USDA Forest Service1957 Report to the Chief

This 1957 report was submitted to the Chief of the Forest Service by a task force including W.R. Moore, V.A. Parker, C.M. Countryman, L.K. Mays, and A.W. Greeley. Their cover letter is online.

This report marks the origin of the 10 & 18 and of the research into and use of fire behavior knowledge in wildland firefighting. This report was also a milestone in the development of both NARTC and the incident command system.

The photos in this online version were not a part of the original report; most of them came from the USFS Historical Photographic Collection in the National Agricultural Library's Special Collections Section. A handful of minor changes (e.g. spelling, punctuation) have been made to the online version of this report.

Roosevelt National Forest, 1952

Roosevelt National Forest, Colorado. Mobile hose crew fighting spot fire along George Creek. Taken by Charles M. Benedict, June 13, 1952.



This report is submitted in response to the Chief's F-CONTROL Suppression memo of April 12, 1957. By that memo, the Chief appointed a task force to study ways the Forest Service may strengthen its efforts to prevent fire fatalities.

Objectives:  The task force was given these definite assignments:

  1. Recommend further action needed in both administration and research to materially reduce the chances of men being killed by burning while fighting fire.
  2. Recommend ways to develop experts in fire behavior.

Since this study has been purposely centered on fire fatalities by burning, we have not reviewed general safety practices nor injuries due to causes other than burning. However, carrying out the recommendations made in this report will probably be very beneficial in improving the general level of safety practice in fire suppression.

Procedure:  We reviewed pertinent material that could be made available on the casualty-causing fires of the past 20 years. We interviewed in Washington and in the field some 30 Forest Service employees representing six regions and several stations. One of our members interviewed qualified spokesmen from the State of California and from Los Angeles County. We also solicited suggestions from Forest Service regions and experiment stations. Ideas from these several sources were catalogued, combined, and fully discussed by the task force.

The Problem of Tragedy Fires

According to available records, since 1936 there have been 16 tragedy fires on the national forests in which 79 men lost their lives by burning. Such fires occurred in 11 of the 20 years, and in seven regions. Eight of these fires involved the death of more than one man. All of the fires became of Class E size before control, although all were not Class E at the time the men were burned. The Southern California forests, in spite of their reputation for bad fires, have had only five of these fires, on which 26 men died. Tragedy fires occurred in all months from July through November. There was also one in May.

Well documented and complete records are available for some -- but not all -- of these tragedy fires. The task force reviewed the records that are available, looking for threads that run through all or most of them.

From what we could deduce, there are two factors which were common to all the fires reviewed. These were (1) fuels which burned in a flashy manner, and (2) a period of critical fire danger at the time and place of the occurrence that resulted in injury. A third factor appeared to be present on all but one of the fires. That was fire behavior which was not expected by the men who were trapped.

See the South Canyon fire behavior report.

On several of the fires, the possibility of unusual fire behavior was anticipated by someone on the fire, someone not connected directly with the affected crew. While every fire was a fast-moving fire at the time of the accident, not all of the fuels would normally be classed as flashy fuels.

Smokejumper Ray Johnson cools a hotspot

Payette National Forest, Idaho. Smokejumper Ray Johnson waters down a hotspot. Taken by Lowell J. Farmer, July 10, 1952.

There are a large number of factors that were common to many but not all of the fires. Any analysis now is limited by suitability of records. Based on a critical hindsight look, we have grouped under eleven captions the factors which seemed to us to be significant. They are as follows:

  1. Unexpected fire behavior - Basic elements not understood; indicators of change in usual fire behavior not recognized; local fire weather forecasts not obtained, inaccurate, or not understood.
  2. Instructions - Not followed, not clear, or not given.
  3. Foremanship - Lost control of men at critical time.
  4. Line supervision - Overhead busy on minor jobs, not available when major decisions had to be made.
  5. Communication - Not available, not used, or broke down.
  6. Firefighting strategy and tactics - Control effort made in wrong location or without adequate margin for safety; detailed line location incorrect.
  7. Scouting - Not done, not thorough, too dependent on air scouting.
  8. Escape plan - Not formulated, not explained, not executed.
  9. Lookout posting - Routine practice not followed.
  10. Organization - Men and machines committed to action without adequate supervision, or without adequate tie to rest of organization.
  11. Post-injury actions - Delayed first aid; search for injured delayed or not thorough; rescue facilities inadequate.

For each of the five major tragedy fires (eleven or more men killed), there was a significant failure in at least seven out of the eleven groupings listed above. On all five fires, serious inadequacies or failures are listed under items 1, 2, 5 and 8. With the exception of number 11, all the items were significant on at least three fires.

Item 11 is difficult to appraise. Probably the rescue facilities were inadequate on every fire. We have shown this as "Critical" on only two fires because we conclude that on the other three post-injury actions were prompt and were made with facilities that were adequate for the state of medical knowledge of that year.

