The War on Fire

On April 5, 2016, Tom Tidwell, then acting chief of the U.S. Forest Service, sent a letter to Forest Service leadership with a mandate to “more reliably protect responders and the public, sustain communities and conserve the land.”

Tidwell asked Forest Service districts to commit firefighters “only to operations where and when they can be successful, and under conditions” where property can be protected “with the least exposure necessary while maintaining relationships with the people we serve.”

Tidwell said this new philosophy would take more prep work before a fire started. It also required responders to ‘stop, think and talk’ before ‘acting.’

It also meant fire commanders would sacrifice property to keep firefighters alive.

Bringing the policy local

For Payson and Pleasant Valley Districts Head Ranger Debbie Cress, the shift in policy has already affected how the Forest Service fights fires.

“When I became an agency administrator, I became a person who makes the decision when a fire starts,” she said. “I read a lot of scientific papers on fire science. I asked the Rocky Mountain Research Station about the latest around fire behavior. I hang out with smart fire people.”

She also uploads as much information as she can into the Wildland Fire Decision Support System. Cress said it’s fondly called, woof-duss, developed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.

WFDSS allows her to build maps of an area that identify communities, watersheds, roads, trails, protected habitat, fuel conditions, weather, terrain and fire history.

“WFDSS … guides us through a risk and complexity analysis,” she said.

Prepare during down time

During the winter, Cress will bring the Rocky Mountain Research Station to the Tonto to speak with personnel. “They talked not only about people and communities, but power lines and other values.”

Last winter, Hotshot crews cleared vegetation along fire breaks.

“To date, Forest Service fire managers have treated over 61,295 acres of fuels around Rim Country communities, from Payson, Pine and Strawberry across to Colcord Estates and everything in between.”

Fire season

Fire managers turn to WFDSS when a blaze like the Highline Fire on the face of the Mogollon Rim breaks out. “With the Highline Fire, fuel conditions were very dry, temperatures were very hot, and we had significant values at risk with nearby communities,” she said. “It was also under similar conditions as the Dude Fire, which burned in the same location in 1990 and took the lives of six firefighters.

Cress noted, “We have two kinds of fire, planned fires and unplanned fires. Our end state is always going to be suppression.”

However, the mandate to ‘conserve the land’ has motivated the Forest Service to maintain a low-intensity fire in favorable conditions to remove brush.

Cress used the Fulton and Juniper as examples of such useful fires.

Juniper Fire

Juniper Fire

The Juniper Fire started as a lightning strike in a remote area south of Young, said Cress. “There had been very few wildfires in the Sierra Ancha range for many years and we knew fuel loading was high,” she said. “The steep terrain and lack of roads made it unsafe to put firefighters in to directly suppress the fire, so we pulled out maps and looked at where we could safely put people along major roads where we could get them out safely and quickly.”

Command then drew a perimeter line and burned it out using incendiary balls dropped from a helicopter. Firefighters primarily dropped the incendiary balls on tops of ridges to move the fire downslope rather than waiting for the fire to run uphill, which increases its severity.

“We knew from gathering data before the fire that fuel moistures were high and temperatures were unseasonably mild, which would allow the fire intensity to stay more moderate,” said Cress.

Firefighters protected the few homes in the area by clearing fire breaks. They also suppressed edges of the fire so they did not become too hot and damage soil.

As temperatures rose, however, firefighters shifted tactics to holding and monitoring the existing fire rather than burning out areas.

Fulton Fire

Fulton Fire

The Fulton Fire started at the end of the monsoon season with a lightning strike on the face of the Mogollon Rim.

“We knew fuel moistures were high and temperatures would be mild,” said Cress.

The weather and fuel conditions were good enough to support a low-intensity fire, which could remove the large amounts of dead material on the ground.

“We identified places on the ground where we knew we could safely put firefighters to hold the line, mainly along existing roads at the top of the Rim … and around the communities of Colcord Estates and Ponderosa Springs,” said Cress.

They used incendiary balls to encourage the fire to move downslope.

A suite of national resources

Even with all of the technology and resources available, a fire can overwhelm resources. “A the end of it, (WFDSS) has a recommendation … It is still just a tool,” said Cress. “We decide if we feel it is Type 1 or 2 or 3 incident. [Then we] look at what kind of teams do we have to bring in.”

Most often aerial resources get used up first.

The Highline Fire started during a time of the year when not many other blazes burned. “We brought in the Type 1 team right away,” said Cress. “Conditions on the ground were hot and dry. We already knew as fire managers, the topography (and) we knew the history — what had happened before. We knew there would be complexities.”

The Highline Fire ended up attracting one of the most effective Type 1 incident teams in the country headed up by Bea Day, who had years of experience on the Tonto.

“She grew up on the Tonto National Forest,” said Cress. “Her coming inspired confidence.”

The Highline ended up with 1,000 firefighters and operations chiefs got whatever air support they needed. Boots on the ground held the tricky southern line of fire on the Highline Trail.

The diurnal winds didn’t overwhelm the line, which boxed the fire, moving it along until it ran into Myrtle Point and turned back on itself.

A classic Box and Burn fire.

Controlling resources

Juniper Fire smoke jump

Running all of the resources in the country, is the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho (www.nifc.gov).

Each year, between 45,000 and 90,000 fires start throughout the country. Eight federal agencies, the Forest Service, the Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, National Weather Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have worked together since 1965.

During the peak of fire season, directors from each agency meet to determine the National Preparedness Level, from Level 1, with lots of resources and not many fires to Level 5, which amounts to a national emergency.

NIFC has broken the nation into 11 different fire regions, each with its own Geographic Area Coordination Center. For Arizona, the Southwest Coordination Center is in New Mexico.


Spark by Pia Wyer

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