The Fire Whisperers

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The New York Times has an interesting article about the Fire Behavior Analysts working on the fires in Arizona. Here are some excerpts:

As thousands of firefighters used hand tools and hoses to combat the wildfires torching vast stretches of the Southwest, Drew Smith stared into a computer screen at a command center near one of the fiercest blazes and tried to determine which way the flames would veer next.

Some wildfires are mean. Some are wily. Some show exceptional endurance, or fierceness or moxie. The most difficult among them are assigned behavior analysts like Mr. Smith — fire whisperers, as it were — who act as psychologists delving into the blazes’ inner selves.


With more than a dozen significant fires now burning through the Southwest, the fire whisperers are busy. At the sunrise briefings that wildland firefighters attend before they go off to the lines, a variety of status reports are offered on the day’s work ahead. None, though, is listened to as intently as that of the behaviorist, who uses computer modeling and intuition to try to predict how the fire will burn that day.

“They seem to get inside the head of the fire, sort of like a Dr. Phil for a fire,” said Helen Snyder, who attended the daily strategy sessions that firefighters held in May as the Horseshoe 2 Fire threatened her home in Portal, Ariz. “Everyone hung on their words as they drew mental pictures of the fire.”


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

4 thoughts on “The Fire Whisperers”

  1. Several years ago during the Darnell Fire in Portal, AZ (a very small 1930s Ranger Station) the fire behaviorist walking to the back door of the station said “OMG do they even have telephones here?” they may know fire behavior, but Dr. Phil they ain’t.

  2. Horseshoe 2 Fire Update

    Northern Rockies Incident Management Team

    Incident Commander: Stan Benes

    For Immediate Release: June 26, 2011 8 a.m.

    Fire Information: 520-766-1301

    Fire Facts:

    Date started: May 8, 2011

    Number of Personnel: 402

    Location: Portal, Arizona

    Crews: 7 Type 2

    Size: 222,954 acres

    Engines: 17

    Percent Contained: 100%

    Dozers: 1

    Cause: Human

    Water Tenders: 15

    Total structures destroyed: 23

    Helicopters: 1 Type 3

    Cost to Date: $50.2 million

    Fire Update

    The Horseshoe 2 Fire is now 100% contained. Fire officials declared the incident contained Saturday evening. Fire suppression rehabilitation work will continue into early next week and the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team efforts will continue for some time. Stabilization efforts are important to help minimize erosion once the monsoon season starts.

    On Saturday, a helicopter was used to sling load debris away from the Barfoot lookout site.

    On Sunday, fire fighters will continue to rehab safety zones, fire lines and dozer lines, and repair cattleguards. Crews are using a chipping machine to break down large branches and brush to clear out along roads, especially the 42 Road.


    All evacuations have been lifted; however, the Coronado National Forest and Chiricahua National Monument remain closed to the public. A return to some limited access is being considered.

    Residents seeking information about the status of homes and structures on private land are encouraged to call the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department at 520.432.9500. For structures on federal property, please contact the Douglas Ranger District at 520.364.3468

    Information on Post-Fire Preparedness

    Cochise County Emergency Management: Mike Evans (520) 432-9220 205 N. Judd Dr, Bisbee, AZ 85603

    Hidalgo County Emergency Management: Janet Richardson (575) 542-9993, Lordsburg, NM 88045

  3. if a fire whisperer helps and because of that help lives are saved, I say it is a wonderful tool. Those brave firefighters need all the help available, including our prayers.


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