Most of these items were also significant on the fires which happened to kill a smaller number of men. For the fires in this group, the records or the stage of action on the fire was such that direct comparisons item by item are not feasible or else not significant.

By way of comparison, we also reviewed several well-documented "near miss" incidents. It was very apparent that the rescues achieved in these "near miss" situations came about because someone did not fail in one of these critical categories. Instructions were carried out, the foreman retained control of the crew, the escape plan was executed, or some cool head sized up a local change in fire behavior and figured out what would happen in time to get men to safety.


There are several significant things about the preceding list. Many of these items represent sins of omission which our trained men recognize as sins. Many of these items appear time and again in the summaries of fire boards of review on non-tragedy fires. Except for some of the fire behavior topics, the items on this list are covered to some extent in the fire overhead training which most regions used to give. We are not certain that all regions now give consistent training covering all these items to fire overhead personnel.

1953 Mud Creek Fire on the Shasta

Shasta National Forest, California. Mud Creek Fire - man and hose, taken by Jack Rottier, July 1953.

It is apparent to us that efforts to reduce fatalities must be aimed at:  more effective organization, more assurance that good firefighting practices will be used under all circumstances, better foremanship, better functioning of all segments of a fire suppression organization, better strategy and tactics based on confident anticipation of fire behavior, more expert forecasts of fire weather and fire behavior made available currently at the scene of the fire and more expert interpretation of these forecasts. In short, we will probably have fewer casualties as we do a better and more effective job of managing the suppression of a fire. Our recommendations are aimed at improved performance in these categories of major need.

Any measures that will reduce fire occurrence, or increase the proportion that are controlled as small fires, will work toward the same end. Efforts to improve performance in these respects should be vigorously continued. But the Forest Service must be prepared to deal effectively with the small percentage of fires that become big and burn as a fast-moving fire in any fuel type.

In order to keep the spotlight focused on major needs, we have purposely limited our recommendations to the major areas we believe must have attention. We have not tried to incorporate here all the excellent suggestions received, many of which deal with important details. These will be turned over the Division of Fire Control.

Action Required

We visualize that to materially improve the effectiveness of managing suppression of large fires it will be necessary to do ALL of the following things:

  1. Standardize service-wide practice regarding suppression organization, procedure, and terminology, and probably standardize some other phases of fire control, too.
  2. Assure acceptable training in these standardized practices by using service-wide courses for training crew bosses and also for training other categories of fire control overhead. Couple the training courses with a standardized service-wide system of fire overhead qualification ratings based on training and experience and supported by tests and rating cards. Safe practices in firefighting would be an integral part of this training.
  3. Meet the special problem of training men in fire behavior by establishing a service-wide Fire Control Training Center to train fire behavior specialists, to give centralized intensive training for fire bosses, and as necessary, to train regional fire control officers as fire trainers. Direction of all fire training activities should, in due course, come from this unit.
  4. Get existing knowledge of fire behavior written up in form suitable for widespread field use, and press for expanded research in fire behavior. If necessary to secure results, these needs should be given priority over other phases of the fire research program.
Fire on the Angeles, 1956

Angeles National Forest, California. Fighting a small fire on the Angeles. Taken by Edsel Corpe, June 8, 1956


The recommendations have been divided into two parts. Part A consists of items which are suitable for immediate action and should be put into effect during the 1957 fire season. In Part B are included actions for which some preparations will be needed, either plans or assignment of men, or fitting some items into future budget requests.

A.  Items that are suitable for immediate action:

1. Adherence to "Principles of Organization"


Require, effective immediately, adherence in all regions to the pattern of organization for fire suppression set forth in the 1953 publication titled "Principles of Organization for Fighting Forest Fires."

Interforest and interregional details of fire overhead continue to be a necessary part of the way we fight fire. It is possible to have a lack of clear understanding by men from different units as to the meaning of terms, the duties of various fire overhead positions, acceptable ratio of fire overhead to firefighters and machines, and the accepted relationship between segments of the fire organization. Failure to apply these organizational principles was a factor in some of the recent tragedy fires we reviewed.

2.  Crew Boss Training in Blow-up Conditions.

Conduct service-wide training courses for crew bosses in safe practices under blow-up conditions, using the attached training outline. This training should be given by the regions and forests to all men likely to be used as crew bosses during the remainder of the 1957 fire season.

Review Boards for the tragedy fires have consistently emphasized the need for greatly strengthened training of firefighting personnel in fire behavior and related fire action. A permanent program of training in this and related subjects is covered in a separate recommendation. There is, however, a step that can be taken as an interim measure.

Region 6 has prepared a training outline entitled "Safe Practices under Blow-up Conditions for Crew Bosses." For a starter, on a service-wide basis, this outline does an acceptable job of covering the general subject. With some changes which we have made, it is suitable for use by all of the regions for putting on a training course adapted to regional conditions. Each region should arrange that training in this subject be given the men who are most likely to serve as fire crew bosses.

