A military view of wildland firefighting in Colorado

High Park Fire as seen from Tie Siding WY June 9, 2012
The High Park Fire northwest of Ft. Collins, Colorado, as seen from Tie Siding, WY June 9, 2012. Photo by Wayne Karberg

Below is an opinion piece written by Gary “Bean” Barrett, a retired Navy Captain.


Colorado Wild Fire Management, a military view of firefighting in the State

From a military viewpoint, if wildfire were an intelligent adversary it would win every time in Colorado.

Ignition from natural causes is not preventable. Fires will start. The goal must be to limit the damage caused by fires. In a few cases, if the fire is in a remote area, it may be possible or even desirable to let it burn. Given the population density in and around Colorado’s forested lands, this is seldom an option. In the remaining cases, it is critical to keep small fires small. The defensive strategy for fire management is mitigation. If the fuel is not there to burn, the fire becomes manageable. The offensive strategy is to suppress the fire and the quicker the better since it is much easier and less costly to fight a small fire. Both strategies are required in order to manage wildfires in Colorado.

Emergency Support Function 4 of the State Emergency Operations Plan was written envisioning the Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) management of major fire fighting operations. It unfortunately ignores the key capabilities and responses needed to keep small fires from becoming major fires. It wrongly assumes existing local organizations and resources are adequate for the Initial Attack (IA) on wildfires in Colorado. I believe this assumption is a significant contributing factor to the frequency of large disastrous wildfires in Colorado over the last few years. Some, perhaps many, of our large wild fires are avoidable.

It appears the state legislature also operates under the same assumption. The legislative focus, including that of the Wildfire Matters Review Committee, and the Governor’s Wildfire Taskforce, has been on low cost (to the State) mitigation of private property. Improving IA has been ignored.

Federal estimates show that a dollar spent on mitigation precludes expenditure of $5 on firefighting. This may be statistically correct but even if mitigation of state and private land was completely accomplished, it would only address approximately one third of Colorado’s problem. Approximately 67% of our forests are on federal lands that depend on federal land management agencies for proper mitigation. Colorado cannot direct federal agencies to conduct mitigation. The majority of Colorado’s mitigation problem is beyond Colorado’s control.

  •  “At current rates of treatment, it would take 60 to 90 years to restore healthy conditions, reducing the risks of catastrophic wildfires for firefighters and homeowners, the federal audit found.” Disastrous wildfire era set to continue in Colorado – Denver Post 09/16/2012

The defensive strategy of mitigation is a necessary but not sufficient measure to control the threat of large wildfires. In order to control wildfires, it is also necessary to adopt the offensive strategy of actively suppressing small fires, especially in poorly mitigated areas, to prevent them from becoming large fires.

Wildfire is not constrained by political boundaries. A wildfire anywhere in Colorado can spread beyond political boundaries. A responsive Colorado firefighting capability must not be limited or defined by political boundaries. Until mitigation on federal, state, and private lands catches up with requirements, prompt overwhelming IA is the only answer to preventing large fires in Colorado.

The costs associated with prompt overwhelming IA are very much less than the costs associated with fighting large wildfires and later paying even more to remediate the damage caused by large fires. This would also include the flood damages downstream caused by the lack of vegetation in burned watersheds. Individual fire protection districts in Colorado are not equipped to provide overwhelming IA. In Colorado, conducting overwhelming IA requires the ability to provide an automatic coordinated response by multiple districts and agencies; cross county cooperation, and rapid employment of ground and aviation assets. It does not guarantee that large wildfires will not happen but it will certainly reduce their frequency and size.

By the time DFPC assumes control from a county, the fire is a large hard to manage expensive wildfire. Colorado does not have adequate capability to support Initial Attack.

1. Command and Control: “No one is in charge.”

The State of Colorado has abdicated most of its responsibility for active fire suppression in Colorado (Section 3.23-31-304 of Colorado Revised Statutes). The responsibility for initial attack on state, county, and private lands depends primarily on independent action by inadequately funded individual fire protection districts manned predominately by volunteer firefighters.

The State is the only government level that can effectively plan, organize, direct, and coordinate statewide firefighting operations or develop a comprehensive coordinated operational plan for enhancing statewide capability to conduct adequate IA on wildfires.

There is no single individual or organization that is ultimately responsible for all wild land firefighting in Colorado. If one cannot name the single organization or the individual in charge, then no one is in charge. The DFPC on its own website defines itself more in terms of a “coordinating” organization. Who is in command? Who is responsible?

