On PBS: “The Big Burn” — the fires of 1910

The PBS television network is scheduled to air a program on February 3 about the fires of 1910 that changed wildland fire management for the next 100 years. The program is part of the American Experience series, and this episode is named “The Fire That Changed Everything — The Big Burn”. It is based on Timothy Egan’s best-selling book, “The Big Burn”.

When we first reported on this program there was much confusion about when it would air, with most of  the erroneous information coming from the PBS website. So, we can’t be certain it will air as advertised. However, this time it is showing up in my DirecTV program guide at 7 p.m. MST on February 3 — which is a good sign.

Set your DVRs.


The number of employees in federal land management agencies is declining

Number of employees land management agencies

The number of employees in the five major federal land management agencies has decreased by 6 to 33 percent over the last 11 years. According to data compiled by the Best Places to Work website, the decline in the size of the work force at the agencies is stunning — especially at the Bureau of Indian Affairs which has seen their workforce slashed by 33.5 percent. Frequently we hear from critics that government is growing, but it certainly isn’t at the outfits that employ the most wildland firefighters.

The actual number of firefighters in these five agencies is difficult to ascertain, but we have figures that were submitted in testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 2011 and 2013. In the two hearings, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the number of firefighters in the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior was 16,000 in 2011 and 13,000 in 2013. That is a 19 percent reduction in a two year period.

An example of this is at Everglades National Park, which is currently experiencing a “workforce realignment”. That’s National Park Service-speak for a major budget reduction. They are still figuring out the details, but it appears that their fire management staff will be “realigned” from about 35 to around 25 employees.

While the number of acres burned in the United States homeland is increasing, the number of wildland firefighters available to suppress them is doing the opposite. Firefighters are being laid off while we spend trillions of dollars on ill advised adventures on the other side of the world.

Acres burned, number of firefighters

We have more wildland fire statistics in an earlier article.

Job satisfaction at the land management agencies

The Best Places to Work website also has other interesting data. Every year the U.S. Office of Personnel Management conducts a Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey asking employees dozens of questions about their perceptions of what it is like to work at their agency. Below are some examples of the questions from the 2014 survey:

Examples of questions FEVS survey

A Best Places to Work index score is calculated based on responses to three questions in the OPM survey:

  • I recommend my organization as a good place to work.
  • Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?
  • Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization?

The 2014 survey index score for all of the major federal land management agencies declined except for the Forest Service, which showed a significant increase.

Best-places to work

To see the details of the survey results, visit these pages on the Best Places to Work website:

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Paula.


15 instructors at CAL FIRE’s Ione academy fired or disciplined

Orville Fleming

Orville Fleming

The investigation into the murder of the girlfriend of a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection instructor who worked at the state’s fire academy has resulted in a series of dominoes falling. Two firefighters have been fired, the resignation of a third was accepted, and 13 others will be disciplined. Of the 16 firefighters, 15 were instructors at the academy and the other worked in the field.

Battalion Chief Orville Fleming was found and arrested in October after a 16-day manhunt. An instructor at the agency’s training academy at Ione, California, the 55-year old BC had been charged in the May 1 stabbing death of 26-year old Sarah Jane Douglas, his live-in girlfriend.

Mr. Fleming’s wife had said he and other firefighters had engaged in sex with prostitutes at the academy and said she had seen a tape of such activities. However investigators were not able to find any evidence of the tape.

After the murder Mr. Fleming ditched his CAL FIRE truck and disappeared but was found 16 days later when he left his hideout near his home and boarded a bus to obtain food.

More details are at the Sacramento Bee.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick.


The culture of an organization can obstruct progress

Concept capabilities culture

The path of an idea, as described by Satya Nadella. Graphic by Bill Gabbert.

In exploring how Microsoft’s Hololens might affect the development, planning, and communication of strategy and tactics on a wildfire, we ran across an article about Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO. Mr. Nadella is transforming the company in many ways, especially in implementing methods for the various divisions to work together and how to encourage the acceptance of new ideas leading to the development of ground breaking products.

