Friday, August 31, 2007

Fire commander keeps flames, public in control

Jeanne Pincha-Tulley quietly becoming local hero

Express Staff Writer

Incident Commander Jeanne Pincha-Tulley takes a moment to relax and explain how she ended up in charge of the 1,670 firefighters working the 46,000-acre Castle Rock Fire. The Alabama native is the first and only female out of the 17 interagency incident team leaders in the nation. Photo by David N. Seelig

It didn't take long for Ketchum residents to realize they were in good hands.

Standing in front of a big crowd in the Hemingway Elementary School gymnasium at the first fire-related community meeting Monday, Aug. 20, California Interagency Incident Management Team 3 Commander Jeanne Pincha-Tulley achieved the near impossible. No, she didn't instantaneously extinguish the flames of the then rapidly expanding 10,000-acre Castle Rock Fire, but she did manage to restore calm to hundreds of local homeowners inching toward panic due to the proximity of the flames and the dearth of information.

Exactly two weeks after the infamous lightning strike ignited the fire, Pincha-Tulley explained Thursday that her ability to maintain an affable attitude in the face of intense pressure is a result of her upbringing.

"I grew up with eight Italian males. You had to learn to either fight or smile," Pincha-Tulley said, appearing completely relaxed as she sat outside of the River Run Lodge, which has been transformed into her command center.

"Besides, I'm from the Deep South where things are done graciously," the Alabama native said with her seemingly omnipresent smile during a rare moment of free time in her 16-hour work day.

However, looking at her resume, it would be remiss to think her extensive experience doesn't play an integral role in her demeanor as well.

Pincha-Tulley, who now lives in Grass Valley, Calif., found her calling in 1978 when she began working as a seasonal firefighter on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest crew while earning a degree in Forest Management from the University of Washington. Gaining permanent appointment the following year, Pincha-Tulley worked her way through the firefighting ranks, which took her through five different national forests in three states. In 1986 she began serving on incident command teams, working on fires all over the United States, including remote parts of Alaska, and became an incident commander three years ago.

"It was love at first sight and I haven't left fire since," Pincha-Tulley, said of her attraction to the job. "Like the other firefighters here, I feel a strong need for public service. Of course, we're also all adrenaline junkies."

No doubt, the latter statement is true for the 48 year-old mother of two, whose major focus has been on aviation, prescribed fire and suppression.

"There's nothing better than sitting at the edge of an open door flying over a fire," Pincha-Tulley said delightedly, adding that 594 of the countless hours of her career have been spent in a Blackhawk helicopter. "It's so much fun being at the top of a bucket flight."

Despite her level of responsibility, she laments the fact that as incident commander she doesn't get the opportunity to be in the midst of the action.

"It's difficult when things are blowing up like they did (on Tuesday) on Bald Mountain. But I have different things to anchor and flank, like logistics and making sure the city and county are covered for cost," said Pincha-Tulley, who is also the Tahoe National Forest chief of fire and aviation when not on assignment with her interagency incident team. "I can handle 16 hours out in the field no problem, but you should see me in the office after a day. A lot of firefighters have type A personalities, so idle time is a bad idea."

Not that she has had to sit still too often during her tenure as incident commander. On her first assignment, she was tasked with recovery at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Among her responsibilities was providing a staging area and multiple camps for disaster response personnel, as well as the major point of distribution for food, shelter and emergency supplies for southern Mississippi, an area that was also devastated by the natural disaster.

And after working the 160,000-acre Day Fire that threatened Los Angeles in 2006, it's no wonder Pincha-Tulley seems unflappable as smoke and ash continue to blanket Ketchum.

"It's so close to being contained that we'll stay here until we can hand it over to a Type Two incident team," Pincha-Tulley said, adding that she usually spends a maximum of 21 days on any one assignment. "We have a great setup here, though. The community has been absolutely amazing with its cooperation and generosity. And it's been really cool to watch fly-fishermen come wading by our camp."

Although Pincha-Tulley was offered the use of a cabin, she has a tent set up just like the rest of the firefighters based at River Run.

"To be honest, though, I sleep in my car most of the time," she said, explaining her reason had nothing to do with a desire for creature comforts. "I'm allergic to grass. I forced my husband to let me dig up a large portion of our yard to put in a broad path."

Perhaps this is one of the many reasons she commands such respect from her crew.

"To be a Type One incident team leader is to be part of a very elite club," Operations Section Chief Joe Reyes said. "It's difficult to make sure a team comes together and meshes well, and that starts with the leadership."

Out of the 17 interagency incident team leader in the nation, Pincha-Tulley is the first and only female, a fact that she downplays, saying that while she's proud of the accomplishment, it's of no importance when she's fighting a fire.

"She's the boss, and I have no problem with that," said Reyes, who is in his first year with Pincha-Tulley's team. "It's not only skill and qualification, but personality. This is one of the best teams I've worked on."

Both Reyes and Pincha-Tulley exude an amazing optimism about an incident that the general public, seeing only the gigantic plumes of smoke, would take to be a sign of the apocalypse.

"There's an unfortunate combination of high altitude, unusually dry weather and an unfavorable wind pattern that makes it a real race to get things done," Pincha-Tulley said. "I'm looking forward to getting this contained rather than to when I might get time off."

When that time comes, Pincha-Tulley said she will unwind by enjoying a bottle of champagne with her finance chief and then heading home to be with her family and resuming her favorite pastime, which would surprise most of those whose homes she's protecting.

"I do a lot of quilting," Pincha-Tulley said with a smile, clearly used to the shocked response she gets from this revelation.

As incident commanders can only lead a team for a maximum of five years, Pincha-Tulley has a big decision looming in her future.

"You can go onto area commander, but that's kind of like going to the dark side. You're even farther away from the smoke and flames," Pincha-Tulley said of her potential future in firefighting. "And retirement is out there somewhere."

While the locations of most incidents leave Pincha-Tulley feeling as if she's seen enough of them to last a lifetime, Ketchum's new favorite personality said she's excited to come back when she's not in charge of saving the town.

"It would be neat to see this in winter time," she said from the patio at the base of the River Run ski lifts. "It would give all of you a good laugh to see me on the slopes, too."

Perhaps she'll be offered a place to stay when that time comes.

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