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Monday, 29 October 2007 01:08

The Use of ICS in Calabas-Malibu Fire

Written by  Deborah Serina, Stephen J. Alexander, & Glenn S. Mutch
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The Calabasas - Malibu Fire was a testimonial for the use of the Incident Command System (ICS). On Monday, October 21, 1996, a 'red flag watch' was declared due to the dry Santa Ana winds in Southern California. This alert called for the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) to staff extra personnel to patrol various areas and increase wildfire response levels. LACoFD staffed extra apparatus, hand crews and overhead personnel, had aircraft on standby and initiated immediate standby of the Incident Management Team (IMT).

When the Calabasas Fire started, it was initially reported by a passerby to the local firestation as a power pole fire. The station captain requested the dispatch center to start a full brush response to a location off the 1O1 Nentura Freeway, west of Parkway Calabasas.

The initial on-scene report was a fire in the grass and light brush running uphill with moderate winds. Due to the predicted Santa Ana wind conditions, the Battalion Chief responding to the incident immediately and upgraded the response to a second alarm.

ICS was in place from the onset of the fire and rapidly expanded to cope with the magnitude and complexity of the incident. In the initial attack phase of a wildfire, the plan is to directly attack the fire and stop the spread as quickly as possible before lives or structures are endangered. This is referred to as a direct attack or offensive mode.

Following the Los Angeles County Fire Department and Incident Command System procedures, the first officer at the scene assumed the Incident Command function and named the fire 'Calabasas'. The Incident Commander divided the fire into two divisions (A and B); one on the right and the other on the left flank of the fire. Initially there were no structures threatened by the fire so as units arrived on scene they were assigned to one of the two divisions.

Engine companies were directed to extinguish the flanks or perimeters of the fire with hoselines. Hand crews and dozer teams were assigned to separate the unburned areas from the burned area by cutting a line in the vegetation down to mineral earth. The aircraft that responded were directed to extinguish or slow the progress of the head of the fire by dropping water or retardant directly on the fire.

Although most of the first and second alarm units arrived at the incident within 30 minutes, the Incident Commander quickly determined that the fire was going to spread rapidly beyond his current resource capability.

Due to the flying embers that were starting spot fires ahead of the main body of the fire, the prediction was that the wind driven Calabasas fire would burn to the Pacific Ocean. Because of the rapid fire spread, an immediate decision was made to change to a combination of operational strategies.

The direct attack or offensive mode would continue on the flanks of the fire. Units were directed to initiate a defensive mode to protect structures that were in the direct path of the fire.

Working closely with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, a coordinated effort to evacuate endangered residents ahead of the fire was initiated. As the Calabasas Fire raged through the canyons, more than 1,000 residents were asked to evacuate their homes and drive their vehicles with caution along Pacific Coast Highway directly out of the danger area.

The newly named Calabasas - Malibu Fire created raging fireballs, active flareups, and dangerous fire tornadoes while the smoke and ash from the burning landscape filled the air. Tensions accelerated as roads were closed and the sky was darkened.

Once it was determined that the Calabasas - Malibu Fire was going to expand beyond local agency resources, the LACoFD Incident Management Team #3 was activated to cope with long term command, logistical, and planning needs. Under IMT #3, the organizational structure expanded to five branch directors, 21 division supervisors and three group supervisors.

Operations were divided into day and night operational periods. Direction for each operational period was provided through an operations briefing held at 0600 and 1800 hours daily. A complete review of the Incident Action Plan for the upcoming operational period was provided for overhead. Incident objectives, safety, air operations, weather considerations and communications were clarified prior to assuming responsibilities on the line.

The long term incident objectives were identified as follows:

  • hold the fire within the established fire lines
  • provide for firefighter and public safety at all times making sure that life safety is everyone's responsibility
  • keep property losses to a minimum by aggressively protecting all structures and improvements in the path of the fire and to maintain presence after the fire front passes
  • aggressively mop-up 100 feet in from the fire perimeter
  • use the Fire Finder to verify that all hot spots are eliminated
  • inspect control lines.

During the incident, the ICS organization mobilized 94 engine strike teams (5 engines per strike team), 30 single engines, 95 camp crews, 8 water tenders, 6 dozers, 7 helicopters (including 2 helitankers), 6 fixed wing aircraft (including 2 superscoopers), 3 fuel tenders, 5 food dispensers, and 2 field kitchens.