Cooling down a log, Cherokee National Forest, 1952.

Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee. Firefighter "cooling down" a burning log along the fireline on the Laurel Branch Fire, Wautauga Ranger District. Taken by LeLand J. Prater, November 1952.

3.  Standard Firefighting Orders.

Adopt for service-wide use the attached "Standard Firefighting Orders." These orders are to be committed to memory by all personnel with fire control responsibilities.

Military organizations have had long experience in training men to remember certain fundamental instructions and to react even in emergencies in accordance with those instructions. One device by which such discipline is achieved is that of "General Orders," which all men of the unit are required to memorize. On some of the fires that we reviewed, men who knew better just did not pay adequate attention to good firefighting practices that seem like small details but could become the critical item in an emergency. The use of a form of standard orders starting immediately would be a long step in the direction of assuring attention to the fundamentals.

4.  Communication on Campaign Fires.

Give increased attention to communication on campaign fires, including exploring the use of transistor-type receivers, and encouraging the practice that receivers on all radios used on a fireline on a campaign fire be "on" at all times.

One of the threads that run through the action on most of the tragedy fires (and also on fires that merely got big) is breakdown of plans for communication on the line, or inadequacy of such communication. In some cases, the breakdown may involve not having communication facilities in use during a critical period of five minutes or less. This subject requires continuing attention, but there are things that can be done now to emphasize this critical item. At least one region follows a practice that radios issued to fireline personnel on campaign fires have the receivers "on" until the sets are returned to camp. All administrative units should go at least this far.

Additional points the task force
believes should be emphasized

The preceding four recommendations comprise items that can be made immediate targets of service-wide action required by the Chief's office. There are four additional points which should be emphasized this year. The emphasis on these points will have to come from the regions in their training efforts.

a. Proper line location.   For the overhead on a fast-moving fire, this topic involves one of the very critical decisions affecting safety of men and spread of the fire. This is a decision which should be made by the most qualified overhead available, usually a man of not less than division-boss caliber. If a control line cannot be placed right on the edge of a fire, the line should be located a sufficient distance from the fire edge to provide a margin of safety for the men and to allow adequate time for the line to be constructed and burned out before the main fire reaches it. This decision must consider possible changes in burning conditions and the fatigue factor of the men.

Fog nozzle mop-up on the Lolo

Lolo National Forest, Montana. Mop-up operation using fog nozzle. (Fire date and photographer unknown). Photo sent in on February 10, 1953.

b. Interregional fire details for training fire overhead.   This existing policy needs a shot-in-the-arm. Some regions have not had campaign fires in recent years. Those regions are short of men with recent experience in handling large fast-moving wildfires. They will get it only by going as trainees to such fires in other regions.

c. Use of daily time schedules in coordinating plans and action on campaign fires.   A frequent cause of sloppy fire suppression action is the matter of delays resulting from decisions not made in time. An effective way to assure the making of decisions on time is for the fire boss to prepare a simple timetable and insist that it be followed. This timetable would include the time by which major strategy decisions must be made for each shift in order to allow time for coordination with action on other sectors, preparation of instructions, crew travel time, etc., and to permit top overhead to coordinate their actions and to get needed rest.

d. Use of local qualified men as fire behavior advisors to the fire boss.   Review Boards of the last three tragedy fires emphasize the need to do much more in bringing existing fire behavior knowledge to bear in planning control action of fast fires in bad fuels. The full answer to this need requires long-term action. But there is one thing that can be started now. There are a number of highly experienced firefighters who have accumulated for their home locality comprehensive knowledge of fire behavior. Much might be gained by using such men in a capacity as advisor to the fire boss.

B.  Items that will require preparatory work:

1. Standardization of Practices.

a.  Standardization of Fire Control Organization.

Recommendation:  Standardize Forest Service practice regarding fire suppression organization, procedure, and terminology in all regions.

There can be no room in a heads-up firefighting organization for anything but the best firefighting practices. Historically, the regions have developed their own organization methods and have assimilated practices from other regions only slowly. Even strong pushing from the Chief's office has sometimes failed to persuade some regions to apply a "best" practice if it is someone else's.

1953 Fish Fork Fire on the Angeles

Angeles National Forest, California. Ranger lighting backfire along Prairie Fork Creek on the Fish Fork Fire. Taken by Jack Rottier, September 1953.

During developmental years, independent searching for methods is highly desirable. But later on there comes a time when the best practices must be pulled together and the whole organization must incorporate those best ways as standard procedure. The 1953 publication of "Principles of Organization for Fighting Forest Fires" and the 1956 edition of "Glossary of Terms Used in Forest Fire Control" were long steps in this needed direction.

