Night shifts and direct attack: a lost art?

Charley Fitch, a retired District Ranger on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California, wrote an editorial that appeared in the December 7 electronic edition of the Redding Searchlight. In addition to saying they need to do more logging in order to reduce the fuels, he had this to say, in part, about direct attack and night shifts:

Two of the more apparent tactics that are now rarely used on anything but the smallest of fires are aggressive direct attack and night shifts. Both of these tactics were used extensively in the past to contain fires quickly and with greatly minimized acreage. In place of these two tactics, you are more likely to find almost no suppression activities at night. Once the fire activity laid down in the cooler night air, the crews could use direct attack and contain fires with much less risk. This tactic is probably the most effective for containing wildfires. Now without the use of night shifts for active fire suppression, this tactic is lost. Further, without night shifts the fire lines constructed during the day are as good as abandoned each evening.

The second tactic involved aggressive direct attack on the fire. Though often modified to include a mix of direct attack and near direct attack, it is greatly different from what is now happening. The current situation in the Big Bar Ranger District is to back off a mile or more away from the fire and use a combination of allowing the fire to burn to the fire line (like a highway or river) and burning out or back-burning from that fire line. Instead of a few hundred acres, we now have fires that are 100,000 acres in size. The real travesty is that most of the acreage burned was not burned by wildfire but rather by the back-burning.

As a result of the safety issue, the Forest Service hierarchy has determined that fighting fire on steep slopes is too dangerous and is to be avoided or banned altogether. The results can especially be seen on the Big Bar Ranger District. This area has always been known for the steep slopes. But until this latest enlightenment by present Forest Service suppression forces, it was never considered unsafe to allow people to work on the slopes.

Another issue, mentioned only in the editorial, is the impact of the fires on public health. Where fires used to last days or maybe a week, they now are measured in months. Recent fires have lasted from 70 to 115 days. The local communities were exposed day after day to extremely unhealthy air. A comparison to the recent fire season can be found in 1987, where the circumstances were similar to 2008. The 1987 fires lasted a total of 37 days (which included the first two weeks with no forces available to combat the fires) and covered 27,000 acres. The difference can be found in the tactics used to suppress these fires. In a 2006 letter to the Record Searchlight, Forest Supervisor Sharon Heywood wrote, “We do not ‘let the fire burn’ on this forest.” That is undoubtedly true. However, the Forest Service is actually prolonging the fires by failing to actively suppress them and is increasing the size and duration of the fires by using such indirect tactics.

It appears that the Forest Service has lost its ability to fight fires. Not only is the Forest Service in this situation, but so are the other federal agencies that have joined in these new safe suppression tactics. It seems that very soon the Forest Service and other federal agencies will need to decide if they are going to fight fire at all. Or will they just admit that they can no longer safely fight any fires and get out of the business? As a retired Forest Service employee, I would hope that the Forest Service and other federal agencies would review their present positions and return to a more conventional style of fire suppression. It can be done safely.

Mr. Fitch has a point about the less aggressive tactics that are now being used. But this began before 1999.

I was on a fire on that district, the Big Bar district, during the Siege of ’87, a lightning bust similar to the Siege of ’08 this year. After having “grown up” on hot shot crews, I was frustrated as Planning Section Chief to to have to write into the incident action plans the timid tactics and lack of direct attack that were dictated by the incident commander. I knew that hot shot crews could be putting in direct line, but instead we watched the fire grow each day with little being done to stop the spread.

We had been managing our fire with a thrown-together organization, since with hundreds of fires burning simultaneously there were no incident management teams available. Finally the fire merged with a larger fire on an adjoining forest and the Type 1 team from the other fire took over the fire. The Type 1 team employed more aggressive tactics, going direct when possible and safe, and before you knew it the fire was contained.

UPDATE @ 11:50 a.m. Dec. 8, 2008:

My friend Dick Mangan wrote an excellent article about the pros and cons of night shifts in 2002. CLICK HERE to download the Word document.

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