Report on Little Bear Fire analyzes perceptions

Little Bear Fire
Little Bear Fire, burning operation on 532 Road, June 13, 2012, Photo by Kari Greer/USFS

There can be a variety of narrative reports written about a wildfire, including 24-hour and 72-hour, After Action Review, Individual Fire Review, Fire and Aviation Safety Team Review, and Lessons Learned Review. But a type that was new to us has been released about the 2012 Little Bear Fire in New Mexico. It is titled “Little Bear Fire Summary Report” which is a vague title for a report that analyzed perceptions — how the fire was viewed by fire managers and local residents.

It could be categorized more as research than a conventional report on a fire. A team of seven social scientists from North Carolina State University, the U.S. Forest Service, University of Colorado, and Ohio State University conducted interviews of stakeholders, with a focus on perceptions of the event itself — communication, evacuation, and wildfire preparedness. They talked with community members, local organizations, and federal agency personnel.

The Little Bear Fire started on June 4, 2012 northwest of Ruidoso, New Mexico and was contained at four acres with a fireline around it during the first five days. On the afternoon of the fifth day a wind event blew embers from a torching tree outside the fireline causing the fire to eventually burn 242 houses and 44,330 acres.

The management of the fire has been a magnet for criticism from politicians, residents, and others. But this new report does not explore in detail the tactics, strategy, or suppression decisions that were made — it concentrates on how the fire was perceived.

“Gordie”, a Wildfire Today reader, in commenting on how the U.S. Forest Service expends time and energy on designating “Honorary Forest Rangers” such as Arnold Schwarzenner and Betty White, wrote in part:

…A public official in Washington state once said (paraphrased): “What we are perceived to do may be more important in our customer’s eyes than our actual accomplishments.”  A horrible truth, but for the great unknowing masses, looking good is more important [to] taxpayers than actual functionality.

Applying Gordie’s analogy, the USFS ordered research to determine if they are “looking good”.

We will get to the report’s findings, but first there was one fact about the management of the fire that was new to us. On June 9, the day after the four-acre fire blew up, the New Mexico Governor ordered a second Type 1 Incident Management Team. This decision was made without consulting the existing Type 1 team, which learned of the order hours after it had taken command of the fire. When this was discovered, the second team was assigned to stage at Albuquerque, rather than continue to the fire.

Below is the Summary section of the report:


“Once the Little Bear Fire escaped the initial fireline, it moved very quickly for 24-48 hours, during which time the fire grew exponentially and burned hundreds of homes.

The intensity of fire behavior and resulting loss of homes made it a complex fire. Social responses added to the complexity. While most of the people we spoke with thought the fire was managed well despite difficult biophysical circumstances, some held the perspective that the fire should have been extinguished sooner and that if more fuels treatments had been implemented before the fire it would not have been as extreme. These different perspectives have resulted in some tensions within the community.

One of the most agreed-upon successful aspects of the fire was that everyone was evacuated without injury or loss of life, despite the rapid fire spread in an area with limited access. Notifying individuals of house loss and getting people back into their neighborhoods in a timely manner were the two areas most frequently identified as needing improvement. Both issues had been recognized by the county and the IMT and development of plans to improve both notification and reentry had already begun.

The independent ordering of fire resources by different entities was a major concern for many in the primary responder group. The ordering of additional resources took place during a period of extreme fire behavior, when the communication lines were down, and the Type 1 team was still transitioning into command. Each of these factors, alongwith the practical need to do something, may have contributed to decisions to take independent action and highlights the challenges that are faced during initial periods of heightened fire activity. However, two dynamics mentioned by multiple participants point to areas for possible improvement:

(1) A number of individuals felt that a key underlying issue was lack of understanding of how the incident command system (ICS) works. Working to improve non-emergency responders’ understanding of the ICS could potentially decrease the impetus for taking independent actions. It was also suggested that greater understanding by non-emergency responders would help integrate Volunteer Organizations at Disasters (VOADs) into community response.

(2) A commonly expressed view was that the actions were taken out of a simple need to “do something” to protect one’s community. Recognizing that people have this need highlights the importance of ensuring all parties affected, or potentially affected, by a fire have a chance to discuss fire management decisions and how they can best contribute.

Interagency and intra-agency communication were universally highly regarded within the primary responder and local responder groups. The daily cooperators’ meetings were especially well received and thought to be successful. Th ese two groups also perceived communication with the public to have been successful. However, members of the public we spoke with thought there were some signifi cant communication issues and wanted certain information sooner and more frequently. Part of the problem was that the primary regional communication infrastructure was burned through during the height of the fire and was out for several hours. The combination of a lack of initial information and disruption to communication capacity when the fi re blew up was identified by participants as contributing to rumors and misunderstandings of fire and forest management, and the public’s feeling that it was not kept informed. Better advance planning for communication technology failures as well as more proactive outreach, both when a fire is relatively non-threatening and in terms of explaining agency management actions, were suggestions of how to minimize such misunderstandings.

An additional area where communication attention may be needed to minimize misunderstandings is in relation to clarity of fire terminology. While the term “containment” has a specific meaning within the fire community, to some of the residents we spoke with it was taken as meaning there was no chance of further fire growth; the fire was essentially out. This confusion contributed to distrust of fire management efforts and suggests the need to better explain what the term means from a practical point of view—that embers can travel beyond the fireline—when using the term with the public.”


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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.