It seems probable that future years will see ever greater dependence on fire overhead detailed from forest to forest, and from region to region. Improved air transportation makes this increasingly feasible. Localized terminology and forms of organization can only be sources of confusion. This will be especially true as mechanization of the fire suppression job increases.

If the Forest Service is to successfully carry on the massive increase in training effort which it must do, there can be only one firefighting system in which men are trained. That must be the Forest Service system. The Service cannot afford misunderstandings about meaning of terms, patterns of organization, duties of various jobs, and other fundamentals of fire management.

See the Wildland Fire Assessment System (WFAS) currently managed by the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, in Missoula, Montana. The National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS) computations are based on once-daily, mid-afternoon observations (2 p.m. LST) from the Fire Weather Network, which comprises some 1500 weather stations throughout the conterminous United States and Alaska. The system produces fire danger maps, fuel moisture maps, Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI) maps, weekly Palmer Drought Index maps, and lightning ignition efficiency maps.

Mandatory adherence to "Principles of Organization for Fighting Forest Fires" and "Glossary of Terms Used in Fire Control" should be required in all regions. The Division of Fire Control should also take active leadership in determining other action phases of fire control that should be standardized on a service-wide basis, and in seeing to it that standardization works.

b. Standardization of Fire Danger Rating Methods.

Recommendation:  Establish uniform methods of rating fire danger in all regions.

In all of the disaster fires reviewed by the task force, burning conditions were either unusually severe, or such low fuel moistures existed that only a change in wind was needed to make the fire situation extremely critical. In many areas, bad fire days occur so infrequently that the major part of the experience gained by our fire control people is on fires occurring during easy to moderate burning conditions. The task force believes that lack of information and experience in the potential of fire under extreme burning conditions is an important contributing factor in fire deaths. Some quantitative measure that will accurately indicate the relative seriousness of any set of burning conditions is essential to safe and effective fire control. This is one of the chief purposes of fire danger rating.

At present there are several danger-rating systems in use by the Forest Service. Each system integrates the effects of weather, fuels, and other burning factors on the control job in a different way. Thus it is possible for the same set of burning conditions to be evaluated differently depending on the system used. It is also possible for men new to a region and unfamiliar with its system to be seriously misled through inability to correctly appraise the significance of ratings given by the local system.

None of the fire disasters reviewed can be directly attributed to the confusion created by different danger-rating systems. The situation is potentially dangerous because of the increasing interregional use of fire control men and the increasing use of fire danger rating in all phases of fire control. The task force has concluded that steps to standardize fire danger rating within the Forest Service should be taken as soon as possible.

Development of standard methods of rating fire danger is a joint responsibility of Forest Administration and Fire Research. It is recognized that the job is extremely complex because of widely varying fuel and weather conditions and the different ways danger rating is put to use. It was agreed at the National Fire Research Conference in Missoula in 1955, however, that standardization of fire danger rating is technically possible and feasible.

Sleeping Child Fire, Montana, 1961

Bitterroot National Forest, Montana. Sleeping Child Fire - active fire with heavy lodgepole pine fuels. Taken by W. E. Steuerwald, August 1961.

The task force estimates the cost of developing uniform danger-rating methods at about $150,000. The job will require three to four years to complete.

2. Fire Control Training

a. Training for crew bosses and other fire overhead.

Recommendation:  Establish a system of qualifying men for fire overhead ratings based on standardized training and qualifying experience appropriate for the level of responsibility to be assumed.

There are no standardized training outlines to cover fire overhead positions. Most forests give training for fire crew bosses. The pattern of training for other fire overhead varies widely rom region to region, and also from forest to forest.

The NWCG now maintains a Multi-Agency Training Schedule (MATS) online, including wildland fire and aviation training courses taught throughout the U.S. and hosted by federal, state, and local cooperating agencies. The schedule is updated daily, and is searchable by state, region, course, location, or date.

With standardized practice in fire suppression, as covered in Recommendation 1a, it will be feasible to have standardized training for the various fire overhead jobs for service-wide use. It will also be possible to set up a reasonably uniform system of qualifying men for the various levels of fire overhead responsibility, based on successful completion of training courses plus successful completion of qualifying experience.

The task force believes that, as a minimum, Fire Control should prepare standardized training outlines and training material for (1) crew bosses, and (2) all other fire overhead. The regions should train their own men, using the standard outlines and training material. Fire Control should also prepare a schedule of training and experience considered necessary for men to qualify as:

  1. crew boss
  2. sector boss
  3. division boss
  4. fire boss
  5. other categories such as line boss, service chief, and plans chief.
In 1999 the Incident Operations Standards Working Team of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) revised the National Interagency Incident Management System's Wildland and Prescribed Fire Qualification System (PMS 310-1). The 310-1 was revised again for the year 2000.

Based on this schedule, the regions should then administer a program of qualifying individuals for various fire overhead positions, using rating cards issued to individuals as they qualify. Special attention must be given to the qualifications needed for men to be used in interregional assignments. Many of the features of this recommendation are now used by individual regions.