In an article in Wired by Jessi Hempel, Mr. Nadella described the evolution of ideas in an organization, and how they progress, or get stalled, as they attempt to move through a series of three concentric circles: Concept, Capabilities, and Culture. I took the liberty of transforming his description into the graphic image above.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

Nadella squats in front of a dinged-up black laminate coffee table and sketches three concentric circles on a piece of scratch paper. A wiry man with a shaved head and black-framed eyeglasses, he has a voice with a range of octaves but only one moderate volume. The outer ring, he explains, is Concepts—the vision that allows the company to think up new things like Project HoloLens. Inside this, he labels the second circle Capabilities—the engineering and design skills necessary to make things. Nadella pauses on the smallest circle, the center of the bull’s-eye, which he labels Culture. “You need a culture that is fundamentally not opposed to new concepts and new capabilities,” he says.

Microsoft has had no problem with the outer circles. It has combined vision with breathtaking engineering to create a whole bunch of amazing prototypes. But they rarely make it to market. That’s because, over the past two decades, its culture has grown competitive and insular, more consumed with getting and protecting an edge than pushing into riskier new businesses. People were motivated to produce things they knew their managers would like, rather than take risks on new ideas that might fail. The company’s money-minting core offerings, Windows and Office, sucked up talent and attention while newer ideas got overlooked.

Mr. Nadella’s description indicates that Microsoft’s culture was the cause of death of too many ideas and innovative concepts, something he is attempting to change.

Many land managers and wildland firefighters who work for large federal and state agencies have experienced the same mortality of new ideas that had the potential to improve the way natural resources are managed, or may have made firefighting more efficient or reduced risks. However the culture of a hierarchy of risk averse managers who did everything they could to avoid making tough decisions may have torpedoed the suggestion.

In 1994 this culture led me to write the first article that I had published. It was titled A Top 10 List: Reasons why you can’t do that, and continues to live on buried in the archives of Wildfire Today where it was republished in 2011.


Ontario government sues railroad company for starting four fires

Timmins 9 Fire, May 2012

The Timmins 9 Fire burned about 20,000 hectares (98,000 acres) in May, 2012.

From CBCnews:

The province [of Ontario] is seeking compensation from Canadian National Railway over four forest fires in 2012, including $38 million for a massive fire near Timmins.

The province is alleging the fires were started by passing trains. The other three court actions involve another fires near Timmins, Chapleau and Thunder Bay. The damages sought in those cases are between $1 million and $2 million each.

The $38 million court action involves a fire called Timmins 9 in May of 2012.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry alleges the fire was started by the passage of a train through the area. The fire burned 40,000 hectares (98,000 acres) of bush and destroyed several camps.

The fire was the largest one in the province in half a century, and came within about 20 kilometers of the City of Timmins…

Documents filed in the case regarding the Timmins 9 Fire include the following:

14  The Ministry investigators also determined that the point of origin of the fire was within the railway right-of-way and approximately 2 1/2 metres from the western most rail at mileage 96.48.

16. At the point of origin, the investigators found a metal fragment whose particular characteristics indicated it had been heated and had been exposed to the elements for a short time.

17. Metal fragments are a competent source of ignition and may be released due to inter alia treading or wear or buildup from railway operations. This particular metal fragment, recently deposited, was a result of the railway operations of the defendant CNR.

The documents also accuse the railroad of failing to:

  • properly maintain, repair, and inspect the tracks and right-of-way;
  • properly maintain, repair, and inspect its railway cars, engines, and equipment including brake assembly and exhaust systems;
  • manage vegetation through controlled burns or other means;
  • provide a sufficient number of stations on its routes and personnel on the trains to detect and suppress fires;
  • control or extinguish the fire and failed to limit its spread beyond its property.