What is a Fire Incident Buying Team?

  • By Jeffrey DeSalles, Fire Team Member and Administrative Assistant, and Paul Wade, Public Affairs Specialist, Pacific Southwest Regional Office
A sea of boxes sitting on crates mark the area for supplies at a fire camp. Workers organize supplies into bundles to be handed out. A group of people work at makeshift desks in an office. A tent is filled with open boxes of supplies. A Forest Service employee carries a box of supplies. Bright orange signs point people towards the supply point at a fire camp. A RV sits on a fire camp with the door open and a sign saying “ORDERING” taped on it.

"The line between disorder and order lies in logistics …," said Sun Tzu, a Chinese general you might have heard about from the 6th century. If you search the Internet for quotes about logistics, you’ll find many military leaders equate the proper use of supply management to winning wars. They also warn that not getting what the troops need to fight the battle is a recipe for failure.

"Leaders win through logistics. Vision, sure. Strategy, yes. But when you go to war, you need to have both toilet paper and bullets at the right place at the right time. In other words, you must win through superior logistics," business management expert Tom Peters wrote in Fast Company magazine in 2001.

When a wildfire gets beyond the initial efforts to suppress it, a whole series of actions begins, which can involve multiple agencies and tens of thousands of federal, state and community employees and volunteers. A number of organizational systems and procedures coordinate the people, actions and logistics required to contain the fire and protect people, pets and property.

The initial disorder comes under control. A base near the fire is built. A battle plan is created. Armed with the right tools, supplies and resources to attack the flames, firefighters prepare to go to war against one of nature’s fiercest opponents.

Tons of boxes and supplies litter an area on a fire camp.

Boxes, tables, stacks of odd and ends, all distinguish the area for supply storage and ordering at a fire camp. (Forest Service photo by Jeff Desalles)

When you visit a fire camp for the first time, the experience can be shocking; a whole community has sprung up out of nowhere with the mission of managing, battling and containing a fire. Those thousands of responders, working day and night, will need a ready and steady supply of food, equipment and supplies. Each year the U.S. Forest Service maintains permanent caches of emergency items vital to supplying an initial response to a large wildfire or natural disaster. But that stockpile can only carry them so far.

“The buying team takes care of all the supplies outside of the cache. The items they get are equally important to things in the cache,” said Steve Elrod, a receiving and distribution manager with the State of California. “Any little missing things are taken care of. Without the buying teams, we could only do half of what we do in [fire incident] camps.”

Unique items and things of a less permanent nature — think shelf-life — must be acquired immediately by Forest Service employees who are trained and positioned to meet that very need. These are the logisticians who make up the fire incident buying teams. Such teams deal with items that can only be used once or for a short period. Unlike the fire camp personnel, buying teams must be close to stores to get items, usually staying in hotels and spending 12 hours a day anywhere from a supervisor’s office to a motel, receiving orders, researching availability and locations, going to buy goods, and quickly getting the items back to the “office” to transfer to drivers, who then transport the goods to the fire camp.

A fire camp worker grabs supplies from the supply depot.

A California Conservation Corps member gathers supplies needed during the Railroad Fire. (Forest Service photo by Jeff Desalles)

The turnaround between receipt of the order and delivery must be fast, and the paperwork is laborious, as every item must be documented, from the rental of a forklift, bulldozer or copy machine to the purchase of 500 cubic yards of woodchips (to keep the dust down in an eating area) or boxes of writing pens. Those items are pretty typical, but buying teams also face unique challenges like receiving generators from forests to keep koi pond water oxygenated or ordering food pellets to keep goats fed after residents were evacuated

Particularly when fires are started by people, which happens more often than lightning-induced natural fires, public lands agencies try to recoup the huge costs of fire suppression, and future litigation may require that every receipt be reviewed and documented thoroughly.

“Logistics is the backbone of a fire camp, and getting urgently needed materials is vital,” said Gloria Smith, Fuels Battalion, Sierra National Forest.

Fire incident responders usually order only what they need, so there are very minimal things left over. If it can be used again, an item will be transferred to the cache so that nothing is wasted.

“We couldn’t run a fire incident camp without buying teams. They take care of all the things not in the cache. Accountability is important, and [the buying team leader] keeps everybody in line,” said Jose Sanchez, Sierra National Forest, who is responsible for feeding firefighters at a fire camp. “Once a buying team has been set up, we know that things are going to be taken care of.”