Fire Control also should spark the preparation of training aids for giving the standard courses and inspect for results in the quality of training given.

It would be very desirable to have this system well under way in time for the first guard training camps in 1958.

b. A training center

Recommendation: Establish a service-wide Fire Control Training Center.

Santo Domigo firefighter on the Sitgreaves, 1956

Sitgreaves National Forest, Arizona. Santo Domigo (New Mexico) Indian firefighter in June 1956.

The purpose of this Center is primarily to provide a high level of training for fire behavior specialists and a nucleus of fire bosses. This is training which requires special facilities and instructors, and which cannot be given as training on the job. The Center will be concerned directly with the training of (1) fire behavior specialists; (2) fire bosses (after training they would be called fire suppression specialists); and (3) instructors for other fire control personnel. The Center will also develop the necessary courses and training aids needed by these instructors.

The need for training fire behavior specialists is now widely recognized. This must be a highly specialized type of training, given only to men who have some special aptitudes. There are two choices, (1) either contrive university training at existing schools regardless of how long it may take for each man, or (2) determine precisely the training that is needed and make special arrangements for selected men to get it in the shortest practical time. The task force concludes that the latter course represents the best answer. The special training needed can be best arranged in a central location that has access to university facilities and instructors. Part of the instruction would also have to be given by Forest Service fire behavior experts. A statement on the instruction that must be included is given in the appendix.

If the Forest Service is to do a more effective job of fire suppression management, there must also be high-level fire generalship training for the men concerned with this management, the fire bosses. Because they should have the best training possible in fundamentals of fire behavior, a logical arrangement would be for fire boss trainees to receive training in fire behavior from our experts in conjunction with the training to be given the fire behavior men. Training for fire bosses should also include fire suppression organization, maintaining command under emergency conditions, drill in organization relationships, study of past campaign fires, and field practice on prescribed burns, slash fires, etc.

Airstrip Fire, 1967, Willamette National Forest

Willamette National Forest, Oregon. A logger uses a pulaski to churn up dirt on the fireline around the Airstrip Fire. This work was later voided because the fire, which had crowned, soon passed over his head. Taken by Samuel T. Frear, March 1967.

We believe each region should have a nucleus of trained fire bosses who can take over the tough, big fires with appropriate help from the local forest forces. The Forest Service is already beyond the time when it could afford the luxury of planning that every ranger would always be the fire boss on his own district. The first men picked to receive fire training should be younger men already experienced as fire bosses.

R.O. fire control staff officers should also receive the training as fire bosses. They should also be trained as instructors so that they can sparkplug in their region the crew boss and fire overhead training covered by Recommendation 2a. This instructor training should be a function of the Center.

The following plan and time schedule is suggested to get the Center under way:

First Step:  Select two qualified Forest Service men, one from Administration and one from Research, to work with representatives of the Division of Fire Control and the Division of Fire Research on:

  1. selection of sites for in-service training, university instruction, and field problems
  2. method of selecting trainees
  3. development of a curriculum
  4. preparation of instruction material
  5. arrangements with a major university, perhaps on a contract basis, for specialized courses in subjects relative to fire behavior
  6. arrangements for in-service instructors
  7. preparation of a financial plan and program details as required
This step will require about 15 months.

Second Step:  Start the Center with the first group of trainees. Correlation with classes at the university, in-service training, and field projects including slash burning, prescribed and controlled burning, and actual fires will have to be worked out in detail.

It is estimated that it will require from seven to nine months of intensive training for the fire behavior specialists and approximately three months for the fire bosses. One additional month should be planned to qualify those specialists who will serve as instructors for regional training programs.

The first group of fire behavior specialists should be limited to five trainees. The second and subsequent groups perhaps could be increased to ten trainees. The fire bosses should be trained in groups of ten. It is thought that five fire behavior specialists and 20 fire suppression specialists could be trained the first year the Center is in operation. The program should be continued until at least 25 fire behavior specialists and 60 fire bosses have been trained under the centralized training system. After this number have been trained, the program should be reanalyzed and the number needed on a permanent basis determined.

Estimated finances for the Center by years are as follows. These figures include salary and expenses for the trainees.

$25,000 for salary and expenses of the two in-service men selected to establish the Center.

Training five fire behavior specialists:
University courses$ 4,400
Regular salary and expenses for trainees40,000
Proportionate share of in-service instructors, training materials, and Center operating expenses10,000
Sub-Total: $54,400
Training 20 fire bosses:
University courses1,100
Regular salary and expenses for trainees66,000
Proportionate share of in-service instructors, training materials, and Center operating expenses10,000
Sub-Total: $77,100
Total through second step:  $131,500

Fireman Training School, Willamette NF 1963

Willamette National Forest, Oregon. Fireman Training School, 1963 - Practice fires give trainees actual training in firefighting. Left to right: Bob Wilson, Lowell Ranger District, and Dennis Caird, Oakridge Ranger District. Practice fire in South Fork Delta area of Blue River Ranger District. Taken by L. Parker, June 18, 1963.

