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On Fire

John Wendt

Six Rivers National Forest
December 30, 2004

I attended my final Region 5 FAM Board of Directors meeting in early December of 2004. The meetings begin with introductions and I listened as my colleagues referred to themselves as Fire Management Officer, or Fire Staff, or Chief of Fire and Aviation. When it was my turn, I said, "John Wendt, Six Rivers, fire management officer... fire staff... chief.... We've got to get this straightened out!" It was a spur-of-the-moment remark, was not meant to be taken up then and there, and was said with a smile. But there's something to it.

The interagency fire environment in which we work demands that we identify ourselves in ways that are understandable to our partners, hence we are now Division and Battalion Chiefs, Captains, Superintendents, and various others. Calling ourselves fire management officers, we acknowledge our connection to a large yet discrete chunk of publicly owned property on which and within which we have done many things in the name of land and resource management. At home we serve as staff officers on forest management teams, take our turn on the rotation to act as delegated line officers, and participate in one way or another in a broad range of activities on the forest.

Each of the three position titles reflects demands and expectations that are not always compatible and which regularly compete for one's time. For a number of reasons, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain balance between the duties tied to the three titles.


History of the Position

My predecessor performed what were essentially the Fire Management Officer (FMO) duties but worked under an Assistant Forest Fire Management Officer position description. The FMO of record was a staff officer who also managed the natural resource staffs at the forest level. Upon the former FMO's retirement in early 1995, the position was described and advertised as a GS-462-12 FMO, reporting to the Deputy Forest Supervisor. The job was offered to me in September of that year. The position remained as such until the Forest Supervisor restructured his staff in 2002, at which time the FMO position began reporting directly to the Forest Supervisor, serving in one of the four full staff positions. The position was reevaluated and the description rewritten, described as a GS-401-13. It took almost two years to prepare, advertise, and fill the position in that series and grade. I was offered the promotion in September 2005.

The Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) had been in preparation for some fifteen years, having to be adapted to and incorporate the very consequential Northwest Forest Plan that was evolving during those years, and was signed shortly before. Fire was not a very influential component of the forest's business or planning during those years, as attested to by the meager coverage of fire management issues in the Plan. The predominant culture in the agency was that of the timber program and the LRMP was largely predicated on outputs, though tempered from the near past by emerging environmental constraints.

The 1970s - 1990s: Background

The Asbestos Forest. Two managers for whom I worked on the forest called the Six Rivers an "asbestos forest". There was no direct memory of large fire occurrence on the forest and, although local old-timers talked of past fires that were large and often enough to clear the underbrush of what had become dense multi-storied stands, and despite the fact that the landscape bore scars of some sort of fire history much different than that experienced in the latter half of the century, fire on the Six Rivers was not thought to hold a potential worth taking seriously. Compared with program areas with stable or growing budgets, there was little with which to argue in discussions of funding and staffing.

When Timber was King. The timber program found a forest rich with large trees, mostly sited on steep slopes. The sales generated huge receipts, directing substantial funds to the local communities for schools and roads, and supporting an active year-round program of work and a large organization. (From 1978 through 1983, my job as captain of Engine 134 was at the entirely BD-funded Big Flat Guard Station.) The timber program was the forest's principle focus and the entire organization was connected with it in one way or others.

Economics played a powerful role in the timber program. With the below-cost timber sales in other parts of the country, forests that produced a financial benefit figured importantly in the overall statements, and treatment costs were scrutinized or constrained. Too often, from a firefighter's perspective, lop-and-scatter was the fuels treatment selected, so we sought to achieve a better packing ratio and more rapid decomposition with lower lop standards. Treatment by "isolation", whereby if three criteria pertaining to the size of the area thus "treated" and adjacency to other units, was actually allowed and used in some cases. Subsequent silvicultural activities usually occurred without fuels treatment and we argued with limited success for collections in timber sales that included mitigation for later activities, such as precommercial thinning.

When the National Environmental Policy Act was passed, fire and fuels technicians were to participate in the interdisciplinary setting as subject matter specialists and prepare specialist reports. While many of our fuels technicians had developed an uncanny ability to anticipate effects and to artfully employ fire as a treatment method, NEPA was a challenge to us all and very difficult for some. Folks who knew the woods, who almost intuitively predicted outcomes, who could throw a rock into an area to be burned and know by the sound of its hitting whether and how the fuels would burn did not necessarily do well sitting around a table with collaborators and competitors long on education and shorter on experience. This shift in responsibilities occurred on other forests as well and concern from the field led to the creation of the Northern California Fuels Committee, later expanded to the California Fuels Committee, still active and staffed by dedicated fuels specialists trying to make a difference.

The recession in the seventy's prompted a desire to bring down housing costs and the Administration instituted a policy that allowed Departure (which departed from, or exceeded, the principle of the MUSY Act that limited timber harvest to levels supported by the growing stock) in order to increase the timber supply which, it was hoped, would result in cheaper building materials, lower housing cost, and a boost to the economy. Whether or not Departure produced the desired results is for historians to answer, but the fact that it was offered as a policy certainly points to a now-distant time.

Fire control was still becoming fire management and the need for our positions seemed more securely tied to other-than-fire activities. We viewed ourselves as firefighters who in the off-season would be heavily involved in the timber program - broadcast burning, building firelines, felling hardwoods, planting trees, and preparing fuel treatment plans - but we did not fully appreciate the importance of meeting volume targets and at times became advocates for other resource values. When we encountered old cabins or especially vibrant stands of cedar, for example, within an area that was being considered for clearcut harvest, we could only fully account for expected treatment costs and emphasize any site preparation challenges, hoping to add weight to any opinion that would toss out those units. For the most part, we were unable to sway outcomes, but on a number of occasions, we did establish a mental line in the sand on the ones that mattered most, and got harvest deferred on some sites.

Burning machine piles of slash on a forty-acre knoll on a Fall day in the seventies, I had something of a personal revelation. The piles averaged thirty feet in diameter by twelve or so feet in height. They were not covered against the weather and had received the first of the north coast region's winter rains, followed by a few days' drying, so they would burn if encouraged by one's concentrating on getting a pocket actively burning, then piling on small materials until heat enough is established to spread and eventually involve the tons of material in a spectacular bonfire that collapsed into itself atop a growing coal bed that consumed the material in the pile and baked to vapor the organic material and microorganisms in the soil below. It would take the entire day for the three of us to finish burning all the piles and we worked separately for the most part. Halfway through the day, I set down my driptorch and broke for lunch a short walk from the last pile I'd ignited. It would need some tending and I could hop over to keep it fed while eating.

