Colorado governor intends to remove wildfire suppression responsibilities from university

The Colorado Forest Service and the Texas Forest Service have similar organizations in that they both report to universities, Colorado State University and Texas A&M University respectively. I have always thought this was strange, and apparently the Governor of Colorado agrees, especially in the wake of the escaped Lower North Fork prescribed fire in which three residents were killed at their homes. Governor John Hickenlooper today proposed moving the wildland firefighting and prescribed fire responsibilities to the Colorado Department of Public Safety.

Governor Hickenlooper said “We want to have it in one place, with an agency that is used to dealing with situations where minutes matter”. He wants to streamline the decision making as well as the dispatching and managing of firefighters.

Under the proposal Colorado State University would retain responsibilities for Forest Service research.

Paul Cook, the executive director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association supports the reorganization and said he has been pushing for the change since the 1994 South Canyon fire in which 14 wildland firefighters died.

During one of my assignments as a Fire Management Officer, my fire organization was in the Resource Management division, rather than in a division with other emergency service functions such as law enforcement. Like in Colorado, the Resource Management division was not used to functioning or making decisions “when minutes matter”. They didn’t know what they didn’t know about emergency management, but justified the structure because we did a lot of prescribed fire, and we coordinated quite a bit with the ‘ologists. But that coordination could have been done just about as easily (when minutes did not matter) if we had been in another division.

So, if Governor John Hickenlooper or Texas Governor Rick Perry ask for my opinion about moving wildfire management to the same department as emergency services, I strongly support it. I won’t be holding my breath waiting for the call, though.

UPDATE September 6, 2012:

The organizational change did in fact occur. Here is an excerpt from the Colorado Forest Service web site:

Wildfire Command and Control Transitions from the Colorado State Forest Service to the Department of Public Safety

The State of Colorado is in the process of centralizing all of the state’s fire-management functions into a single, statewide point of contact for fire management, command and control.

This move involves relocating the fire management functions of the Colorado State Forest Service and the Division of Emergency Management, located in the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, to the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) by July 1, 2012.

Colorado State University and the Colorado State Forest Service fully support this move and are working closely with CDPS to ensure that, as a state, we are optimally positioned to protect Colorado’s citizens, communities, infrastructure and important natural resources during wildfires.

The forest management, research, education and outreach aspects of the Colorado State Forest Service remain at CSU and are fully available to agencies, organizations and landowners where integration and application of this knowledge adds value.


Thanks go out to Christian

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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.

15 thoughts on “Colorado governor intends to remove wildfire suppression responsibilities from university”

  1. Whether or not the land grant colleges like this or not…

    Let us face it and face it head on: Universities and colleges are not fully equipped for the 21st Century all hazards / all risk environments and need to either step up to the plate or face the fate. It appears though that Texas does a better job with the TX Forest Service in this regard…

    I say to the Guv of CO: Great proposal!

  2. Plain and simple – “Ologists” don’t trump educated and experienced wildland firefighters and fire managers. When they think they do, the latent problems always surface (lack of funding; competing targets; clarity of mission; public support; general distrust; inability to make decisions; and analysis paralysis).

    A time has come that either wildland firefighters are given the opportunity to LEAD their programs, or sit back and watch the repetitive failures of the “ologists” and academics in trying to manage a wildland fire program.

    ‘Nuff said.

  3. After working in the structure and wildland arena in CO for the past 15 years, this is a welcome change. I’m confident that Hickenlooper will make this happen; it’s about time this agency gets the attention it deserves rather than being buried as a line item in the CSU budget.

  4. Granted this may make good since in the long run. Reality is in the Lower North Fork Fire the mistakes may not have been from the direction given by CSU but by a subordinate instruction. If the original signed and approved Colorado State Forest Service Prescribed Burn Plan, Lower North Fork document was abided by and not a note from a subordinate document (possible subordinate document, so far no one wants to answer were the note came from). We might have had a chance of containing the burn.

  5. Page 24 of the original signed and approved Colorado State Forest Service Prescribed Burn Plan, Lower North Fork, “Extended mop-up and patrol section” contains this note.
    “SPECIAL WIND NOTE: If high winds are predicted or occurring immediately go to the bum area and patrol for smokes near the line. Mopup within 200 feet of the line and stay on site until the winds subside or there is no chance for an escape.”
    Page 49 of the review performed by Bill Bass for some reason copies every word from that section except two sentences and the wind note.
    On page 50 of the review it states a different special wind note. One that differs from what is actually written in the approved Colorado State Forest Service Prescribed Burn Plan, Lower North Fork and was also not part of the 130 pages of additional documents released by Colorado State University, Colorado State Forest Service ( I cannot confirm the origin of the following statement.
    “SPECIAL WIND NOTE: If high winds are predicted (CSFS personnel will be notified via radio or pager by NWS or Jeffco Dispatch) or are actually occurring in the area, the RXB2 or ICT4 will be immediately notified. The RXB2/ICT4 will direct resources to focus mop‐up efforts on the downwind edges of the unit(s). Additional resources will be ordered at the RXB2/ICT4’s discretion. Resources will remain on scene until a minimum of 200 foot mop‐up has occurred and/or the wind event has subsided.”
    From the verbiage and actual event “CSFS personnel will be notified” when in fact it happened the other way around. On page 28 of the review “ The ITC4 and Burn boss received pages on Sunday evening March 25 from CSFS FDO…. advising of the red flag warning for Monday”. These two things possibly makes it appear to be a subordinate instruction. Reality is I do not know what document this statement came from and e-mails are not being returned. The statement contradicts the upper level document (approved Colorado State Forest Service Prescribed Burn Plan, Lower North Fork) and unless approved by the upper level signature (Colorado State Forest Service) all quality systems agree the upper level documents supersede all lower level documents. There is also a notice right below the ‘approved by’ signature on the approved Colorado State Forest Service Prescribed Burn Plan, Lower North Fork . “NOTICE: The approved Prescribed Fire Plan constitutes a delegation of authority to burn. No one has the authority to burn without an approved plan or in a manner not in compliance with the approved plan. Actions taken in compliance with the approved Prescribed Fire Plan will be fully supported. Personnel will be held accountable for actions taken which are not in compliance with elements of the approved plan regarding execution in a safe and cost-effective manner.”
    They again use this special wind note on page 55 of the review to justify a non-response to the red flag condition.

