ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Big wildfires that burn hotter, faster and longer, so-called megafires are becoming the new normal in the West. Already this year, more than 2 million acres have burned. Tens of thousands of firefighters battle those blazes, but only 17 people nationwide are qualified to lead the folks who fight the megafires.
SIEGEL: They're called Type 1 Incident Commanders and they are the elite of the elite in wildland fire fighting. These commanders manage the most destructive and complex wildfires, the ones that often make national news. NPR's Nathan Rott caught up with one of those incident commanders on a fire in Southern California. She is the first and, until recently, the only woman to attain that rank.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: A line of fire engines rumble off of Southern California's Pine to Palms Highway into a dusty field. The drivers' faces are smudged with soot. Across the highway, helicopters land in short brown grass, filling with water and fuel. The scenic San Jacinto Mountains behind them are bare and black, burnt clean of tree and bush by the mountain fire. It's a 22,000-acre blaze that's destroyed 23 structures and forced 6,000 people to evacuate.
And it's still growing in two directions. There are towns on either side. Jeanne Pincha-Tulley watches as one helicopter rises and veers north towards one of the fire's flanks.
JEANNE PINCHA-TULLEY: The firefighter in me is like, yeah, I wish I could go up there. But I got all of this other crap I got to deal with, so I'm like, really?
ROTT: By all of that other stuff, she means managing a multi-million dollar natural disaster, commanding over 3,000 firefighters, two dozen aircraft and, oh, yeah, protecting both of those towns. Pincha-Tulley is a Type 1 Incident Commander, one of 17 nationally and one of only two females to ever hold that rank.
In the world if wildland firefighting, she's tops, though you wouldn't guess it by looking at her command post. It's a bare bones trailer tucked in a row of others on what the fire camp calls Main Street. And it's a place that most firefighters don't even get to see. From this near empty shell, Pincha-Tulley directs a 20-plus-million dollar firefighting effort.
Wearing leather loggers boots and fire resistant pants, she orders air tankers, plans road closures and weighs contingency plans laid out by her operations chief. It's like being part military strategist, part small town mayor. And, yes, it's a lot. So excuse her if she's blunt.
PINCHA-TULLEY: You know, these options suck. I want you to know that.
ROTT: Pincha-Tulley has a reputation for being straight forward. She calls it as she sees it.
PINCHA-TULLEY: Does that mean I'm calm, cool and collected? No. I joke a lot because screaming is not a good idea. It just doesn't inspire confidence, you know.
ROTT: It works. People listen. In a workplace that's predominantly male, Pincha-Tulley is...
PINCHA-TULLEY: The queen of a testosterone poisoned world.
ROTT: But this is a serious business and it's gotten more serious since she started her fire career back in 1979.
PINCHA-TULLEY: You used to see a 20,000 to 30,000 acre fire maybe twice in your career. Now you see them, I don't know, you can see them twice in a month.
ROTT: Pincha-Tulley started firefighting like most young men and women do. She started on a hand crew, hers in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie area outside of Seattle.
PINCHA-TULLEY: That first week, they put us through all of this fire behavior, they put us through how to use the tools, how to use the safety equipment and then we went prescribed burning, and I'm like, really, we get to do this for real? And I just thoroughly enjoyed it and never left.
ROTT: She worked her way up through the ranks, on hand crews and helicopter crews, to captain and chief, aiming for the highest position a wildland firefighter can achieve, a Type 1 Incident Commander. It's like being a general in the military.
PINCHA-TULLEY: Think of us as 911. We're the last - there's no one else for us to call. We're it. We're really good at taking chaos and making order out of it. We're used to taking complicated and making it work.
ROTT: She's been an Incident Commander for nine years, which is remarkable; they usually step down after five. The job is demanding and requires a lot of time away from home and Pincha-Tulley has two children. But there's just not that many people out there with her level of experience.
It takes decades to get where she is and, frankly, she's not ready to leave. This is her home away from home, even when it's going up in smoke, which it probably does where her deputy, Vaughan Miller, gets back from a flight around the fire.
PINCHA-TULLEY: So what did you see in the blaze?
VAUGHAN MILLER: It doesn't look good, chief. Just to be honest with you, that thing's starting to heat up, up there. Yeah, that's heating up. That one's actually gonna be bad because you're going to have to then get people out of the way of that thing.
ROTT: She decides to put out more evacuation warnings.
PINCHA-TULLEY: It's a big decision. Don't misunderstand me, it's a huge decision, but I've dealt with fatalities. That's bigger.
ROTT: She says houses can be replaced. Firefighters cannot.
PINCHA-TULLEY: We can't replace those 19 kids in Yarnell or the 25 people total we've lost already this year.
ROTT: That's what being a Type 1 Incident Commander boils down to, she says, balancing resources and risks and what-ifs. Pincha-Tulley may prefer to be on the fire line, using a shovel instead of cell phone, but with more than 30 years of experience, few, if any, are better qualified to call the shots. Nathan Rott, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.