12 Questions for Tom Nichols

Tom Nichols

Today we have the 10th article of our series in which we ask current and retired leaders in the wildland fire service to answer 12 questions.

We appreciate everyone who is cooperating with this project. Some of their responses may add to the knowledge base of our new firefighters coming up through the ranks. If you would like to nominate someone who would be a good candidate for these questions, drop us a line through our Contact Us page. And their contact information would be appreciated.

Below we hear from Tom Nichols, currently the Chief of Fire and Aviation Management for the National Park Service. Some other positions Mr. Nichols has held previously were Fire Management Officer at Yosemite National Park, Fire Management Officer for the NPS’ Pacific West Region, and Deputy Chief of Fire and Aviation Management for the NPS.


When you think of an excellent leader in the fire service, who comes to mind first? Why?
Sue Husari and Tom Zimmerman are both great leaders with strong operational skills and a deep understanding of the relationship between resource management objectives and fire management practices.

Tom Nichols
Tom Nichols

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment as an Incident Commander?
If on assignment outside their unit, get information from the local staff on their fire weather patterns, fire behavior, resource advisor expertise, and stakeholder concerns. And whether in the home unit or not, how are you really going to evacuate someone with a serious injury?

If someone is planning a prescribed fire, what is one thing that you hope they will pay particular attention to?
Smoke, and public tolerance for the duration of smoke.

One of the more common errors in judgment you have seen on fires?
Suppression actions, especially backfires, causing way more damage to natural resources than the wildfire is doing.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
How unique the culture was in Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP in its support of prescribed fire and long duration natural fires in wilderness. I really enjoyed my time there.

The stupidest mistake you have seen on a fire?
Not enough drip torches, so the crews sloshing drip torch mix straight out of the jerry can and lighting it.

Your most memorable fire?
1985 Broken Arrow prescribed fire in Sequoia NP. Big controversy about charring on sequoia bark, got the program shut down for a year while a national review was done by an independent panel.

The funniest thing you have seen on a fire?
Firefighters standing on other crewmembers’ shoulders trying to get at a hotspot up inside a sequoia. Looked like the Flying Zambini brothers were in town.

The first very large fire you were on?
The 10,000 Ferguson fire, 1977 in Kings Canyon NP. Got a tool, a radio, a case of C rations, no S130/S190 training, got put on a Hughes 500 and off we went on day four of my career.

Your favorite book about fire or firefighting?
Three come to mind: Fire in America; Burning Questions; Blazing Heritage.

The first job you had within the fire service?
Seasonal fire effects monitor.

What gadgets, electronic or otherwise, can’t you live without?
Well, the light bulb is sure handy for reading into the evening.

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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.