I sat at the edge of the unit, where the disturbed soil, scraped to mineral soil by dozers, met the undisturbed forest floor. As I ate, I noticed the contrast between the treated and the untreated ground and was struck by the complexity of the undisturbed and the simplicity of the machine-piled area. It was clear that a long time would pass before the treated area would return to the condition of pre-harvest functional richness. This realization seems small enough, but it was satisfying and inspiring, and provided access to other thoughts and a desire to know more..

Technical Fire Management (TFM) and Fire History. Halfway through my career I chose to attend Technical Fire Management , described as a mid-career educational experience that offers concentrated exposure to as broad a range of wildland fire issues, applications, and topics as five two-week residential sessions can provide, in an academic environment. A sixth module required the preparation of a final project that was to demonstrate understanding of the material that had been covered. Students completed the program by presenting their project to a panel of more senior agency personnel and academicians.

The project I selected was an overly-ambitious fuels analysis that I could not complete in the year allowed, and when I presented my progress in April 1989, naively hoping that the panel would see that I was off to a good start and would pass me, I was rightfully reminded that I did not have a completed projected and was scheduled to return the following year. This was a well deserved blow to my pride and I reacted by deciding not to complete the project. As the months passed, though, the obligation became a nagging concern and, finally, I pared the project down to an economic analysis of fuels treatment costs on the district that showed, given the small historical period commonly used for fire planning - the previous twenty years - there was no large fire occurrence on which to draw. Since fire planning suggested that there was no significant fire history, or potential, on the Six Rivers, I would have to convey the results, against my inclination, that it wasn't justifiable, in purely economic terms, to do more than minimal fuels treatment on the district, and I returned to Portland in April, 1990 to present and defend the project.

At that time, documented history of fire on the forest was limited to the period since the forest's creation in 1947, and was not a complete record for all those years. Beyond that, undocumented anecdotal accounts were all that was available prior to the early 1990s. There was no legislative, regulatory, or public interest-generated compulsion to study fire and the focus of the agency, responding to administration direction and congressional appropriation, was elsewhere.

When the end of the hour was near, I asked if I might ask the panel a question and was allowed to do so. I told them I knew there was a much larger fire history on the forest than was available to me for planning - the old fire scars could still be seen and the even-aged stands pointed back to large disturbance events. The panel discussed the potential and limitations of NFMAS, which just didn't allow the incorporation of past fires without specific information on size, accompanying weather conditions under which the fires burned, as well as any suppression response that had been directed at those fires. Not having the data to satisfy the needs of the NFMAS software, none of us could recognize long-term fire history for current planning. One panelist, however, said he'd like to talk with me afterward.

He was a fire specialist out of the PNW Regional Office, and he had earlier worked on a fire plan for the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, which lies just north of the Gasquet Ranger District. While working on the plan in the offices of the Siskiyou NF, he had located a treasure trove of fire history from early in the century and, since the Gasquet District had been part of the Siskiyou National Forest until the formation of the Six Rivers NF in 1947, the coverage included fires on my district. The records and maps were so cool, he said, he had taken them back to the Regional Office, but agreed to have them sent or carried back to the Siskiyou in Grants Pass where they would remain and where they could be read and reproduced.

Not long after, I arranged to see the materials at the Merlin Air Base and dispatch offices. There were large bound volumes of topographic maps that bore the hand-drawn and color-coded fire sites and perimeters covering most periods from 1909 into the 'forties. Forest Supervisor diaries, hand-written, had been retained for a few of the early years, describing notable events for each Ranger District and providing anecdotal information not previously part of this forest's historic base. I copied all the information the day allowed, leaving more behind than in hand. Lucy Salazar and Caroline Cavanagh, who had been working with dispatch to gather and compile available historical data, took up an effort to retrieve the rest of the maps and text, and to systematically document a fire history record for the forest. Their efforts, and the work of employees on each district, have established a pretty complete record for the past century. The Forest Ecologist and other specialists have effectively drawn the period of coverage much further into the past. There now exists on the forest a viable and improving capability to conduct grounded spatial and predictive analysis. Fire planning and resource management increasingly rely on such analysis.

TFM is still offered in Region 6, though the forest has not sent any of its employees for a number of years. The forest should encourage and sponsor interested employees to attend this program, which offers 18 upper--division units that count toward qualifying for the GS-401 series in addition to the other benefits provided. In addition to providing a unique and comprehensive opportunity to the individual, the final project is a valuable opportunity to achieve a piece of work that is meaningful to the forest. Any employee who attends TFM should be given support and guidance in selecting and preparing the final project.

Budget Allocation Committee. While acting in the position prior to being selected to fill it permanently, on the advice of the former FMO, I attended a meeting of the R5 FAM Budget Allocation Committee (BAC). Though not invited, I was accepted and there was no formal process at the time to name committee members, so I stayed on and became the committee's representative for the Northern Province. Given the forest's paucity of large fires during the previous couple decades and its minority ranking among the region's forests, it seemed an important opportunity. The best forests could do in those lean years was to attempt to hold on, to lose no more resources as the timber program and its associated fuels funding withered, and fire budgets were static and under the erosive effect of higher costs.

The BAC evolved into an effective group with good technical support that created processes that incrementally reduced the work of committee members, largely through the analytical tools masterfully developed by the Regional Fire Planner, while developing transparent allocation methods that are supported by the forests. The assumptions and conventions are expressed, the figures are shared, and the model runs mathematically and fairly.

R5 FAM Board of Directors (BoD). Much of the work performed by FMOs in California is done as members of, and under the purview of, the Board of Directors. This work, though largely transparent back home is extremely valuable in broadening one's perspective as it offers opportunities to influence events and policies. Indeed, the region's work can only be done with such involvement and forest support.

Several regional committees work for the Board of Directors and each is chartered to include a BoD member representative. Each Forest Chief is expected to take these assignments and perform the associated duties. It was a privilege to serve as the BoD representative to the Division Chiefs Steering Committee for over six years. The culmination of that group's annual program of work is the Chief Officers' Workshop, held each winter in Reno. This workshop has grown in stature over the years and includes participation from all levels of the Forest Service, cooperators, and vendors.

