The thing about wildfires is, they have no respect for mankind's bureaucratic or territorial borders.

With utter disregard for the Code of Federal Regulations, the range and forest fires that have swept large parts of Montana for the last two weeks have also wreaked havoc on governmental organization charts here.

A fire that starts on Bureau of Land Management land might be spotted by a Forest Service plane, which calls the nearest state or county fire crew to fight the flames. But then the wind blows the fire across a border into territory under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service or the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

All of which brings up that familiar organizational quandary: Who's in charge here?

The answer has been the "Ifcey."

The Ifcey, or "Interagency Fire Center" (IFC), is a cooperative force in which several federal, state and local agencies pool talent and equipment in a single fire-fighting command.

"It's a relatively new idea in federal service," said Dorothy H. Terry, a Forest Service veteran who was dispatched here from Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Oregon to work with the IFC in battling the fires in northwest Montana.

"It's a spinoff from a concept called the Incident Command System for handling disasters," Terry explained. "The system started in southern California, beause they are disaster city down there -- forest fires, earthquakes, you name it.

"And the idea is to get everyone assigned beforehand to a specific task in dealing with an incident. Then when the disaster happens, you know that everybody knows what his role is."

It was not always this way, recalled Bob Kellog, a veteran ranger at Helena National Forest.

"I can remember fires where we had seven different fire-fighting outfits show up, each with a different radio frequency so you couldn't talk to each other," he said.

Today, under the IFC system, a central "war room" is set up -- the one here is at a Montana State Lands installation north of the city -- and all the various departments, districts, agencies and services report to a single "Fire Boss."

The Fire Boss keeps track of his multifarious troops on a computer, as they fan out over miles of rugged land to contain and control a blaze.

When the fires eventually go out, each participant heads back to his or her agency. For the moment, however -- and during each summer to come, most likely -- the fire season creates a whole new agency pieced together from any office with people who can help.