Prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires

Dr. Gabbert’s prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

I am not a doctor, but some of us remember when this was standard operating procedure, at least in the federal government. CAL FIRE still understands and practices this strategy.

One of our loyal readers sent us some information about a June 19 fire on the El Dorado National Forest in California. A cooperator, CAL FIRE, helped the U.S. Forest Service by sending three S-2 air tankers, arriving at the fire 16, 19, and 30 minutes after the first smoke report. The U.S. Forest Service dispatched one helicopter and some ground forces to their fire.

It was contained within the first hour.

On the day of the fire the USFS had somewhere between zero and two large air tankers in the state of California.

Fires like this, success stories, don’t make the news. But they do when they burn 44,330 acres and 254 structures and cost taxpayers $17.9 million to suppress.

Until 2002 the U.S. Forest Service also subscribed to this initial-attack-with-overwhelming-force strategy, which works when you’re fighting wars and fires. Now that the federal firefighting budgets have been reduced and the air tanker fleet has withered away from 44 to 9 exclusive use large air tankers for the entire country, they have abandoned that policy.

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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.

16 thoughts on “Prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires”

  1. I would really like to read more stories on initial attack success. But I know they are hard to piece together because agencies don’t track the details leading up to the success very well. Do you know the status of the Bae-146 T-40?


  3. Mr. Allen, this was an example of how CAL FIRE uses overwhelming force on initial attack, and not an analysis of fire behavior or tactics.

    When a smoke is first reported, rarely is there enough time or information to assess “SIZE, FUELS, ACCESS, VALUES AT RISK, GROWTH POTENTIAL” before dispatching firefighting resources other than in broad, general terms based on the area and fire danger that day. After the first units arrive is when an experienced firefighter can analyze those and other factors and then order additional forces or turn some around that are still en route. If you wait for all of that information to be collected before the dispatch, you have lost the advantage of quick initial attack.

    And, cost per acre on an initial attack success is meaningless. It becomes meaningful after the fire becomes large, burns thousands of acres, and requires the commitment of hundreds or thousands of personnel. THEN you can measure it and make a judgement about how efficiently funds were used.

    By the way, good luck in getting that CAPS LOCK key unstuck.

  4. I agree! We need to nip it in the bud instead of wasting our tax payer money and letting things take forever and burn half our country down in the process. I would gladly support a bill that authorized more planes to fight the fires and more pilots and training to get them into the air, as well. We need this more than we need people on welfare buying junk food and soda pop. Take away all of the junk food allowances on EBT and I bet you could fund 50-150 more planes and pilots. Lol.

  5. While the USFS is open to much legit criticism, I don’t see it in this example. Cal Fire does not send resources to a USFS fire without a resource order or preplanned dispatch run of some kind, that’s what Cooperator means. Also, what happened to the USFS in 2002 in your part of the country that was different than my part of the country?

  6. Estimate cost for the fire in the El Dorado N.F (estimate) $30 million. Sorry about that, better change my typewriter type.

  7. R5 one of the only regions that has a true aggressive Initial Attac protocol. R1, R2, R4, send out a Type 6 engine to go looking for the fire, maybe a helicopter or some jumpers, or maybe a second engine if they feel like it.

    R5 initial attack is 3-5 Type 3 Enigines, Water Tender, Battalion Chief, Duty Chief, 2 Air Tankers, Air Attack, 2 Patrols, 2 Handcrews, 1 Dozer, and Helitack. You can always turn it around, but you can never regain lost ground.

    We’ve got to stop screwing around with fires. Perimeter size directly coorelates with safety and costs.

  8. In our haste to criticize the USFS for letting some fires get out of control, don’t forget the policy of stomping out all fires by 10AM is what has led to forests nationwide that have way too much fuel load, leading to uncontrollable fires. Be consistent. Either give the USFS the resources to permit rapid massive response to every smoke, or start using good forest management policies that allow the forests to return to pre-suppression conditions. And remember, even the Los Angeles County Fire Department with more resources than even CAL FIRE available on instant dispatch sometimes loses a battle. See the Station Fire as an example.

  9. CAL FIRE, better known to us oldtimers as CDF also has a slightly different mission than USFS. CDF has significant responsibility for structure protection as well as wildland fire suppression. Several counties in CA contract with CAL FIRE to provide their structure protection.
    Also, in El Dorado county, CDF and USFS dispatch out of the same office, using the same personnel, because the National Forest and State lands are so intertwined that close cooperation is essential. It is not unusual on initial dispatch to any report of a fire anywhere in the county to have USFS, CAL FIRE, and El Dorado County Fire units responding. Whoever gets there first does the initial assessment and can turn around unneeded units. The fire report still belongs to whoever owns the land though…

  10. Amen Jim!
    Fire is natures revitalizer. Humans building in the interface should be aware of the hazards just like people who build on the cost should be aware of hurricanes. They should insure their property accordingly.

  11. Agreed. this isn’t the “Out by 10:00 policy, but
    the necessity-during times of drought, to mash
    the fire before it grows. yes the woodlands need clean up-if allowed it would be a good thing. It isn’t
    just the firefighting methods of yesterady to blame.

  12. Cost per acre, Bob? Seriously? That thought process is one of the issues that has thrown us into the problems we now are facing.

  13. Pretty good thing that CalFire has the philosophy, though isn’t it…. in this case.

  14. THANKS, Jim, for your note there. I’ll never get used to CalFire either (or CALFIRE or CalfIre the angry baby cow); it’ll probably be CDF for me for a while yet …

    BUT … I loved your note that CDF has “a slightly different mission than USFS.” [hahaha]

    I’ll bet you laugh like I do when the perennial topic makes the news, the one in which some state politician (or even state forester!) claims that the USFS (and BLM et al) should hand over the federal lands to state management because the state could do SUCH a better job with wildlands/habitat/wildlife/fisheries/forestry/watershed/etc management. Well, yes, the state might be a bit more efficient when it comes to post-fire logging projects, and the state doesn’t have to comply with anywhere near what the feds do with forest management federal laws ,,, but guess what? If you’re Oregon facing the Biscuit Fire (or you’re Colorado today), you probably can’t handle the expense of a major fire season.

    Whining about how the state might better manage federal lands is a good way for politicians to attract the attention of susceptible voters, but it’s also pretty idiotic when you look at the resource allocations (and shared expenses) of a bad fire season … and I’m thinking that 2012 might just be one of those seasons.

  15. Hi Bill,
    I read your prescription and agree — I live in Colorado. Waldo canyon has forced many friends and family out of their homes. We are all scared. My question is this. If we immediately suppress fire like you recommend do we not then also have to log or thin the forest in NON fire ways? Our forests here are so fuel-loaded with dead undergrowth and beetle kill pines that they must either burn or they must be cleared. To suppress ALL fire all the time means the fuel stays loaded and we get catastrophic events like Waldo Canyon. So what is the answer to that? I recommend that we open our state and federal lands once again to responsible logging. We cannot leave the fuel just sitting there. I lived through Hayman too and there are parts of that forest that we so fuel-loaded that they burned HOT. Ten years later the forest has still not recovered in places because of the extreme heat of that fire.

  16. Wx prediction is pretty darn good nowadays. Controlled burns in cool temps are good; even burning a few days ahead of a rainstorm for backup would be better. In Oregon where I grew up, the loggers would have to be out of the woods when the humidity dropped below 30%. And, of course, logging has caused fires, often by gypos ignoring the humidity.

    My late Dad said the Native Americans in Oregon used to burn brush, to prevent forest fires.

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