I was able to take part in FAM budget reviews in four regions and several functional assistance trips, organizational reviews on other forests, lead the Phase IV team in the R5 fire PD reclassification effort, and serve on a number of ad hoc groups. I facilitated meetings, including national coordinators' meetings and the national predictive services workshop. All of these assignments were opportunities to expand my view and, hopefully, better represent the forest.

Forest Activities. Some of the more rewarding activities that this job enabled were speaking to and interacting with external groups. The appearance of the National Fire Plan, revisions of the federal wildland fire policy, and the initiation of the Fire Management Plan were all opportunities to visit with the public, residents of our forest's communities, and the media. HSU lectures and presentations to high school, regional occupation program, and community college students forced me to frame our jargon and institutional knowledge more broadly. Engagement with external parties is a valuable antidote to the insulation a steady job encourages.

FEMA Region 9 Cascadia Exercises. The potential for a major earthquake event off the immediate coast is generally underappreciated. The north coast is seismically more active than either the bay area or southern California and, in the mid=nineties FEMA, in assessing its capabilities in light of national disaster potential, realized a vulnerability and undertook to establish a response plan. Two planning sessions were held in late nineteen-nineties in which the Forest and the Humboldt-Del Norte Ranger Unit participated. HSU professors described their work wherein they had conducted a series of excavations along the coast in these two counties and established a recurrent pattern, spaced a few centuries apart, of local earthquake-generated tsunamis, attested to by inland deposits left in their wake. FEMA chartered a major study that postulated an eight-magnitude event as the potential scale and estimated the effects on the population and infrastructure. The study concluded that a very large number of casualties would result and, given the area's geologic instability, major road and bridge failures would occur, effectively closing the counties off from the outside. Runway repair would be the first priority and would have to be done before a "push" of assistance could be flown in.

Prior to 2000, personnel from the Forest, CDF-HUU, and Redwood National and State Parks, comprised the Northcoast Interagency Incident Management Team, a Type II IMT that was actually the first interagency local team in the state, and it was essentially this team's local capability that we represented at these sessions. Energetic discussions with FEMA-Region 9, the military, Coast Guard, and other agencies resulted in conceptual agreement to utilize our Team, in the event of this major 'quake, to facilitate immediate infrastructure repair and relief efforts, and the intent to test the IMT's capability to establish and manage a Mobilization Center at the commercial jetport in McKinleyville.

Several days before a table exercise was to be held in the Fall of 2001, the September 11 attacks occurred and FEMA's program of work, its very being, was transformed. No further work has been done on the Cascadia Plan and none is planned, to my knowledge. In any future meetings or exercises that may be held, it will be explained that, in light of the dissolution of the Northcoast interagency team, the Forest Service and its cooperators would respond to a disaster with necessary and sufficient resources mobilized by NorthOps, and it would be wise to include NorthOps representation in all planning efforts.

The earthquake study and records of the sessions described above are now in the possession of the Forest Safety Officer. We discussed these matters in December and agreed that it was appropriate that his position be centrally involved with the Cascadia Plan, with close coordination with FAM.

The Turn of the Century

The National Fire Plan. The NFP was the most profound initiative to hit fire management in the last three decades, in my opinion. Its focus and funding have diminished, it has certainly not grown as a national emphasis item, and in no area are we lagging behind its intent more than in the fuel management component. So many acres are at-risk, so continuous and extensive is the fuelbed, that there is no chance at anything near today's program levels that we will effect enough condition class change to really make a difference in the trend toward larger fires in politically potent areas or ever-increasing large fire suppression cost. This might be different if policy were changed to require least-cost suppression methods with attendant losses on the resource side, but laws that stipulate the protection of resources, the direction provided in current forest plans, and the increasing occurrence of fires in the interface/intermix make such change unlikely.

The greatest benefit at the forest level brought by the NFP was the creation of the Deputy FMO position. That and the fact that it was filled by a highly competent and conscientious individual has been critical to the forest's being able to deal with the tumult of the NFP and current events at a responsible level.

Fire Management Plan (FMP). The current plan is not an evolution of the Fire Management Action Plan that was in effect since accepted by the Regional Office in 1987; it was a Big Bang. That plan from 1987 is eight pages in length and is housed with forest records. Comparing that brief document with later versions is an indicator of how much more complex things have become.

The FMP that went into effect in 2002 was the product of a sincere and ambitious interdisciplinary effort to prepare a plan that reflected the revised federal fire policy and that met both the letter and the spirit of the direction of the NFP. The Forest Supervisor placed it high on the forest program of work, it was funded by the preparedness budget, ID team members were held accountable, and due dates would be met. This was an opportunity to describe the forest more comprehensively and holistically from the standpoint of fire than had been done before. All things considered, I believe it was worth the effort, both because of the product and the sharing of expertise and the raising of awareness that took place along the way.

Operations Guide. Prepared largely by the Deputy FMO and otherwise under his direction, the Operations Guide is comprehensive and fleshes out the direction included in the Fire Management Plan and includes templates and formats for fire and fuels use. The Guide testifies to the program's complexity and must be maintained, made known to all with a role to perform in fire, and integrated into the forest's fire management activities.

FMP Litigation. One of the introductory instructions given to the forest team charged with preparing the FMP was that it was not to be a decision-making document, and resisting the temptation to include project level intent was ongoing throughout the Plan's development. The Forest Service viewed FMPs as not requiring or appropriate for NEPA while agencies in the Department of Interior prepared their FMPs as NEPA products that provided long-range direction as well as enabling specific projects, without further NEPA, over the life of the Plan. It was made as clear as possible that any and all project-level activities would fully undergo NEPA when later considered.

We held public meetings in Eureka and in the communities of each district where we explained the direction to prepared FMPs, described our format and goals, and invited feedback, either at the meetings or by later contacting us by means we provided to them. We were careful to explain that this was not scoping in the NEPA sense, but done in the interest of gathering information and considering their views. Some of these meetings were attended by folks who represented environmental groups and who later became plaintiffs. They asked a few questions and made limited comments that made clear enough that they believed strongly that FMPs were subject to NEPA and that public involvement requirements were not being met.