Subsequent years in which the Center would train at least 10 fire behavior specialists and 20 fire bosses would cost approximately $185,900 annually, including the salaries and expenses of the trainees.

3. Fire Research

a. Fire Behavior Research

Recommendation: Assemble and compile existing knowledge of fire behavior, and prepare from it material for lesson plans and training aids; press for an expanded program in fire behavior research.

Action is needed on the following three items:

  1. Existing knowledge of fire behavior must be assembled and compiled. Most of the information from formal research is now in the heads of comparatively few men. This information must be assembled and put into form so that it can be made available to firefighting personnel. The responsibility for assembling the fire behavior information is primarily that of Fire Research. High priority should be assigned to this task.
  2. Fire Research and Fire Control will then need to put together for field use lesson plans, training aids, etc., that utilize the information from No.1 above on fire behavior. This need is essential in order to have material available for the massive increase in training effort recommended in item 2a. Fire Research and Fire Control have joint responsibility to get this job done.
  3. The Forest Service as a whole must press for an expanded and balanced program of fire behavior research that can make realistic progress in providing badly needed quantitative fire behavior information. Items 1 and 2 are essential, but by themselves they are seriously inadequate. Item 3 is a "must" because present research effort in this field is not great enough.

All the written reviews on tragedy fires commented on the urgent need for more and better information about fire behavior. We acknowledge the need for other fire research too, such as research in fire control and fire prevention. It is fire behavior research, however, that offers the greatest chance of providing results that will prevent deaths by burning. Quantitative information is needed that will answer such questions as:

CCC boys on 1933 Dunsmuir Bridge Fire

Dunsmuir Bridge, California. CCC boys on Dunsmuir Bridge Fire. Taken by Capt. Daniel Sheehan, October 14, 1933.

What changes can be expected to occur in rate of spread, direction of spread, intensity of burning, crowning, and spotting in the next few minutes? Or this planning period? Next planning period? What sequence of changes can be expected in this work shift? Next work shift? What does the fire weather forecast mean in changes in fire behavior in different sections of the fireline? What are the critical time limits for direct attack? Backfiring? Danger to men? Where are the danger spots? Places of safety? How hot will the fire burn? How large a safety spot is needed? What action can be taken to counteract unwanted fire behavior?

These are only a few of the many questions concerning fire behavior that must be considered in making decisions and planning action on wildland fires. Men's lives depend upon the correct answers and actions.

The various phases of fire behavior research, such as fuel studies, fire weather studies, combustion processes, etc., are so interdependent that for the present at least comparatively little progress can be made in applying results in one phase without new work in -- or new information from -- another. For example, it is of comparatively little value to know that a roll eddy will develop on the lee side of a ridge with certain wind and topography unless it also is known whether the eddy will affect the fire and -- if so -- how. Likewise, information on effect of fuel arrangement or fire intensity is of limited usefulness unless there is some practical means of identifying and classifying fuel arrangement in the field. Fire behavior research must, therefore, progress as a whole balanced program in order to make a significant contribution to better fire control and saving lives on the the fireline.

b. Operations Research

Recommendation:  Make an operations research study of the entire problem of organizing for fire suppression.

One way to minimize the risk involved in fire suppression is to make sure the fire suppression organization we use is the best one to get the job done. Application of the operations research technique to this problem offers the most promise of providing the best solution possible.

An essential characteristic of operations research is that it seeks to find the optimum decision, policy, or design -- and not merely a better solution to the one in use. Limitations in funds, time, or scientific information may prevent finding the best solution, but operations research is always aimed at getting as close to the optimum as possible.

Another important characteristic of operations research is its "team" approach to the problem. The research is carried out by scientists drawn from different scientific and engineering disciplines. A major reason for these teams is to bring the most advanced scientific procedures to bear on the problem, or to develop new procedures if necessary. The idea is that no one mind can hold all of the potentially useful scientific information -- but the combined minds of the team may.

We believe that the operations research approach holds much promise and that an operations research study of the entire problem of organizing for fire suppression could pay big dividends over the long pull. At least initially, this work should be headed up in Fire Control Research. We believe that this work should not be undertaken until it can be financed from additional funds, since funds now available are urgently needed for work in fire behavior and immediately related research.

Fire weather is critical to firefighters

Weather forecasts specific to wildland fire have been provided since as early as 1916 when the U.S. Weather Bureau was still a part of the Department of Agriculture. An agreement between what is now the National Weather Service (NWS) and the federal land management agencies specifies that fire weather meteorological support will be provided for fire. All of the issues noted in this 1957 report, however, are still fire weather issues today.

