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Washington Interagency Incident Management Team 5: An Interview with Incident Commander Dave Leitch

Looking north from Glenwood on Tuesday, August 25, a column of smoke rises from a burnout operation on Mt. Adams’ east side, which was burned to prevent the fire from advancing past an established line. As of Tuesday, Sept. 1, the Cougar Creek fire was 60% contained, with 505 firefighting personnel still on the job.

Photo by Michelle Scott
Looking north from Glenwood on Tuesday, August 25, a column of smoke rises from a burnout operation on Mt. Adams’ east side, which was burned to prevent the fire from advancing past an established line. As of Tuesday, Sept. 1, the Cougar Creek fire was 60% contained, with 505 firefighting personnel still on the job.

Monday, Aug. 31, saw the turnover of Washington Interagency Incident Management Team 5 (WAIIMT5) to Southern California Interagency Incident Management Team 3 (SCIIMT3). WAIIMT5 had been managing the Cougar Creek Fire since Aug. 12. A lightning strike on Aug. 10 sparked the fire.

WAIIMT5 worked on managing the fire for 19 days total, which isn’t common. Before turning over the operation to SCIIMT3, Incident Commander (IC) Dave Leitch, of WAIIMT5 met with The Enterprise to talk about WAIIMT5’s role in keeping everything in order.

“We manage the incident,” began Leitch who’s the Fire Chief of Yakima County Fire District No. 12 when not working as IC for the WAIIMT5. “There’s different levels of complexity of fires, or disasters, and we’re an all-risk management team.” People from all different backgrounds, from all over the state, comprise the team.

“We’ve been to lots of different places,” explained Leitch about the incidents that IMT5 has managed. “Strictly speaking, fire is where we do most of our work, because it’s a natural thing here in the western states.”

“One agency can’t do it alone, because it’s too big,” Leitch said. “[Communities] try to be self-sufficient for three to five days but as a fire gets larger they just don’t have the management structure, and so each agency supplies individuals to staff these teams that they’re committing to say ‘when large incidents happen we have key personnel that we’ll let be part of your team.’”

“As the incident commander I manage that team, I recruit, [and] I train,” explained Leitch, “I’m looking for the right individuals for the right positions.” Every year Leitch looks for more recruits while also trying to keep the same people on his team, at least seven people picked by Leitch directly report to him within the team.

“But it’s also my job to make sure that we’re creating new managers for the following years with new people in training positions, and not necessarily for my team but for others,” Leitch said. “It’s kind-of a militia because I have engineers, I have fire guys, I have just about anything you could think of that could make up that team.”

A lot of WAIIMT5’s members have backgrounds that aren’t specific to fire and come from a specific agency as a representative to help manage an incident. Such federal and state agencies as the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), state Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), as well as people involved in various fire departments and fire districts, all occupy stations in the Incident Management Team. “Fire’s not their full-time job,” explained Leitch.

The reason it’s done that way, both on a state and national level, is because governments can’t keep a team employed year-round. “This is a job that’s generally done three, four months out of the year,” Leitch explained. The team’s only assembled and deployed when there’s a need. “They call and then we go, and there’s five teams in Washington that rotate. Every week there’s a new team up,” explained Leitch.

“We’re kind-of a militia, you can’t afford to have us standing, waiting for a fire or disaster to happen, so we do our regular lives, [and] our regular jobs,” said Leitch. When Leitch is relieved from duty as IC for the Cougar Creek Fire he’ll return to his duties as Yakima County Fire District No. 12 fire chief. During his absence his wages are covered by the agencies who requested the IMT. For the Cougar Creek Fire the agencies involved in the fire are the Yakama Nation, DNR, and BLM.

“I’m a fire chief for a department,” explained Leitch, “and they’re committed to the good of the whole for the state of Washington. They look at the education I get out of it, [and] the experience I get to bring back to my people, and they’re paid back. Whatever agency is sending money here, whoever is paying for it, is paying for my wages back home to where it’s not a hardship on any one agency.”

“That has a tendency to raise the price of fire because we’re here 15-16 hours a day,” Leitch explained. The management team is on a strict schedule that usually starts at 5:30 a.m. with a tactical meeting and ends around 9:30 p.m. There’s no such thing as working shifts Leitch joked; everyone is on a schedule that encompasses the whole day.

Leitch started his training to become an IC in 2009 and spent three years as a deputy incident commander. In 2012 he became a full Incident Commander, “and that year we had five fires, it was busy,” Leitch said in between chuckles. “We were in Wyoming, we were in Nevada, it was crazy, and then we did three fires in the state.”

“Any management position on a wildland fire you have a training period, you work off a task book, there’s classes you have to attend,” explained Leitch. In his personal experience Leitch worked full time at another job, then used his vacation time to work toward finishing his training. “The higher you go up, the more classes, and the more experience you have to have.”

The structure of the management team is based on “span of control,” Leitch said, where five to seven people are kept under each person. For the Cougar Creek Fire the WAIIMT5 is set up like a pyramid: on top is Leitch as Incident Commander, then there’s a deputy commander who was reassigned to another fire to help a different team function efficiently, and five sections that answer to the IC.

“I have a planning section chief, I have a finance section chief, an operations section chief — he runs all of the air — and I have a logistics chief that takes care of all the food, housing, and supplies. So those guys all report to me,” said Leitch. Those section chiefs then have a section unit leader under them who brings reports back to the chiefs to relay to Leitch.

“It’s no different than running a store,” Leitch explained. “Everything at the bottom is funneled through finances, through your logistics supply chain, through your planning, [and] advertising.”

“I’ve been with this team since 1996,” said Leitch about the WIIMT5. When the IMT was assigned to Glenwood, Leitch got a call from the home office that told him the details of the assignment, and who to contact to arrange when and where the team would assemble. From there Leitch reached out to his seven main team officers, who then contacted their units, the rest of the team was then contacted by the main office.

A 50-person unit responded to the request for an Incident Management Team for the Cougar Creek Fire. Once the team reported to Glenwood, where it’d be stationed, members received a briefing of the situation from the people who were running the fire at the time and the agencies that the team is working under. In the meeting, the agencies delegated fire management control to IMT5, “with dollars, with objectives, what they want accomplished and then we take and run the fire from there,” Leitch explained.

When the team meets its operational limit, or finishes its task, section chiefs deliver details entailing how much money was spent, and what the problems were. Sometimes a team doesn’t resolve an incident within its operational limit of 14 days and ends up turning management over to another IMT.

“Right now in the state there are at least five teams from outside of our area, or from New Mexico, Arizona, South Dakota, down through there,” said Leitch. “Different areas have sent teams up here, because we have five [teams] in Washington and four in Oregon and they’ve all been used.” This season has been hard for those in fire service; warm dry conditions around the northwest have created perfect conditions for wildfires.

The ultimate goal for the team is to work for the firefighters, Leitch said, making sure they’re taken care of so they’re able to put forth their best when fighting the fire. Planning for how to combat the fire is always 72 hours ahead of the present moment to try and stay on top of the fire, Leitch said.

“It’s just one of those unusual years,” Leitch said. “We’re spread thin.” Washington Incident Management Team 5 reached its 14-day operational limit on Aug. 26, but was granted a five-day extension that allowed it to continue its efforts until Aug. 31.

As of Tuesday, Sept. 1, the Cougar Creek fire had burned 54,000 acres, with 60% of the fire’s perimeter contained, and 505 personnel working the incident.


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