USFS Regional Fire Director describes the management of the Pioneer Fire

“There simply isn’t any safe place for [firefighters] to work”

Pioneer Fire

Above:  Pioneer Fire August 31, 2016. InciWeb photo.

The Regional Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region, Sue Stewart, distributed a three-page document on August 31, 2016 describing the background and status of the Pioneer Fire that as of September 2 has burned 180,000 acres in central Idaho. Below are two excerpts. You can view the full document here.

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“The Pioneer Fire on the Boise National Forest started on July 18th, and despite our best efforts it escaped our initial attack. Six weeks later, on August 31st, the fire is 157,000 acres and still spreading to the north. There is about 350 miles of fire perimeter, with 182 miles of completed fireline. Here are the things it’s important to understand about our management of this fire:

1. Our initial attack was immediate and aggressive. Here’s the narrative statement that reports our initial response on July 18th:

The Pioneer Fire was reported at 1717 hours to Boise Dispatch by the lead plane assigned to the Casner Fire while it was returning to Boise Airport. The initial fire size-up from the lead plane was 1 to 1.5 acres in continuous fuels. No structures in the immediate area of the fire and poor road access. The fire was initial attacked by one air attack, one lead plane, four helicopters, one heavy air tanker, two single engine air tankers, 11 smoke jumpers, Boise Hotshots, Crew 11, Engine 412, one wet patrol unit, and a fire investigator.

At 1804 hours dispatch received an update that the fire was increasing in size. The first resource on scene was Boise BLM Helitack at 1810 hours. They immediately ordered a heavy air tanker, two single engine air tankers, two type 2 helicopters, and one type 1 helicopter for the fire.  The helitack crew was unable to find a landing site near the fire area. They flew to Idaho City Airstrip to put on a bucket for water drops and returned to the fire.

At 1841 hours dispatch received another update that the fire was five acres, growing, burning in timber, torching, and crowning flame lengths. By 1906 hours the fire was reported between 15 and 20 acres, spotting, with uphill runs. The fire was reported to be 30 acres by air attack at 2004 hours. Later, air attack reported the fire 100 acres with group tree torching at 2127 hours.

At 2207 hours the type 3 incident commander ordered additional resources to the fire. The order included, one additional type 2 helicopter, four type 1 crews, three type 2 IA crews, five type 4 engines, two water tenders and two dozers for the next day.

The cause of the Pioneer Fire is under investigation. The origin of the fire was located on Boise National Forest in Forest Service fire protection at T7N, R6E, section 16.

Reports that heavy air tankers were sitting unordered and unused while the fire was attacked by single engine air tankers are incorrect. We only had access to one of them, the other was on a mandatory day off. (Pilots are required to stand down to rest for safety one day each week during which time critical maintenance is taken care of on those heavily used aircraft.) The initial response was commensurate with the challenges the fire presented at IA, and we launched the heavy air tanker right away.

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9. If we could put this fire out without compromising the safety of our firefighters and aviators we would do so. We will not put people in harm’s way without safety zones in which they can seek refuge from extreme fire behavior, and so as the fire continues to move to the north toward the Deadwood Reservoir and into some more remote terrain our suppression investments will decline significantly commensurate with values at risk from the fire.

In the past week as the fire has moved past locations where we might reasonably and safely check its progress, we have scaled back our workforce. There are just half the numbers of firefighters as there were last week; there simply isn’t any safe place for them to work and so we are able to redirect firefighters to other incidents where they can make a difference. As the Pioneer Fire bumps into old fire scars, however, we have opportunities in the altered fuels to stop its progress and we will be taking advantage of those opportunities. A projected containment date in October is not giving up – it’s simply being realistic about what we can do safely.”

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

1 thought on “USFS Regional Fire Director describes the management of the Pioneer Fire”

  1. In case any locals read this and have their doubts, I can share with you some personal efforts made to catch one small corner of this fire. One evening their was a spot fire over Clear Creek where we had been trying to hold the fire on the 582 road. Many firefighters waded through the creek and hiked up a steep slope in the dark trying to attack a fire that was building quickly. The first threat one has to consider on an event like this, is the significant potential of a log or even a small burning pine cone rolling downhill into unburnt fuel below you and cuts you off from your escape route back to an area safe from the flames. After you have assessed this and made sure you have adequate time and a viable route out if this does happen, you post a lookout that can focus their attention on giving early warning so that no one is surprised. This happened early on during this spot fire but was quickly attacked by firefighters to keep the lower spot from spreading. The next very significant hazard is being hit by a rolling log, rock, or burning tree. During this event we had several of these come down with speed and force enough to kill someone. I have a giant bruise on my calf from scrambling over a log trying to avoid one of these. We still kept trying for a bit to catch this quickly growing spot fire that was several acres at that point. After realizing the significant danger we were posing to firefighters and that we were not going to stop this new area from advancing that night, we pulled people off for their safety. This was not done because we didn’t care if the fire got bigger, as we had already put ourselves at risk of serious injury or death. I broke my back from a falling tree in Helende Creek a few miles over from this location and hauled a crew member off a similar slope in Canyon Creek with a broken back from a rolling rock. The ICs daughter was beside me doing this same work. Anyhow, there are things that could be done better or sooner when fighting these fires, but this is mother nature and we will never be able to react perfectly to control her wishes. It is easy to see a bunch of folks standing around in green pants “not doing anything” and think that nothing is being done. It is sometimes hard to make sense of the politically correct responses that are spit out by agency managers. I hope this small story about one little corner of this giant fire can help illustrate to someone how even when we are trying our best to do something we still lose ground. Eventually you have to start taking a step back and see what you are ultimately going to be able to achieve, and see if that end state is worth risking someone’s life over. These managers are deciding that the difference between 180,000 acres burned and 220,000 isn’t worth much risk. These same managers put people at much more significant amounts of risk when the fire was 15,000 acres, because it was worth the reasonable end state of stopping this fire from burning another 100,000+ acres and threatening homes in front of it at the time. The 19 hotshots that died on the Yarnell Hill fire died from not stopping to make this same sort of assessment. They thought they might be able to do something still (even though it was a very small chance at that point) and they took a significant risk to do so. The fire burnt up a bunch of brush and some structures, were their lives worth risking for that?

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