Resource orders placed by the Incident Commander that could not be filled by LACoFD were forwarded first to ECC Region 1 then to other regions. State and federal agencies completed the resource orders.

Some of the local businesses that were directly in the path of the fire included Hughes Research, Pepperdine University, Saddle Peak Lodge Restaurant and businesses along Pacific Coast Highway. The responsibility for protecting and assigning resources to these structures was with the Branch/Division/Group where these businesses were physically located.

Most of the structures that were threatened had equipment pre-deployed around the structures prior to the arrival of the body of the fire.

After six houses, two mobile homes and three vehicles had been burned and 11 people (including six firefighters) had been injured, the Calabasas-Malibu Fire was fully contained at 6 p.m. on Sunday, October 27, 1996. Over 13,000 acres had been burned mobilizing a total of 4,049 firefighters in the Incident Command System organization.

The Need for Planning

Southern California experienced 26 fires in 1993. Unfortunately, 19 of the 26 fires were arson related. As a result of the 1993 fires, LACoFD implemented several new preparedness programs and accelerated related projects that were already in progress.

Some of these projects included:

  • a map based wild land pre-attack plan (WLPAP) for all of Los Angeles County
  • the establishment and training of four Incident Management Teams based on the concept and organization of National and Regional Incident Management Teams
  • adding Class 'A' foam proportioning devices and compressed air foam systems to three apparatus
  • purchasing and placing water eductors on all pumping apparatus
  • developing and presenting community education and awareness programs
  • increasing the enforcement of flammable vegetation clearance and fuel modification programs
  • establishing a brush clearance office (BCO) to assist field personnel with obtaining compliance.

These programs and projects have enabled the LACoFD to plan, execute and control an incident with better communication and manageability of personnel and resources.

What is the Incident Command System?

The Incident Command System is one of the five basic components of the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS). SEMS is a management system that provides an organizational framework and guidance for operations at each level of a state's emergency management system.

By law, state agencies must use SEMS when responding to emergencies involving multiple jurisdictions or multiple agencies. The intent is to improve the coordination of state and local emergency response.

The basic framework of SEMS incorporates the use of the Incident Command System developed under the Fire Fighting Resources of California Organized for Potential Emergencies (FIRESCOPE) Program. The Incident Command System (ICS) is a nationally used standardized on-scene emergency management system.

ICS is based on the following operational principles and components.

  • Common terminology
  • Modular organization
  • Integrated communications
  • Unified command structure
  • Consolidated action plans
  • Manageable span of control
  • Designated incident facilities
  • Comprehensive resources management

An ICS organization is developed around the following five major functions that are required on any incident whether it is large or small.

  • Incident Command
  • Operations
  • Planning/lntelligence
  • Logistics
  • Finance/Administration

If there is a need to expand the ICS organization, additional positions exist within the ICS framework to meet virtually any need. ICS is a major step in increasing the effectiveness of California's response to emergencies at the field level.

As a result of the preplanning efforts, the flow of emergency information and resources within and between the agencies, the process of coordination between responding agencies, and the rapid mobilization, deployment, use, and tracking of resources were effectively facilitated in this incident.

At the end of the Calabasas - Malibu Fire incident, state and local officials declared a successfully managed incident due to the professionalism, skill, and courage of the 67 assigned agencies.


The Calabasas - Malibu Fire clearly demonstrates that if a business is organized along SEMS and ICS guidelines then the interface with public safety agencies will be better understood in an emergency.

By conducting drills and exercises before a disaster happens, employees can be assigned tasks in an organized manner and learn their roles and responsibilities.

Businesses should be ready for the possibility of business downtime, electrical and communications failures, and employee absenteeism. Employees that attend community education programs given by the fire department are an asset to their employer in that they may be able to supply critical information to a responding agency.

A community does not recover from a disaster until its local businesses are fully functioning and operable. Products and services that provide the necessities of life are critical to the residents and visitors of a community after a major disaster occurs.

The private industry's ability to learn how to effectively work with local government agencies in the use of the Incident Command System during major disasters can help expedite the recovery of local businesses.

Deborah Serina is president of RDR Services Company located in Malibu, CA. Stephen J. Alexander is a Los Angeles County Assistant Fire Chief and Glenn S. Mutch is a Los Angeles County Battalion Chief.

This article adapted from Vol. 10#1.

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