About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+

CAL FIRE’s academy accused of improper testing procedures

CAL FIREMore allegations of improper activities have emerged about the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s firefighter academy in Ione.

They are still dealing with repercussions from earlier scandals. Within the last year one of the instructors was convicted of the murder of his mistress, and 16 either resigned, were fired, or were disciplined. All of the disciplined employees were replaced at the academy following charges that included drinking on duty, using state property to meet with prostitutes, and sexual harassment. In March Ken Pimlott, Director of CAL FIRE, felt the need to deal publicly with the scandal when he addressed the issue in a Legislature budget hearing.

Now according to the Sacramento Bee there are new allegations of questionable practices related to administering tests at the school. Below is an excerpt from the article:

For more than an hour in August 2014, Shannon Browne sat with investigators at CHP’s Valley Division office in Sacramento, at first hesitant, then growing more confident as she laid out her concerns. Instructors were manipulating scores on tests at Cal Fire’s firefighting academy in Ione, she told the officers.


“Instead of saying, ‘Hey, we’re not teaching this correctly,’ and keeping (the questions) … they were just passing students,” Browne said during a 70-minute interview recorded by the investigators. “They were going to pass everyone … and I know that this is a safety issue. This is someone’s safety and life, and other people are depending on them. … They (the cadets) should not be passed if they don’t know the material. I mean, these are critical basic skills.”

A county in Colorado where 833 homes burned in a two year period, considers addressing wildfire risk

El Paso County, ColoradoEl Paso County, Colorado is home to the state’s most destructive fires. In 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire burned more than 18,000 acres, destroyed 347 homes in Colorado Springs and killed two people. Almost exactly a year later, the Black Forest Fire ignited east of the city and burned more than 15,000 acres, 486 homes and killed two people.

Ryan Maye Handy wrote an article in the Colorado Springs Gazette that looks at some of the proposals being considered, and in some cases rejected, that could enhance the area’s ability to live with the inevitable fires still to come. Below is an excerpt.

…While El Paso County has taken some steps to address wildfire risk, land use experts say officials could do much more.

Unlike the city of Colorado Springs, which heavily regulates building in wildfire zones, the county has no universal fire code standard. Instead, it has a patchwork of fire codes and land use regulations that vary between more than 26 fire districts. New subdivisions in wildfire zones must meet special wildfire criteria, but individual homes do not have to be built with fire resistant material or have mitigated properties. County master plans for development, while offering guidelines, are years and in some cases decades out of date and make no mention of wildfire.

Ultimately, economic and logistical concerns have kept the El Paso County commissioners from issuing broad regulations for building in wildfire zones, and the result is that many homeowners and areas remain vulnerable to fire.


While refraining from adopting county-wide fire codes might spare El Paso County residents economic hardship, the decision doesn’t take into account the economic consequences of managing a wildfire, experts say. Wildfires cost money to fight, typically taxpayer money, and the U.S. Forest Service spends a third of its budget defending homes in wildfire zones….

Stylized image of a firefighter on the White Draw Fire

White Draw Fire

This picture is a stylized interpretation of a wildland firefighter at night with smoke in the background illuminated by flames from a wildfire. It was inspired by a scene we photographed on the 2012 White Draw Fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

If you like it, you can get copies (without the copyright or Fine Art America notice) in various forms, including canvas print, framed print, metal print, greeting cards, shower curtain, and cases for iPhones and Galaxy phones.

You may prefer the original photograph rather than the stylized version. If so, it is available on the same items and in larger print sizes.

How much sleep do tactical athletes need?

sleep firefighter

Tom Sadowski, El Cariso Hotshots, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Charles Palmer, an associate professor at the University of Montana who studies performance psychology of wildland firefighters, has called them “tactical athletes”. Mr. Palmer, who spent 20 years as a firefighter and smokejumper, has said:

These aren’t people who ride around in trucks and squirt water on stuff — this is really demanding from a lot of different angles. You travel around, you have to perform, they’re getting very little downtime, they have nutritional challenges … physically you have to perform really well.

A study of wildland firefighters during suppression activities in Spain found that heart rates ranged from 116 to 133 beats per minute depending on the length of the work. Researchers in Australia measured heart rates of firefighters operating hand tools that were 95 percent of their predicted maximal.

When we read an article at the Monday Morning Quarterback about managing the sleep of professional football players, we could’t help but make the comparison between those athletes and the ones who fight wildfires for a living.

According to the piece by Jennie Vrentas, an increasing number of NFL teams are emphasizing an adequate amount of sleep for their players. Below are some excerpts from the article:

A good night’s sleep is directly tied to key factors such as reaction time, mental alertness, muscular recovery and converting what you’ve recently learned into memory. That’s why the science of slumber has become one of the hottest trends in the NFL: Teams are no longer leaving it to chance that their multimillion dollar investments will manage sleep cycles all on their own.