4. Other Items Needing Special Attention

a.  Fire Weather Forecasting

Recommendation:  Make a special point of continuing to work closely with the Weather Bureau to improve fire weather forecasting services.

To the fire boss, predictions of fire weather are as important as predictions of fire behavior. A specialist in fire behavior cannot function as an advisor to a fire boss without access to fire weather forecasts. A strenuous effort to improve our management of large fires would contain a void if the fire weather forecasting phase should be overlooked.

The Forest Service must keep working with the Weather Bureau to obtain appropriate recognition of fire weather forecasting problems and needs. These Weather Bureau needs include:

  • Personnel problems of recruitment, training, and career development
  • Adequate financing for the number of mobile units or special fire weather forecasters required by our estimates of fire needs
  • Continuing research in techniques
... and there are no doubt others. Because the Forest Service is a principal customer for fire weather forecasting services, the Forest Service must impress the Weather Bureau with the importance of those services, and must be as helpful as possible to that agency in solving problems it encounters in improving fire weather forecasting service.

b. Career Development

Recommendation:  Make a determined effort to improve career possibilities for non-technically trained fire control personnel; secure greater recognition of professional aspects of fire control in academic training.

Career limitations in the present fire control aid series result in the loss of well qualified fire men to woods and other industries, state and county protection agencies, and other jobs where better careers are available. This situation makes it difficult to recruit and develop additional suitable men in this category. There is in-service competition in that better careers are available in the timber management jobs of the forestry aid series. The men involved in these positions are the people who provide the local experience and stability which is important in the fire control job.

Personnel and job issues are still a major problem for federal wildland firefighters. Legislation to address some of these issues includes the Wildland Firefighter Pay Equity Act, which proposes to correct pay disparity issues, including Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provisions for overtime and retirement. Many federal firefighters still are hired under the Forestry Aid Series; more information on job series is available from OPM's USAjobs website, and a guide to federal firefighter employment is online.

The Division of Personnel Management is now planning a program which will involve the merging of the Fire Control Aid Series with the Forestry Aid Series and extending development of classification standards to higher grades. The Task Force endorses this plan and recommends that thorough study and full consideration be given to the complexities of the fire control job when establishing these standards.

Training in the field of fire control receives comparatively minor attention in the technical education of a forester. Better recognition by educational institutions of the professional aspects of the fire control job should result in more basic knowledge for the forester in this field. There are many complications of text development, curriculum, instructor availability, and cooperative work with forestry schools involved in accomplishing this objective. The Task Force urges the Divisions of Personnel Management and Fire Control to focus attention on this subject and to work with the forestry schools toward the development of more nearly adequate instruction in fire control.

c. Pre-planning for fire suppression

Recommendation:  Encourage a more active program in (1) pre-planning for fire suppression and (2) breaking up large unbroken areas of hazardous fuels.

Study of the fire casualty cases shows that virtually all of the deaths from burning occurred on large (Class E) fires in unbroken fuel types. The Task Force is greatly impressed with work being done in several parts of the country in pre-planning for fire suppression and in the use of physical changes or cover manipulation to break up large unbroken areas of fast-burning fuel types. We believe that greater activity in these lines should be encouraged, especially in changing vegetative cover through normal resource management activities.

d. Safety Gear Development

Recommendation:  Maintain a continuing project of investigating protective gear from firefighters, and arrange tests for any promising equipment.

A number of suggestions sent to the task force appear to merit investigation.

Several attempts to organize the reporting of "near misses" have been made. The most comprehensive thus far is probably the online list spearheaded by Jason Greenlee of Wildfire Magazine. The Forest Service started a forum on near misses on its online safety section, but it never took off. Most promising is the SAFENET project, intended to function for firefighters much like SAFECOMS does for aviation.

Any program undertaken in this field would undoubtedly involve research to determine temperature and oxygen supply conditions. If such research indicates reasonable possibilities that men may survive normal fire conditions when equipped with suitable protective gear, further testing and development of these devices would be highly desirable. We believe the regular equipment development procedures can and should be used for this purpose.

e. Near Misses

Recommendation:  Encourage field units to write up "near miss" situations as a basis for continued training in how to save men's lives on the fireline.


FIRE CONTROL NOTES began as a collection of short articles in 1936. Its goals were outlined in the first issue by Roy Headley, head of the USFS Division of Fire Control. In 1973 the name was changed to Fire Management, and in 1976 it was changed again - to Fire Management Notes. A new design was introduced in the 1980s, and the journal went to full color after Smokey Bear’s 50th anniversary issue. With Volume 60, Issue 1 on January 1, 2000, the name was changed to FIRE MANAGEMENT TODAY.

Forest Service firefighting history is full of "near miss" situations. There were occasions in every region and in many years when the elements for a tragedy were present but men did not get trapped. There is unique training value in the review of such a situation provided enough of the surrounding circumstances are known and recorded to permit later informed discussion of what happened. Too often these occasions are not written up at all, or are written up in a superficial way so that it is not possible at a later date to reconstruct all the significant happenings; hence the training value is lost.

