12 Questions for Tom Harbour

Tom Harbour at Little Bear Fire

Today we have the 12th 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 Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation Management. After beginning as as GS-2 firefighter, Mr. Harbour worked his way up to District Ranger, Forest Fire Management Officer on the Angeles National Forest, Deputy Regional Fire Director in the Northern Rockies, Regional Fire Director in the Intermountain Region, and National Fire and Aviation Management Deputy Director before assuming his current position. He has been qualified as a Type 1 Prescribed Fire Burn Boss, Type 1 Incident Commander, and Area Commander.


What is one piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment as an Incident Commander?
You are a leader and a servant. You are accountable and responsible. Remember what you have been taught and learned. Think, and by the way, don’t expect to get much rest.

Tom Harbour at Little Bear Fire
Tom Harbour at the Little Bear Fire, Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico, June, 2012. USFS photo.

If someone is planning a prescribed fire, what is one thing that you hope they will pay particular attention to?
People – the folks executing the fire and the folks who live near the fire.

One of the more common errors in judgment you have seen on fires?
Not engaging the brain prior to action.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
Some of the folks higher in the food chain were actually concerned for me.

The stupidest mistake you have seen on a fire?
Igniting a prescribed fire when the test fire results indicated we were going to have trouble.

Your most memorable fire?
Mortar Creek (1979, Challis National Forest in Idaho), because I got over the fire when it had just escaped the campfire ring. In 1979, Mortar Creek was a giant we hadn’t seen in the area for decades. The Ship Island Fire happened that same day, I was working the Mortar Creek fire when I heard the radio traffic. I then spent most of the rest of the summer on the Mortar Creek fire.

The funniest thing you have seen on a fire?
A group of folks gathered around Bill Paddock listening to him tell stories about his earlier time in the USFS.

The first very large fire you were on?
A couple of days after I was hired in 1970, I headed with a hand crew to a fire in the Toulumne River Canyon. I cannot remember the name of the fire, but I remember the experience — I was hooked on a career.

Your favorite book about fire or firefighting?
Blink by Malcom Gladwell helps us understand about how we think under pressure.

The first job you had within the fire service?
GS-2 “shovel operator”

What gadgets, electronic or otherwise, can’t you live without?
Hate to say it, but the constant buzz on my belt is an indication the Blackberry is seeking attention.

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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.

One thought on “12 Questions for Tom Harbour”

  1. Great comments from Tom Harbour…. Tom and I went through 520-620 in 1991 and he was my Area Commander. I have such a great time at this session that I couldn’t help but to apply for a Battalion Chief position on the Angeles NF where he and Greg Greenhoe managed. What a great pair of leaders to work with/for. We had many great challeges an the Angeles and I remember them very well!



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