Our Environmental Coordinator did a splendid job assimilating the FMP and the contextual background of fire management, attending to the demands of coordinating responses, scheduling conferences and calls, and acting as the hub for activity related to the lawsuit. Without her ability and her willingness to manage the case, the forest would have been greatly impacted and the outcome may have been worse than it was. The attorneys assigned the case, Cynthia Huber, DOJ, and Jamie Rosen, OGC, could not have done better. Each quickly became facile with the enormous body of information in and associated with the FMP, made impressive arguments, and worked graciously with the forest. The workload given these attorneys is huge; they seem to work around the clock, and it was amazing to see the intelligence and vigor they brought to pre-trial conferences and to court.

Our attorneys had little with which to work. The agency and USDA were inconsistently involved and would offer no concessions. It was clear the agency, while mandated to coordinate, prepare for, and provide guidance in legal matters, it is not adequately funded of staffed to do so. Several of the Washington and Regional Office employees who joined conference calls or provided input or responses in writing were assigned to do so as an additional duty. They hadn't sufficient opportunity to obtain background or prepare and they did their best, but they could not, by virtue of their jobs and existing responsibilities, be expected to be consistent players. Our meetings with the plaintiffs ended with their frustration over the limited items up for discussion, and the judge later ruled, in his findings and liabilities, that decisions had been made in the FMP but refrained from providing a comprehensive list of what were deemed decisions. Our attorneys were able to clarify the finding to essentially include the four issues which were removed from the subsequent FMP or are currently under consideration in the remedy phase. We wished to offer, toward resolution, a commitment to revise the LRMP.

A more current LRMP is warranted from any perspective that includes fire. Much of the analysis that would be needed actually appears in the FMP and the potential for extension of the Ninth Circuit Court's ruling to other forests would diminish if settlement were to occur. But the option of a plan revision as a settlement offering was not given us. The forest's LRMP does an inadequate job of expressing fire management issues and opportunities and, for one reason or another, should be revised. The Six Rivers land management plan is not unique in this; most forest plans did not focus on fire and are now quite dated. All forests will be challenged to bring the plans up to date, since funding for revisions is not expected to be provided for several years.

Relationships

Tribal relations. The forest is comprised of lands that were long occupied by native peoples, and it is important to appreciate the connection that remains between their descendants and these same lands we now manage. Each of the twelve federally-recognized tribes and the other entities without that official recognition are stakeholders in the forest's activities, either by way of formal government to government consultation or as interested publics, and it is vital that we involve them as opportunity and need allow. Each tribe is unique and deserving of individualized attention.

As a result of conflict and different interpretations of policy and practice on the Megram Fire, the Forest Supervisor assigned me to write a draft of what would become an MOU with the tribes on the subject of our interaction with tribes during fire suppression. My intent was to recognize the need for communication, to explain that in the case of initial and extended attack events our consultation would amount to contacts made to tribes by the Forest Service officer(s) charged with tribal liaison responsibility, to describe the incident management system, to clarify the conditions under which we would hire tribal representatives on larger or more lengthy incidents, and to establish appropriate rates of pay. The draft was then added to and modified to reflect legal requirements, reviewed for soundness, and has since been signed by several of the tribes.

The SRF fire program cannot be accurately described without consideration of the impact on the program of our relationship with Hoopa. The large number of fires and the few resources funded for Hoopa requires that the forest take an active role with this cooperator. Our dispatch center monitors activity on the Reservation, anticipates needs, and provides both preparedness and suppression resources as a matter of continuing business.

National level agreements allow us to work across the Reservation boundary in a reciprocal manner without billing, but the specific terms and authorities must be conveyed in local operating plans. The forest annually updates the plan and meets with Hoopa Fire Management staff and, at times, tribal council representatives, but we have had difficulty in obtaining signatures on these plans, and must continue to cooperate well while seeking prompt attention to the approval of these plans.

Discussions have taken place for years regarding Bureau of Indian Affairs funding to the forest for services already provided as well as, possibly, additional services in the future, but have borne no fruit. Due to efforts by our Center Manager, we receive funding from DOI for work performed by Fortuna Interagency Command Center for Redwood National Park and BLM's Arcata District, and the BIA ought legitimately to compensate the Six Rivers for the greater level of service provided to Hoopa.

The Karuk and the Yurok Tribes are actively attempting to build and increase their firefighting capability and resource management activities. The importance of our relationships and the degree of involvement will, if anything, increase in the future. Federal wildland fire policy and fire program analysis make strong cases for collaboration, and the public is best served when departments, agencies, tribes, and others coordinate with one another.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF). We are both bound to and distinguishable from our largest cooperator by our respective missions. CDF protects state-owned lands but its far greater responsibilities involve the protection of private property. Their principle objective is fire suppression, essentially least burned acreage. The Forest Service, on the other hand, is a major landowner with a multitude of requirements that do not apply to CDF, among them WFSA preparation, incident complexity analyses, and adherence to FSH 5109.17 or 310-1 requirements. It is not infrequent that misunderstandings occur between employees or the agencies, and we must continue to remind ourselves that cooperation makes sense and that while our missions prompt actions and activities that are at odds with one another's, we share overarching vision and motivation. It is our responsibility to nurture these relationships and pass them on to the future.

Dispatch has been essential in both establishing the terms, carrying the discussions and negotiations with the Ranger Unit, and in carrying out the mechanics of preparation, modification to reflect current requirements and agreements. Our personnel at FICC maintain a relationship that reflects well on the Forest Service and the forest, and they are the principle linkage for CDF with the federal government.

Local Government. The forest has relationships with many cooperators and maintains specific agreements with all fire service providers that possess shared and adjacent responsibilities. In terms of validating, filing, and maintaining agreements, operating plans, and memoranda of understanding the service provided by our Agreements Coordinator is exceptional and vital to the forest's legal requirements regarding these activities and products.

Other. Coordination must also be maintained with the National Weather Service for essential fire weather services and incident support; NCUAMD as the entity representing air quality and prescribed burn approvals; NMFS and F&WS through forest resource specialists for emergency consultation; Humboldt State University with regard to the school's provision, at our request, of courses, academic degrees and certification programs which have become critical to our employees with the implementation of the Interagency Fire Program Management (IFPM), and others. There is every reason to believe that the reasons to cooperate will increase in the future.