The task force has seen several write-ups that are sufficiently complete to be used as a lesson plan in a training session for fire overhead. Region Seven did an especially good job on a 1953 fire on the George Washington National Forest. This write-up appears as a Region Seven Handbook supplement.

Fire Control should urge more of this, through the editorial facilities of "Fire Control Notes" if necessary, to get material prepared with adequate coverage.

Impact of These Recommendations:

The task force members appreciate that these recommendations will have an impact on the present organization and budget. We had hoped to develop a program that could be carried out entirely within the limits of the present budget. We cannot in conscience do so. The recommendations grouped in Part A above, and which were submitted to the Staff in advance of the rest of the report, can be carried out entirely within the limits of existing manpower and funds. The recommendations grouped in Part B above will require men, or money, or preparatory work on someone's part before they can be put into effect. Unless otherwise specified, that "someone" is probably the Division of Fire Control in Washington.

Our recommendations on training and on research will cost more money than can easily be wrung from the present budget. Recommendation 2a, Training for Crew Bosses and Other Fire Overhead, can be carried out by the present organization pattern, including use of detailers. So can Parts 1 and 2 of Recommendation 3a, provided Fire Research can shuffle current work assignments so as to free from all other work the men who are competent to write up existing knowledge of fire behavior. But the task force thinks that the Forest Service would be taking only stop-gap measures if only these limited parts of Recommendations 2 and 3 are carried out.

CCC boys on the Ozark National Forest, 1938

Ozark National Forest, Arkansas. Cutting fireline. CCC enrollees with back pumps approaching fire preparatory to putting out embers. Staged at Shores Lake Site. Taken by Bluford W. Muir, July 1938.

So, what about the added costs? We see the approximate $190,000 for training for five years or so, and the larger sums needed especially for fire behavior research, as an integral part of what the Service must pay to handle this hazardous and tricky part of its business. Even now, the Service does not spend much money for the sole purpose of being prepared to handle campaign fires. For years it has been acknowledged that the campaign fires are the costly ones, and the ones that do the heavy damages. It is not uncommon to have a half million dollar bill for the fighting of one campaign fire.

There is also another kind of impact. The program we recommend must have strong leadership at the Washington Office level. To standardize fire control practice requires firm leadership concerning the standards to be followed and the general instructions that field units must follow. This can be done without limiting the authority of field units to make the command decisions that must be made in the field. It cannot be done without strong leadership in Washington.

This is more than just more men. It is also a matter of attitude, on the part of Fire Control and Fire Research, and on the part of all the individuals who influence the work in these two divisions. It is essential that there be more men working in these two divisions at the level of Washington Office leadership, or else that those now there have adequate time for the creative thinking and problem-solving that must occur if there is to be strong leadership.

We appreciate that these impacts are serious. But they must be faced.

High Value Areas:

The Malibu Fire on county-protected land in southern California last winter typifies a special fire suppression problem which will become of increasing concern to the Forest Service. In the early action on that fire, the county-directed crews had to give first priority to saving lives and property, with second priority attention given to controlling the spread of the fire. There are places now within national forests where Forest Service suppression forces would have to do the same thing, even though such action would mean attacking fires in situations not most advantageous for control. Such action can be exceptionally hazardous for the safety of the firefighters.

As resource values increase, and as more structures are built within the forests, the pressures to keep fires small or to fight them at dis-advantageous places will become greater and greater.

This special suppression problem, especially as it may involve protecting structures, calls for measures over and above the general recommendations in this report. It seems obvious to the task force that for the fairly limited areas where this special protection problem may have to be faced, there must be a knowledge of fire behavior in detail far beyond the knowledge now available. There is also a need for highly trained fire crews and very skilled overhead. There is also, probably, a prominent place for suppression pre-planning.

The task force believes that as a minimum the areas where these special suppression problems may exist should be identified and given special planning attention by each region. We think this must be done promptly. And we think the research needs related to this problem should be given special emphasis in future efforts to get more fire research funds.

The note about the Forks Burn refers to the case of RAYONIER, INC., v. UNITED STATES, in which the Supreme Court decided in January 1957 that under the Federal Tort Claims Act, the United States is not immune from liability for negligence of employees of the Forest Service in fighting a fire, if in similar circumstances a private person would be liable under the laws of the State in which the fire occurred.

Underlining the importance of this special problem is last winter's Supreme Court decision on the Forks Burn of 1951. It seems probable that most major fires that affect private values in any way will become a basis for damage claims alleging negligence. This ever-present threat of liability claims against the United States under the Tort Claims Act makes it all the more important that the Forest Service take all practical precautionary measures to be fully prepared both in these special problem areas and also in its general firefighting organization and practice.

cc: Mays



Historical Web Page created by Kelly Andersson while working for the USFS. Ab.