Five New York City firefighters have traded skyscrapers and subways for pine trees and canoes as they learn about big-time disaster management from an elite team of wildfire experts in the north woods of Minnesota.
They hope their training in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will help them effectively manage the worst type of disasters back home.
“It’s an eye-opening experience,” said Capt. Patrick Cleary, commanding officer of Engine Company 59 in Harlem. “I’ve seen a different management style. … I’ve seen people come together from all different agencies from all different areas, and it works.”
Pairing forest experts with big-city firefighters may seem odd, but officials say the matchup makes sense. Wildfire experts have been using an “incident command system” for years to respond to large-scale disasters and situations involving multiple agencies and complicated logistics.
Members of the wildland fire community took their skills to New York after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. One team helped coordinate the city’s response, while another team – currently in the Boundary Waters – worked on supplies.
“They filled a void,” said New York Deputy Chief Bob Maynes.
“In standard New York City emergencies, there’s probably nobody better” than the city’s firefighters, he said. “But once the Trade Center happened, it was something we weren’t used to. … We had a deficiency in multi-operational, very complex operations.”
A 2002 report that examined the response to the World Trade Center attacks recommended the Fire Department develop its own incident management team, specifically focused on urban terrorism. An agreement was set up to begin training with the wildland fire community, Maynes said.
Training started in 2003 and is ongoing, Maynes said. In addition to the five firefighters in Minnesota, seven are currently in Oregon and two were just returning from Arizona, he said.
The department now has its own Incident Management Team, which was deployed to New Orleans to assist officials after Hurricane Katrina.
And Maynes said the lessons learned in the deep woods could benefit every major city.
“In New York, we expect another attack sooner or later,” Maynes said. “We do see this as a glaring need nationally. There are attempts for us to help train (people in) other urban areas.”
In Minnesota, Cleary and his colleagues are shadowing members of the Pacific Northwest National Incident Management Team 2. This team is one of 17 national teams with that high-level of expertise in managing complex disasters. In addition to wildfires and the terrorist attacks, this team has also responded to Hurricane Rita and to the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia.
Cleary, who has been a firefighter for more than 15 years, is training with the public information officers on the expert team.
“There’s a reason why New York City sent five of us here,” he said. “These guys are the best at what they do.”
When he arrived to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which spans about 1,500 square miles along the Canadian border and holds hundreds of lakes and rivers, Cleary said he was overwhelmed to see the operation at work.
The incident management team had set up “a little city, and everything they need to support this operation to put this fire out is here,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine that they can get this much done this quickly, but they are the best.”
The fire began July 14 with a lightning strike, and quickly multiplied in size due to weather conditions and because the fire happened in the “blowdown area,” an area of about 550 square miles that contains trees that had been toppled in a 1999 storm. Those millions of trees have been drying out on the ground ever since, creating perfect kindling for an intense fire.
In recent days, the fire had been 45 percent contained, and had only spread to about 50 square miles, including 39 square miles of land.
As part of his training, Cleary hosted an information meeting for local residents and business owners. The situation was different from what he’s used to, but he said it went well, and the public wants to be informed.
“I think they were just amused by my accent,” he joked.
He’s also made the most of his wilderness experience, which includes his first moose sighting, sleeping in a tent instead of his small house on Long Island, and hearing crickets and birds instead of traffic.
“I haven’t slept in a tent since I was about 10, in my backyard,” he said, adding, “You know what really jumps out at you, is the number of lakes. … You drive a little bit and you see another lake … and each one of them is prettier than the next.”
“It’s been a great experience. It’s been a beautiful country, and I’d like to come back and visit with my family someday,” he said.
He also values the training and is anxious to share what he’s learning with his colleagues.
“Honestly, New York City firemen will get anything done at any time,” said Cleary. “What these guys provide is a system for getting things done more efficiently in the long run. …. Everyone has a job. There are no egos. You are here for a team.”