Fire Planning

National Fire Management Analysis System (NFMAS). Forest fire programs were acquired, justified and, hopefully, held on to only by way of the successful annual completion of NFMAS analysis. Each forest struggled independently to learn the very complex evolving program that brought together all fire history within the recent 20-year planning horizon, daily weather during the period, and the suppression organization in place at the time of each fire, and the suppression response that, together with fire behavior, resulted in the fires' final sizes. Costs were derived for program components and actual past suppression, as well as estimations of the economic impact to a host of resources subject to the fires included in the analysis. Many, many iterative analyses were done in order to bring the computer model in line with the fire history experienced. Once calibrated, the model was used to generate fires under a range of conditions, burning under several intensities, and varying organizational and fire suppression mixes. NFMAS is an economic efficiency model and seeks to find the optimum organization and its associated funding. The point at which the sum of the preparedness organization and fire suppression cost, together with resource losses bottom out is pegged as the Most Efficient Level.

Although NFMAS we developed in response to Congressional demands that we be able to justify program and funding levels with an objective model, and was then accepted as such, funding never caught up with the results and annual budgets were always a percentage of the need. The forests worked actively to maximize the outputs, while regular regional and national reviews kept us honest. Over time, the Budget Allocation Committee developed a shared allocation process that as equitably as possible distributed the budget with the first goal of not significantly impacting any unit in the short term. We called it proportioning the pain.

Fire Program Analysis (FPA). NFMAS was the foundation of the out-year program and demanded the attention of fire managers as well as fire planners. Given the unease over never providing for MEL, and on the back of the NFP which required cross-jurisdictional planning, the federal agencies have been developing Fire Program Analysis, which is to be used to request funding for the 2007 budget year. FPA was developed largely by the BLM, without significant FS involvement, and is still in the software development stage. It will be a challenge to make the switch from NFMAS to FPA, but the staff on the forest has stepped up and is positioned as well as possible to make the transition.

Organizing for Fire

In a past that's all but vanishing from the rear-view mirror, most District Rangers performed active roles in fire control; in fact, it was obligatory that one prepare oneself for the position by having spent time in the fire organization. At the same time and as a cultural expectation, employees in other areas were engaged with fire, either in the offices or as the militia. Rangers were commonly expected to give tactical direction and they did so. Some, but only some, still do.

The burgeoning of the resource specialties in response to the expansion of environmental laws forced employees to focus more on specific resource components. Social forces came to bear upon the agency and it became apparent that we needed to diversify the workforce. A generation of employees was brought on-board who for the most part did not recognize a personal responsibility toward fire. They provided the resource analysis and support demanded by new environmental analysis requirements, but they did not directly participate as fire support, and the militia reduced in size dramatically. This is not meant as a criticism; it's the way things went for a multitude of reasons.

Fire managers have come to represent fire management to most line officers and have become drawn in more than in the past to personnel issues as though an accountable party. In the context of decentralized organizations, wherein District Rangers officially supervise the bulk of fire employees, unit level fire managers feel the responsibility for fire-related functions but do not possess the authority required to act in the command and control environment that characterizes emergency response and management. The uniformity demanded of the fire service, the adoption of standard operating and evaluation procedures, and the knowledge of and adherence to the rules must all be established at the district level. Accountability is distributed and sometimes confusing, and so must be any ensuing review or inquiry.

Partners from throughout the fire service work shoulder to shoulder with us on the fireground and on our Teams and look to our people to provide the leadership in fighting fire in the interface and in incident management system structure and function for all-risk application, and they find it exceedingly odd that our position descriptions do not emanate from the job. Our own employees are growing more familiar with this issue and will continue to seek a professional firefighter series. The institutional reluctance of the Forest Service to recognize its firefighters not as Federal Firefighters, but rather as forestry technicians, general biologists, or foresters is an issue of growing importance, internally and externally. We have witnessed, over the past decade or so, the development without acknowledgement of a Forest Service Fire Department in parts of the country.

More Centralized Fire Management. The time is ripe to consider a shift from decentralized to centralized fire organizations. Our history and traditions lie in the traditional decentralized arrangement and many of us would prefer to see that continued, but it has become a very awkward fit. District Rangers have considerable responsibilities related to multiple specialties and cannot be expected, across the board, to personally direct fire and associated personnel duties. In order to do the job, we fire managers must work with and through their lines of authority. Consistency and shared understandings of policy are difficult to achieve. The District Ranger is a key position, responsible for managing large land bases and representing the agency in their communities. The size of the fire organization and its capabilities are critical to district programs of work, and the District Ranger must not be excluded through organization from having a say in its activities. I suggest that the line officers function essentially as a board of directors whose decisions, with the Forest Supervisor, direct the fire organizations' contribution on the districts. The forest maintains control through the Forest Supervisor's oversight of the Fire Management Officer. Such an organization would more effectively mesh with other emergency services, would align responsibility and authority, and would reduce the District Ranger burden of involvement with the span and minutia of fire policies and protocols. The District Rangers, functioning as a body with line authority, would retain accountability from a broader base, and fire managers' responsibilities would be better clarified than at present.

Duty Officer. An indispensable link in our mobilization and response system is the Duty Officer, but we have dealt awkwardly with whether and how to carry out that activity and charge. The practice of using duty officers crept up on us gradually, initially a consequence of working in interagency dispatch centers and, more generally, working in California's active interagency emergency environment. Through the years, units have become expected to identify and provide duty officers as a business practice, and it is steady work doing so. Through distinguishing by virtue of sheer need between administrative and operational duty officers, we do provide this coverage, uncompensated and beneath the screen of agency recognition or guidance. We have been given a qualification level one must possess in order to serve as a duty officer, but we have not analyzed it in a position management sense, nor have we embedded it as a job responsibility, with the attendant minimum qualifications requirements into position descriptions.

Specialist Involvement with Fire. The forest has represented itself well when large fires required the assignment of Type I and II IMTs. Resource specialists have prepared themselves to conduct Wildland Fire Situation Analyses when needed and serve as resource advisors on fires and as participants in BAER activities. The militia is nowhere near its former size, but a handful of non-fire employees serve on IMTs or regularly accept assignments as single resources. All employees must be made to appreciate the benefits of fire involvement and the costs we incur when our own folks do not respond.

