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Behind the Flames, Part III: A Fire Term Glossary


Watermelon Hill: On July 19th, Inland Northwest National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex fire management staff responded to the Watermelon Hill fire southwest of Turnbulll NWR, near Cheney, WA. Fire staff assisted with initial attack operations on the incident which grew to approximately 11,000 acres. Photo credit: Joseph Aiello /USFWS

Hi there! My name is Molly Cox. I work for the USFWS Pacific Region Fire Management Program. When I first came on board a few years ago, I learned pretty fast that Fire folks speak a different language. They’re so accustomed to speaking in ‘fire short-hand’ while working on wildfires, they often forget that others don’t know what they’re talking about. Here are some definitions of fire terms used frequently by firefighters but commonly misunderstood by the public:

Geographic Area Coordination Center (GACC) - The physical location of an interagency, regional operation center for the effective coordination, mobilization and demobilization of emergency management resources.

Most of our Pacific Regional Refuges and Fish Hatcheries are located within the Northwest Area Coordination Center (NWCC) which includes the states of Oregon and Washington. Visit their website ( to view a map of all current wildfires burning in the GACC.

Hotshot Crew (also known as Type 1 Crews) - Intensively trained 20-person fire crew used primarily in hand line construction and firing operations on wildland fire incidents.

Fire Management Officer (FMO) - within our region, we have nine fire management zones or districts, each with their own fire management officer or FMO (check out our Fire Management Zones map). The FMO is responsible for managing the overall fire program for his or her zone and provides support to the National Wildlife Refuges and Fish Hatcheries located there.

Fuelbreak- A natural or manmade change in fuel characteristics which affects fire behavior so that fires burning into them can be more readily controlled. Homeowners can better protect their homes from wildfire by mowing the grass around their properties, thereby lessening the fuels, or burnable vegetation, which limits fire growth.


Firefighters are shown here lighting the prescribed burn from a road. The road is used as a ‘fire break,’ preventing the fire from spreading out of the planned prescribed burn boundary. Photo credit: Ken Meinhart, USFWS

Fuels Management and Hazardous Fuels Treatments- The term “fuels” refers to flammable vegetation, also known as “hazardous fuels,” which can fuel a wildfire. Fuels management are actions by land managers to reduce and remove overgrown, decadent, or dangerous accumulations of vegetation, which can include prescribed burning, as well as other techniques or treatments such as mechanical thinning using chainsaws and other machinery, grazing livestock, and applying chemicals to kill weeds. 

Incident Command System (ICS) - is used to manage people and resources during many different types of incidents including fire, rescues, hurricanes, and more. An Incident Commander is assigned to the incident or fire in this case, along with an incident management team of personnel. There are five levels and types of ICS management. Type 5 is the least complex and is usually a very small wildfire, while Type 1 is the most complex. Type 1 incidents are very large fires, and have a large number of personnel and equipment assigned to them, including multi-agency and national resources.

Initial Attack (IA) versus Extended Attack- initial attack includes the actions taken by the first responders or resources to arrive at the wildfire. An IA Fire is generally contained by the attack units first dispatched, without a significant augmentation of reinforcements, within two hours after initial attack, and full control is expected within the first burning period. An extended attack incident is a wildland fire that has not been contained or controlled by initial attack forces and for which more firefighting resources are arriving, en route, or being ordered by the initial attack incident commander. Extended attack implies that the complexity level of the incident will increase beyond the capabilities of initial attack incident command (see the definition for ICS).

Prescribed Fire- A fire intentionally ignited by management to meet specific objectives. A written, approved prescribed fire plan must exist, and NEPA requirements (where applicable) must be met, prior to ignition. Within our region, we conduct prescribed fire treatments to reduce hazardous fuels and maintain and restore critical habitat for wildlife.

imageTurnbull National Wildlife Refuge is located in an area of northeastern Washington on the eastern edge of the Columbia River Basin, known as the Channeled Scablands. This rugged terrain supports an unusual pattern of wetlands, rock, ponderosa pine and aspen forests, grassland, and shrub-steppe habitat. Firefighters are shown here burning the meadow between a forested upland and wetland. To help plants and wildlife, refuge staff use a variety of habitat management techniques to maintain, recover, or enhance plant and wildlife values. The use of prescribed fire along forest and meadow boundaries reduces unwanted encroachment of ponderosa pine seedlings and restores grassland vegetation. Photo credit: Ken Meinhart/USFWS.

Red Flag Warning- Term used by fire weather forecasters to alert forecast users to an ongoing or imminent critical fire weather pattern.

Relative Humidity (RH) - The ratio or percentage of the amount of moisture in the air, to the maximum amount of moisture that air would contain if it were saturated. RH is another term used by fire weather forecasters. The potential of fire danger becomes higher as RH becomes more dry (a lower percentage number).

Spot Fire- Fires ignited outside the perimeter of the main fire by a firebrand (flaming or glowing fuel particles that can be carried naturally by wind, convection currents, or by gravity into unburned fuels.)

Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) - The area or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels. Fire management often focuses hazardous fuels reduction projects in the WUI to better protect our communities and infrastructure.


Conducting the prescribed burn was part of a high priority habitat restoration project at the Oxford Slough Waterfowl Production Area (WPA). The 1,853-acre WPA is mostly a hardstem bulrush marsh, interspersed with open water and surrounded by areas of playa, saltgrass flats, native wet meadow, and some cropland. The main marsh area is primarily bulrush emergent plants with some cattail. The goal of the prescribed fire was to burn off and reduce the dense bulrush and cattail. The burn proved successful- 670 acres were treated with 95% of the hazardous fuels reduced. Photo credit: Lance Roberts/USFWS

Explore the entire Behind the Flames series: 
Part I: How Entiat National Fish Hatchery Took on the MIlls Canyon Fire:
Part II: Prescribed Fire, Nature’s Medicine (in Spanish):
Part III: A Fire Term Glossary:
Part IV: Wildfire in Washington, Losing a Landscape that is for the Birds:
Part V: Fighting Fire with Habitat Restoration:
Part VI: Fire & Water, A Service Hydologist’s Take on Climate Change and Fire:


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