If there is no single commander for all firefighting in the state, the chain of command is compromised. The absence of a unified organizational command structure consumes time when time is of the essence and it hinders developing a near automatic coordinated fire response in Colorado that can be rapidly scaled up to meet the threat posed by wildfires.

Any experienced military commander can tell you what happens if the chain of command is not clearly defined or if there is any confusion about who is in command, or if there is more than one commander and command responsibility must be transferred in the middle of an operation as is the case in Colorado.

  • Transfer of command from the local Fire Protection District to the El Paso County Sheriff in the case of the Black Forest fire was a significant issue.
  • Transfer of command from the City of Colorado Springs to the Waldo Canyon fire incident management commander was a significant issue.

Responsibility cannot be delegated, only authority can be delegated, this is a time proven principle of command. Leaving the responsibility for developing an overall solution to coordinated overwhelming IA up to a loose confederation of various federal Land Management Agencies, districts, sheriffs, and counties will not work and has not worked.

There is no integrated statewide top to bottom command and control structure or chain of command for firefighting. It must be put together for each occasion. Colorado needs standing type 3 incident management teams organized statewide with well-rehearsed mobilization and operational firefighting plans.

Unified command and control is essential for an adequate response. Presently, no one agency in Colorado knows what firefighting assets are available, where they are all located, or their readiness status. No one agency can control the assets and there is no centralized dispatch capability. The present confederation of many small districts, sheriffs, and counties that operate independently is not adequate.

The regionalization plan exemplified by the consolidation of fire and EMS dispatch capabilities under the Evergreen Fire Protection District in Jefferson County is a step in the right direction but even this small step had no help from the state government. Improvements are still a “do it yourself” operation.

A county sheriff in Colorado has two conflicting mandates. The sheriff is tasked with county law enforcement and also as the county official in charge of firefighting. Conflicting tasking always compromises command effectiveness and asset management. The sheriff’s expertise is in law enforcement.

  • Counties require a dedicated full time fire marshal, not a sheriff with two conflicting tasks.

2. Define Policy, Strategic Goals, and Objectives: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there”.

There is no clear State of Colorado wildfire management policy. There do not seem to be any state strategic goals or objectives with respect to controlling wildfires. Effective organization and planning is not possible until these are defined. What is the desired end state with respect to wildfire management? How will the end state be accomplished? How will progress be measured?

Until the State of Colorado takes the lead and focuses the effort and starts providing real assistance, statewide wild land firefighting capability will not show any significant improvements.

3. Integrated Planning and Operations: “You fight like you train, you train like you plan”.

Lack of an integrated standing operational firefighting plan for Colorado exacerbates command and control delays, inhibits standardized training, developing better IA capability, and conducting a rapid coordinated IA with overwhelming assets. Absent a unified plan, firefighting in Colorado will continue to be done by an impromptu confederation of many different and varied organizations with varying amounts of firefighting training. Firefighters cannot afford the time to locate and coordinate assets, decide who is in command, stand up an organization, and decide who pays before conducting the IA on a fire.

Colorado must explain “when, how, and what” resources will be automatically committed, sequenced, and how they will be controlled for IA on wildfires in the state. This is a key piece of any operational plan. I believe the firefighting community calls this kind of preplanned response a “run card” or mobilization plan. The state wildfire preparedness plan must be standardized and must include preplanned responses for all areas of the state; perhaps divided by state fire management zones. Only integrated plans will allow identification of firefighting requirements, allow optimum employment of available resources and personnel, and enable standardized training. The present system in Colorado cannot optimally utilize the assets that are available.

Today, development of individual operational plans, “wildfire preparedness plans”, by county sheriffs is optional. Colorado statutes state, “The sheriff of each county may develop…”

Discretionary independent planning by individual sheriffs will not get the job done. Colorado cannot afford fragmented planning efforts with the US Forest Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, National Parks, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Defense, National Guard, and the Bureau of Land Management. Allowing 64 sheriffs discretionary authority to develop different plans for operating with these agencies is not going to produce an integrated firefighting capability for Colorado.

4. Readiness and Readiness Assessment

Minimum essential firefighting requirements are not identified and mandated.

Prompt adequate IA requires that local fire protection districts be adequately manned, trained, and equipped and that prompt state and county air and ground support is available if required. The state needs to ensure that adequate numbers of firefighters are organized, available, adequately trained to accepted standards, and that minimum essential equipment is available for initial attack in Colorado. Right now, absent integrated planning and a definition of minimum essential firefighting capability, there is no means to assess readiness, address shortfalls, or reallocate equipment or fiscal resources. Assessment of capability and determining the effect of various programs (return on investment) is not possible without a clear identification of requirements.