  6. So why is the US Forest Service, a land management agency, running a Fire and Aviation program that covers fire emergencies for most of the national public lands? This is a probably a big ‘can-of-worms’ but shouldn’t these responsibilities be under an emergency management division like FEMA? The F&AM budget is huge, and sometimes I think that the ‘tail is wagging the dog’.
    Or is this one of those questions that we just don’t dare ask?

  7. Robert, that can of worms has been continuously open for a decade or two at least. Some people will argue vehemently that wildfire suppression must be tightly integrated with vegetation and wildlife management. Others feel that emergency services should be not be supervised by resource managers, but should be their own entity. On a small scale, as I wrote in the original post above, I saw the problems with Fire reporting to resource managers, and I believe the same principles apply on a larger scale, at the Regional, and National levels.

  8. It appears the following statement was not an organic recommendation but almost predetermined according to the mandate by the Governor listed on page 4 of “The Review”. The recommendation was only where to make the move. I thought this was a fact finding review that would help clear up some of the confusion.

    “The state’s Division of Emergency Management and wildfire resources at the Colorado State Forest Service should both move under the authority of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, according to a review team charged with developing written recommendations to enhance and define accountability and responsibility for firefighting activities by the State of Colorado.”

  9. There seems to be a small but vocal minority that believe that anyone who is an “-ologist” is unqualified to manage a wildland fire program, and specifically in the USFS. I strongly disagree, believing that fire is just another force of Nature that affects all of the resiources in our forests and grasslands in different ways, and that a fire-savvy “-ologist” is the best person to integrate all of the various implications of fire, grazing, timber harvest, insects, recreation, etc into sound land management. A suppression-focused fire manager who wants to “put the wet stuff on the red stuff” will not lead us into a sound fire management position in the 21st Century.
    And as an aside, why is it always the USFS “-ologists” that catch the criticism? Shouldn’t your discussion also talk about the “-ologists” that are managers in our National Parks, BLM Public Lands and National Wildlife Refuges? How about the State Foresters that run fire programs in places like the Oregon ODF, Washington DNR, Montana DNRC and Idaho IDL? And then there are those Southern State Foresters in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, etc that are “-ologists” and do a very respectable job of managing fire as part of their total responsibility to the land. Let’s also not forget the “-ologists” at places like The Nature Conservancy (TNC) that actively manage fire on their lands: should they too give away their Fire Programs to fire folks who may or may not believe in the same management focus and objectives that fire can achieve?

    I’d be interested in hearing from NPS, BLM, USF&WS and TNC folks?
    Aldo Leoplod, who put his career on the line for “natural fire” back in the 1930s was an “-ologist”; so were Yellowstone NP Supe Bob Barbee and Lolo NF Supe Orville Daniels back in 1988. These folks are my heros, and I quake at what YNP and the Bob Marshall Wilderness would look like today without their wisdom, training and courage in the face of the “put it out at all cost” fire mentality.

  10. There would be some real advantages, and some real disadvantages to moving wildland fire away from the agencies that manage the wildlands. That could be debated for years, and already has been at the federal level, with no changes made so far.

    Keep in mind though, having a state forestry agency (and their fire program) under a land grant university, isn’t as shocking as some might think. At least five states are structured that way, CO, TX, KS, NE, and at least one I’m forgetting right now. Land grant universities are closely tied to agriculture and natural resources, so it’s really not a stretch. The university president isn’t dictating fire policy, nor the dean telling how to run a fire incident.

    And, looking around, ALL fed land management agencies are under a parent organization – USDA or DOI, and many (most?) state forestry agencies aren’t cabinet-level agencies, but are housed within a department of ag, DNR, or some similar parent agency. So while it may appear those agencies within universities are lost or buried (and some times that’s not a BAD thing when the budget axe is falling), almost all such agencies are housed within another parent agency of some type. Some are more prominent than others, but most are under someone’s administrative umbrella.

  11. Can we say “State Fire Marshall”? It’s about time CO stepped up and instituted the position.

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