Fuels Management, Contributed. Preparing our firefighters requires a comprehensive program to deliver mandatory, recurring, physical, and developmental training, to maintain a demanding schedule of documentation, to perform drills, to maintain equipment, and more. But it is crucial that all fire employees clearly see the importance of the connection between firefighter and public safety, fire suppression effectiveness, resource protection, cost containment, and fuels management. When not specifically preparing for or engaging in fire suppression, firefighters must participate in fuels management as qualified and they must become and remain qualified. That must be made a foundational piece in the culture of the firefighting generation now being oriented, trained, educated, and sent down the hill.

IMT Participation

Twenty years ago, each of the national forests in northern California could field one or more Type II teams and the operational and logistical capability to locally staff Type III fires. The past decade has seen the steady reduction in the size of the militia, and Northern California has for the last five years been able to field only two complete IMTs (additionally, the Klamath NF contributes members to the ORCA IMT that straddles the border shared with Oregon).

At the same time, mega-fires have occurred in most recent years, defying our notions of fire potential. The Megram Fire brought home the realization that large fires would affect even the Six Rivers. The Biscuit Fire, much of it within view of the coast in an area heavily influenced by marine weather, approached a half million acres and confirmed the growing potential for significant fire to occur on forests not previously viewed as being at-risk to that degree.

Incident management teams have responded to a multitude of emergencies across the nation and abroad. The Department of Homeland Security regards our IMTs as the nation's first responders, public interest in our planning and suppression activities has grown substantially, series of complexes spanning large geographic areas, and the use and discussion of and controversy over wildland fire use have qualitatively changed the nature of personal commitments to incident management teams.

As vital as participation may be toward meeting the agency's need to provide enough incident teams, employees participate at the expense of the job back home. Employees are often fulfilling an assignment on a team when fires occur back home, and Forest Supervisors are rightfully concerned that their fire managers and others are not available when needed on the forest. This cannot be reconciled given the numbers of qualified folks throughout the system. Unable to draw agency employees in sufficient numbers, we have had to look beyond the Forest Service to fill the team rosters, and have incorporated many CDF, local government, and casual employees into the teams. In fact, we brought these partners in because we had to, yet we have found that their involvement has strengthened and diversified our teams.

Allowing and encouraging employees to commit to IMTs is the forest's opportunity to contribute to an essential agency need and activity. Teams can only be effective if commitments to show up, when called, are made, kept, and supported by the agency. Team members must be counted upon; the interdependence of effective team performance demands stable membership and shared, familiar practices.

From the employee's standpoint, team participation offers personal growth and career development opportunities, and more exposure to emergency response involvement. The experiences gained on IMT assignments bolster one's experience and serve to benefit both the employee and the employing unit. There is no better way to learn how to interact with IMTs on one's home unit than by having spent time working within the team framework. IMTs have certain needs, capabilities, and limitations. Experiencing how other administrative units conduct business and relationships with hosted IMTs prepares the fire manager to more effectively represent the home forest.

Personally, being on a Team, specifically on Northern California Interagency IMT II, put me in close and continuing contact with a standing roster of forty-four talented, dedicated, and good people who prepared and who worked as hard as necessary to relieve overwhelmed local units and to bolster or replace tapped firefighters. Each member of the Team firmly grasped the notion that the Team's purpose was always to direct firefighters and other responders well, using the best available information and all available means to support their work; protecting public and private resources, which includes costs; and fostering good relationships - in short, meeting a public trust.

Holding affection for systems somehow seems odd, but to the extent that the Incident Command System brings together dedicated people who take on personal risk to meet chaos with order, and earn the appreciation of the host, then ICS is worth caring about, as well as supporting.

Fuels Organization

The change in forest organization that placed fuels management under vegetation management was made ostensibly to better support this important but small program, badly needing to grow and made visible by the NFP. It had been determined by the Northern Province BoD that, during that same year, the Province IT organization was to be dissolved, and its functions and people assigned to specific province forests. Given the critical link between the radio system and Fire and the preponderance of use of the system by the large and growing fire organization, I offered to manage the radio shop including the shop's voice communication (i.e. telephone system) role. Instead, all of IT was to be managed by the FMO. Fuels was subsumed by the vegetation management organization as far as planning is concerned with fuels implementation remaining with the fire organization.

Moving fuels to vegetation management has only been done in the region on this forest; however, it is being contemplated elsewhere. These comments, though influenced most by local issues, are made in light of the general question of how and where fuels is best organized.

I freely admitted that I hadn't sufficient time, nor skill probably, for really meaningful direct involvement with fuels, to the degree necessary for significant program growth. It was difficult to argue that another arrangement would not work. The doubling in size of the fire department, the associated increased complexity of the program, and the high stakes of potential liability require the fullest attention possible. Full-time involvement of the FMO in fuels management can only occur by ignoring unit fire manager responsibilities. Yet the experience possessed by those in fire positions lends itself to devising fuel treatment and community protection activities that are likely to be effective from a protection standpoint.

The current organization clearly subordinates fuels management to timber management, though referred to as vegetation management. If staffing levels indicate commitment, the numbers speak for themselves. Given the paucity of dedicated fuels positions, there is no good option. We are losing ground on meeting the intent of the National Fire Plan; the near doubling of the fire organization enables us to more effective respond to increasingly large and complex fires and maintaining a initial attack success rate exceeding 97 percent, but we have not seen appropriations nearly large enough to staff for and conduct the magnitude of fuels treatment to reduce wildland fire effects or suppression costs. At present staffing levels, it is not reasonable to expect substantial increases in treated acres on the forest, and no organizational arrangement can fix that. As a minimum, though, vegetation (timber) management and fuels management should be regarded and fostered equally, overseen by a positions connected directly to neither but superior to both. Vegetation and fuels management ought to be directed by program managers whose experience is deep and specific to the discipline.

Wildland Fire Use (WFU), or the Use of Fire for Resource Benefits

Regardless of the size of the fuels organization or the oversight of the fuels program, though, I believe the best chance for improving forest condition, creating condition class change, and in effective ways that favor firefighter and public safety while reduced suppression cost is through a combination of means. Appropriated funds, if sufficient and strategically applied, may enable projects that provide a physical framework within which wildland fire use makes sense. Fireshed Assessment or Rob McClelland's post-Megram analyses exemplify this potential.

