12 Questions for Dave Nelson

Today we have the 13th 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 Dave Nelson. When he retired from the U.S. Forest Service Mr. Nelson was the Forest Fire Management Officer for the Tahoe National Forest in California. He was an Area Commander, and also served as a Type 1 Incident Commander on an Incident Management Team from 1975 through 1983.


When you think of an excellent leader in the fire service, who comes to mind first?
I have had the privilege to work with many, but Doug Leisz and Lynn Biddison stand out. Why? Doug was the Line Boss on the Volcano Fire in 1961 (one of my first major fires as a sector boss with 100 farm workers and Lynn was the Fire Boss on the Wellman Fire in 1966 when I led a smoke jumper crew on the first jump on a Southern California fire. Doug was a well respected leader throughout the USFS and wildland fire management and was the primary supporter and mover on the “Safety First” effort in the PSW Region. Lynn was a well respected leader in wildland fire management throughout the USFS and particularly in the SW and PSW Regions. Both gentlemen continue to be active leaders in national fire management.

Dave Nelson
Dave Nelson

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment as an Incident Commander?
Delegate authority to your primary staff and hold them accountable – and pay attention to the details – especially the basics.

If someone is planning a prescribed fire, what is one thing that you hope they will pay particular attention to?
Obviously it is important to establish good parameters and conform to them, but most of our prescribed fires do not escape during ignition. Most escape after the primary burning phase has ended. Advice – pay attention to the weather and get out there before the wind starts blowing.

One of the more common errors in judgment you have seen on fires?
Pounding a rolling fire with aerial retardant drops.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
Really – I wish “I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then” – that we would ignore the basics like fighting fire at night, going direct, hanging in tight to the fire edge.

The stupidest mistake you have seen on a fire?
Keeping ground forces in camp due to light rain, but continuing to drop water and retardant from helicopters plus what I said earlier about using aerial retardant on a fast, moving fire – especially one advancing uphill.

Your most memorable fire?
Lots, but probably the Marblecone (1977) on the Los Padres National Forest and the Panorama (1980) on the San Bernardino National Forest as a Fire Boss and IC, but also the Bear Fire (1970) on my district (Big Bear) also on the San Bernardino while the district ranger.

The first very large fire you were on?
Alaska, 1956

Your favorite book about fire or firefighting?
Burning an Empire

The first job you had within the fire service?
Fire Control Aide for the BLM in Alaska

What gadgets, electronic or otherwise, can’t you live without?
I prefer to have my laptop and cell phone, but I think I could live without them.

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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.