plant boundary and is only a mile-and-a-half from the plant itself. It is also threatening the Los Cerros housing community. You need to invoke the Emergency Response Act because I am going to need State resources.”
The State EOC had already been activated to monitor the situation as Acting State Director Rick Douglas considered the County’s request for State help. Rick was a cautious decisionmaker. He had encountered problems in the past when he had made decisions without getting all of the facts. Ellen Burgess stated, “The fire is out of control, mutual aid assets are committed, and the fire is headed for a nuclear power plant. There is really not much to think about.” Rick and Ellen did not work well together. Each felt that the other was untrustworthy and, as a result, there was little cooperation or communication between them. Rick turned his back on Ellen and pondered the request. The pace of State operations quickened as media calls came in requesting information on the fire. EOC staff were busy fielding the media calls, drafting situation reports, and trying to plot the location and size of the fire
Ellen confronted Rick with some issues. “Look, we need to move out on this thing. What is there to decide? The fire is out of control and heading for the nuclear power plant. They are overwhelmed even with mutual aid. We need to decide now, and we need to activate our full emergency staff here with an increased staffing pattern and shift schedule for the EOC.”
Rick backed away, holding his head and said, “Enough! You are making my head hurt. I am not going to make any kind of decision until I know how many fire rigs are on the scene.” He then directed the Operations Section Chief to call the fire scene to find out how many fire assets were committed. This took several minutes and did not produce a satisfactory answer when Chief Blakely confessed that he was not exactly sure how many rigs were on the scene because the two mutual aid teams had not reported their strength.
At 6:50 p.m., County Commissioner Vera Morgan called the EOC. Ellen fielded the call, called Rick over, and put Vera on the speakerphone. “We have just lost two homes in the Los Cerros community, and I want something done immediately, Rick. Invoke the Emergency Resource Act now!” “I am working on it right now, Commissioner,” Rick replied. “I will get right back to you.” As he hung up, Ellen noted, “She is one upset lady. We have got to invoke the Emergency Response Act. Those people need help now!”
“Okay, okay, don’t push me.” Finally, at 7:20 p.m., after Operations learned from Chief Blakely that seven houses in the Los Cerros area were destroyed and that the fire had spread to within a half mile of the nuclear power plant, Rick invoked the Emergency Response Act and released State firefighting assets from nearby Mancos State Park to deploy to the fire.
By the time the fire was controlled, it had grown to 65,000 acres, destroyed seven homes and two businesses, and burned within 300 yards of the nuclear plant. The State response time would be an issue in the Los Cuchillos community. What leadership problems do you see at the EOC? What are the likely consequences of the leadership problems?