The Dolphins and Patriots have dark rooms at their practice facilities so players can take naps. Eagles players fill out a morning questionnaire on their tablets, self-reporting how long and how well they slept the previous night.

If you run on four hours of sleep a night for a week, it’s the same as drinking a six-pack and then going to work.

“The average athlete probably needs eight to nine hours of sleep, given their physical demands,” [Washington team physician Anthony] Czeisler says, and even more if you can get it. “I wish I could say there’s a shortcut, but if you are going to be a professional athlete, you need to pay careful attention to sleep.”

A single all-nighter, or a week spent getting just four hours of sleep a night, can make one’s reaction time nearly three times slower.

The article refers to studies completed on football and basketball players, but there has also been research on how sleep affects wildland firefighters. In a study of firefighters in Australia during a four-day simulation of an assignment on a wildland fire, it was found that after two nights of being restricted to four hours of sleep their performance on a hand-eye coordination task declined. However their work output remained about the same even after consecutive nights of restricted sleep.

In a related study in Australia, Grace Vincent, a PhD student at Deakin University reported:

The firefighters report [that while working on actual fires they get] only about four to five hours sleep per night. They have trouble sleeping due to other people snoring in locations such as cabins, tents or the floor of school gyms.  Some are simply so wired after spending the whole day in emergency-mode, that they can’t switch off.

This is consistent with research in the United states, in Technology and Development Publication, Wildland Firefighter Health and Safety Report, Issue Number 13, Summer 2009:

…Sleeping in fire camp can be a challenge. Noise from generators, vehicles, and other firefighters all contribute to sleeplessness. Because almost all wildland firefighters need to sleep either in fire camps or in spike camps, they sleep in tents, on the ground, and in hot, smoky, and dusty conditions. Shift work interferes with sleep, especially for those on night shift.

Sleep log data were collected on members of five incident management teams at fire camps in California and Montana during 2008. [Note from Bill: this data appears to be from overhead team members in fire camp, not “tactical athletes” out in the field.] Data for 140 team members (36 percent female, 64 percent male) indicated that they averaged 6.1 hours of sleep, ranging from 3.5 to 9.0 hours per night. On average, team members went to bed at 9:30 p.m. They reported being awakened an average of 2.2 times per night, awakening from zero to six times per night. When team members were asked to rate the quality of their sleep, the average was 6.6 on a 10-point scale. Nearly one-fourth (23.8 percent) reported feeling tired when they woke, while 53.6 percent felt somewhat rested, 20.2 percent felt rested, and 2.4 percent felt very rested.

Eight hours of rest between work periods is inadequate because only 50 to 75 percent of the rest period is devoted to sleep. Thus it is advisable to have longer rest periods (10 to 14 hours) so workers have time for adequate sleep.

Total sleep deprivation for 1 week has led to cognitive impairment when work requires multitasking. In driving, accidents increase as sleep duration is decreased. In tasks requiring judgment, risky behaviors emerge when sleep is limited to 5 hours per night.

Behavioral alertness and a range of cognitive functions, including sustained attention, and working memory deteriorate when nightly sleep is limited to between 4 and 7 hours. Decisionmaking skills, such as the ability to assess risk, assimilate changing information, and revise strategies to solve problems based on new information are likely to suffer.

Eight hours of rest between work periods is inadequate because only 50 to 75 percent of the rest period is devoted to sleep. Thus it is advisable to have longer rest periods (10 to 14 hours) so workers have time for adequate sleep.

What about naps?

The same publication recommended naps when possible, but the length is important:

Naps restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce the risk of mistakes. To avoid waking up groggy and exhausted, workers should nap for 20 to 30 minutes OR for longer than 90 minutes. A one-hour nap places you in the middle of deep sleep, making it difficult to wake up. You will be disoriented and clumsy, might make poor decisions, and could be at risk of an injury. A 20-minute nap ends before you descend into deep sleep; a 90-minute nap catches you rising out of deep sleep.

Two killed in South Australia bushfire

From 9News:

“At least two people are dead and 13 people remain in hospital, five of them in serious or critical conditions, after yesterday’s devastating Pinery bushfire in South Australia.

South Australian premier Jay Weatherill confirmed “grave fears” were held for more people, with the full cost of the blaze still to unfold.

Watch the TODAY Show [for live stream occasional coverage of] the latest fire updates.

“We can’t be sure we have identified every single person in the fireground,” Mr Weatherill told a press conference this morning.

A 56-year-old woman was killed in a car in Hamley Bridge, while the body of 69-year-old man was found in a paddock in Pinery. Their families have been notified.  Thirteen people remain in hospital, five of those of whom are in serious or critical conditions. One of those has burns to around 80 percent of their body. At least two of those injured

At least 16 homes have been destroyed.”