Wildland Fire Use is now prohibited on the forest as a result of the FMP litigation, and that serves neither side's interests. Hopefully, institution of the use of fire for its benefits can soon be agreed upon. But WFU is available only on fires known initially to have been started by natural means. Any fire of human origin is potentially billable or the subject of prosecution, and we cannot in a current legal sense claim that a fire is wrong and at the same time beneficial. I've been on many fires that behaved in ways that left overall very desirable effects on the landscape, but the fact that they were of or may have been of human origin required that we suppress them or limit their extent. Appropriate suppression response may trade off burned acreage for firefighter safety, but the response must be defensible, tied to delegated authority, and limited to need.

Perhaps we could come to identify "opportunity acres", wherein any fire could be a candidate for WFU. Under such an authority, which would probably have to be derived legislatively, a division could be made between the acreage and cost that would result from the fire of origin and those connected with any spatial or temporal extension of activity if WFU management were used. By working with other entities and on mixed and multiple jurisdictions, we have become experienced in apportioning costs and partitioning responsibility. That experience coupled with fire modeling could be employed to increase substantially the number of acres "treated" for the public good.

The extent of wildland at risk is enormous; by the most optimistic projections and imaginings, passing decades, not years, will witness any real progress. Much of the land threatened is well away from communities and cannot compete with the direction to treat WUI. We must politically, by inclination, and by direction protect human assets, yet we do so at the potential expense of more enduring resources across the landscape. That fact makes more important the use of fire as a larger component of our fire management activity. Without all the potentially available human resources, tools, and authorities, we can expect to continue facing large fires with high losses and costs. We will not have succeeded in making the difference we see as so badly needed.

Cost Containment

Cost containment is in the interest of the taxpayer, the agency, and those who direct it, and oversight is necessary. The Office of Management and Budget is charged with oversight authority and empowered for enforcement.

Executive Departments are evaluated on their meeting what are called the President's Management Agenda on a scorecard maintained on the OMB web site. By its own scoring, OMB's performance is among the worst in government, yet its demands on Departments and agencies seem to disregard, in their cases, the many challenges and realities the OMB must also face, based upon its own poor record. The OMB's oversight role is applicable to all functions in the executive branch, including the Department of Defense, yet it does not apply its resources or effort commensurately with costs or potential savings. The DoD, with over four trillion dollars in unreconciled transactions, does not receive nearly the degree of scrutiny or the sanctions the civilian agencies receive. This should concern us as citizens as well as public servants.

When additional effort is required, we draw upon the dedication of public employees to step more largely up to the plate whereas, under the outsourcing so ardently pushed by the OMB, additional work is conducted with supplemental work orders under lucrative contracts with corporations. We are experienced enough with contracts, from leased facilities to equipment rentals, from national caterers to aircraft, from outsourcing and management consultants to training vendors to clearly understand that many of the outsourcing of functions undertaken or now being pushed result in higher costs to the taxpayer or a reduction in the delivery of services, not to mention the reduced compensation to employees that provides the opportunity for profit that must be present to attract bidders. The competitive sourcing studies endorsed for the Forest Service identify too few positions as inherently governmental, both compared with other agencies and as a matter of public benefit. This is particularly the case with public safety-related functions.

At minimum, it must be appreciated that fundamental changes in the way the public is served and in who delivers services are being strongly directed, often with little subject-specific knowledge. These changes must be assimilated over a reasonable period of time.

Obedience and compliance have their place, but so does the insistence that public agencies possess lasting identities and missions that span Administrations and serve the public at-large. The doggedness of OMB has placed the agency in a very defensive and responsive posture. The Forest Service will never look good in the hands of puppeteers.

The Proliferation of Policy

Twenty years ago, an FMO could glean virtually all that was demanded of him/her from the FSM and FSH. A series of responses to fatalities and serious incidents has dramatically increased job requirements, regulations, policies, vulnerabilities, sanctions. Direction provided in the Incident Response Pocket Guide, Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations Handbook (the Red Book), National Wildfire Coordinating Group decisions, numerous interim directives, the Interagency Wildland Fire Business Management Handbook, after-action reviews, and more, as well as the Forest Service Manual and several Handbooks, are considered source documents as far as establishing culpability is concerned.

Several compliance items hold employees responsible for events over which they have no effective control. A series of checklists largely constitutes the standards by which individuals in very complex developing situations are appraised on their attention to often distant activities. Employees are expected or allowed to perform as field and incident commanders as collateral duties, and to be held accountable, when things go wrong, as though there were no other competing demands upon the employee. The 2004 Safety Protocol Review attempted to make sense of the challenges tied to managing fire suppression in an incredibly complex and modern firestorm, but the findings and recommendations offered by that Review have been received oddly by the Washington Office. One response is to be a Board of Review, and a board of review on the subject of another review warrants watching. The WO did issue a memo endorsing nothing in the report and stipulating that policy and direction remain unchanged. The WO also indicated that the recommendations will be taken up in some fashion.

Recent events in the wake of the Cramer Fire take the responsibilities of these positions to a new level in the minds of those who accept or who contemplate accepting incident management responsibilities. The passage of Public Law 107-203, which positions the OIG to conduct investigations into injuries and deaths that might occur on incidents from a prosecutorial position, occurred in July 2002 with far too little fanfare. The only notification of this law that I recall receiving came only after an employee, the Incident Commander on the Cramer Fire, reached a pre-trial diversion after having been informed that he faced criminal prosecution. With this law in place, both fire managers and agency administrators face heightened personal and financial risk. I do not have sufficient information on what took place on the Cramer Fire to offer an opinion on the IC's guilt or innocence, but the potential for such sequelae should have been made known to employees, and should have been taken up as an important issue by the Forest Service while the passage of this law was being considered, but it was not. Now, concern and uncertainty prevail within the fire community regarding these matters and employees do not perceive that the agency will support them. It is one thing to face sanctions in the case of negligence of a known body of direction, but given the maze of policy, regulation, direction, memoranda, guides, and checklists, one cannot know which prominent or obscure rule will be brought back to bite one.

It is extremely valuable and necessary that we go beyond the past practice of looking into the physical reasons alone for a tragedy or near-miss in order to glean the lessons whose learning may show the ways to better managing firefighter safety. Fireground successes and failures all occur in the context of groups and interpersonal relations, individual learning and experiential sets, decisionmaking under stressful conditions, i.e. human factors, and the entire spectrum of related, contributory, and causal events and factors must be analyzed. What is thereby learned must always be imposed upon and reflected in future activities. But the height of the stakes involved in directing people in hazardous situations must be appreciated by all and must be described fully and succinctly so that employees have the information with which to make informed consent to taking on the responsibilities that go along with exercising the authorities demanded by incident management positions and assignments.

Finally, becoming qualified to perform responsible positions exposes one to the potential of becoming involved in previously foreign situations. When one considers that our incident management teams are those very assets described in the National Response Plan who will respond to incidents that fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, one quickly realizes that we have seen the bar raised further than ever before. At bottom, it must be acknowledged that incident management responsibilities have become more serious business, and that they warrant being recognized as central to the mission itself of the Forest Service.

A High Regard

So why, in the face of this risk, do our folks still take the calls? Certainly, overtime pay is a significant incentive, but that alone doesn't account for the deep dedication and often extraordinary effort, accompanied by personal as well as professional vulnerability, our folks bring to incidents of all sizes and many types. Achieving higher qualifications may feed the ego, bestow authority, and provide the double-edged sword of challenge. But, at bottom, it's what these people do. It's an extension of the personal traits and motivations that found some meaning in the response to fire in the public service. Many, many of our employees and cooperators would have succeeded in any numbers of vocations, but they chose to remain with what is more often than not an avocation.

Thirty-one years of innumerable associations, many scores of incidents in capacities ranging from firefighter to incident commander, a few close personal calls, and the sometimes tragic experiences of others have taught me that nothing fosters safety and good performance as does holding those with whom and for whom we work in high regard. The effectiveness and closeness of many incident teams is due largely to the familiarity team membership and repeated assignments allow. Crew cohesiveness occurs best when folks give a darn about one another, and it goes beyond individuals. An employer's being viewed as standing behind its employees, whether it be in the face of investigations or multimillion dollar outsourcing studies, does more to promote healthy work environments on the ground and in the offices than any number of semi-annual reminders flowing downhill under the Chief's signature.

There are things I would love not to have had to learn: having been stunned by the sudden news of loss, then doing as others must, continuing the work that bore upon other firefighters' exposure to risk, attentiveness, and safety while dealing personally with grief. As a father, I can only imagine the unquenchable pain that is to follow forever for those left behind by our fallen firefighters. And yet that imagination is searing enough to force the appreciation that I must regard those firefighters whose work I help direct as I do my own children. This isn't expressed here with any pretense of its being a unique view. Those with whom I've worked in the incident management environment have, with few exceptions. understood the connection between their performance and firefighter well-being.

I have had the most rewardingly good fortune to have worked with people throughout the system - on the R5 FAM Board of Directors, normal IMT II, cooperators, the Six Rivers and neighboring forests - who hold to high standards, who bring their own motivations and talents, and who understand and live the commitment.

The Three Positions

Back to the point made at the beginning. A number of duties and responsibilities correlate with each of the jobs that typically we are viewed as filling: Fire Staff Officer, Forest Chief, and Fire Management Officer. The increasing demands on each simply do not allow meeting the sum of needs and expectations. Which of the three sets of responsibilities has become the most difficult to ignore?

Ongoing activities and scheduled meetings assure that one maintains presence in the role of staff officer. Representing Fire and Aviation Management while interacting with a wide range of other employees on the forest, participating in leadership team meetings, being involved with forest Program of work development, and serving as acting Forest Supervisor assure that the FMO redeem the responsibilities of staff officer.

The raising of the bar of personal vulnerability requires that our firelines supervisors and incident managers fully accept the fact that their fire organizations have become fire departments and their forestry technician, firefighters. CDF and local government departments find themselves fully engaged year-round in planning for and conducting protection responsibilities without the land and resource management expectations our people bear. When our employees take on the collateral duty responsibilities of incident management, they are held no less responsible for fully complying with the rules than their full-time partners, with no allowance made for the fact that incident duties are in addition to their "official" job. The Forest Service must both abandon the notion that it can hold employees accountable for risks it does not recognize as a consequential part of the job, and provide the clarity, organization, authority, and support to match the need. We have no reasonable option but to function as Chiefs.

Just as the agency finds it untenable to continue with traditional accounting practices in the face of today's oversight and public interest, so should it demonstrate some recognition that the world of fire management has changed and that the organization and support for Fire and Aviation Management are similarly in need of change. We wish to perform the role we learned, that of a land manager whose hand could be found engaged in a wide variety of forest activities, even as additional policies and expectations appear with increasing regularity. But it cannot be all ways. Events beyond the agency's influence have essentially mandated that we cannot continue to expect an employee to succeed as fire staff officer, fire chief, and fire management officer. Care and concern for our human and natural resources should prompt us to more realistically prioritize needs and determine achievable expectations of our people.

Signing Off

Leaving this job is not easy. I have been surrounded by good people worthy of admiration, and have shared exhaustion and accomplishment with kindred spirits. To have been able to work with enduring resources and to be humbled by realizing the brevity of a career against the lasting potential of forests and natural systems, and to have witnessed the effects of choices made on behalf of the land have been deeply enriching. A very basic satisfaction is having been able to touch the earth and be touched by it; to study and listen, hoping to catch an indicator or find another way; and to behold so much beauty tempered and isolated, as it was, by hard work, setback, triumph, challenge, and fun. The power of nature and the will of people who face it create redeeming and lasting images.

This position and its identifier will soon be held by someone else, someone good, who possesses additional talents and interests. But for now, SRF Chief 1 is out of service.

Vita brevis; terra larga - Life is short; the land is long.





Note: This paper represents the views of an individual who served for some thirty-one years in primary and secondary firefighter positions with the Forest Service. In order to allow for the expression of opinions that may not reflect the position of the Forest Service, I wrote it entirely on my own time, so as to avoid conflict with the expectations of my position. Many people whose names do not appear here have been very important to me. The relationships we've been able to build along the way and the sharing they allowed will remain with me always. I feel deeply indebted to those with whom I've worked and will carry the memories with me as long as I am able to draw breath. jw

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