If a fire starts on Federal property in Colorado, the cognizant federal land management agency is responsible for fire suppression. Federal firefighting assets in Colorado may be inadequate for identifying the fire location and the task of initial or extended attack in many areas.

  • “We are deeply concerned that the Forest Service’s wildfire air tanker fleet is stretched alarmingly thin and urgently needs to be recapitalized. According to press reports, there were about 914 requests to deploy air tankers at various wildfires in 2012 but about half of those requests were denied as “unable to fill” because of fierce competition for a shortage of air assets.”

John McCain, Ron Wyden, Dianne Feinstein, Mark Udall, Mike Johanns, Bill Nelson (29 June 2013 letter to the Secretary of Defense requesting excess DoD aircraft for the US Forest Service).

5. Cost concerns

Present legislative concerns about the cost of developing state firefighting capabilities are misplaced. The cost to conduct overwhelming coordinated IA on small fires utilizing multiple fire protection district assets including additional state ground and air support is affordable when compared to the costs of extended attack on large fires and post fire remediation costs. If initial attack is successful and one large fire like Waldo Canyon, Black Forest, or High Park is prevented, a coordinated IA program pays for itself. The state will avoid the costs associated with an extended attack phase lasting days to weeks and subsequent remediation for a major fire


Colorado’s present mitigation strategy is defensive in nature and is necessary but is not sufficient and will take decades to execute. The rapid response offensive strategy of overwhelming Initial Attack (IA) on wildfire is the only answer for Colorado until mitigation catches up.

Federal IA capability is inadequate. The State and most counties have almost no IA capability. Most individual fire protection districts are not sufficiently manned, trained, or equipped to conduct overwhelming IA nor can they afford the necessary assets. Organization, integration, training, standardization, and additional rapid response firefighting assets including aviation assets are required. Only the State of Colorado can provide this capability.

No one is in charge of firefighting in Colorado. The present confederacy of federal land management agencies, counties, sheriffs, and fire protection districts is inadequate.

The State of Colorado must take the lead on firefighting in the state. Absent strong leadership from the top, a clearly defined chain of command, clear policy, strategic goals, objectives, and adequately resourced programs there will be no significant improvement in the overall outcome of wildfires in Colorado for the foreseeable future.

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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.

18 thoughts on “A military view of wildland firefighting in Colorado”

  1. Thank you for posting this article! Could you please post some info o Mr. Barrett? I’d like to quote this piece. Thanks!

  2. Mr. Barrett has written a clear, concise and to the point article on issues that exist in Colorado in regards to fire and offered some good common sense and practical suggestions to improve things. “Well Done Sir”.

    I have worked with the ICS system for a number of years and found it very flexible and adaptable to many types of events.

    No doubt that changes are going to cost money and laws will have to be re-written and feathers will be ruffled. But the costs invested now on change will be well spent on a unified fire management/command system including mitigation, pre-planning, upgrading equipment and response forces. It will save a lot of money down the line and leave the state much better prepared to deal with wildfire and other events.

  3. North Ops you get a similar response to South Ops. Most counties in North Ops do not have the money a Jefferson County, Boulder County, El Paso County have. What California does have is a commitment from the state, feds, and locals to dispatch closest resources regardless of land ownership, and dispatch enough resources on IA in case it gets up and runs. Nothing worse than having Colorado fed resources sit at station while there is fire on the ground. Resources can be altered, cancelled, or even made available on scene for new starts…….but you have to send them first to have those options. Imagine driving an hour plus as the only resource dispatched to a fire only to discover your fire is moving and if you had more resources already en route you would have caught it. If they would have been dispatched in the first place you would be an hour up on your fire, now you have given the fire not only the hour it took you to get there but an additional hour to start getting sufficient resources to knock it down. And I believe the Colorado taxpayer would expect Code 3 responses within the interface, but maybe that’s another discussion.

  4. Take a look at the amount of resources CALFIRE, the Los Angeles City Fire Department and the Los Angeles County Fire Department each commit on the initial report of a wildland fire in their jurisdictions.

  5. I like the previous comment of ” not reinventing the wheel”. Exactly! Fed, State and Local agencies in California got the message about organizing resources and IA tactics from the diasterous affects during the 1970 fire season in So Cal. The ICS system came out shortly afterword due to a study conducted by the Rand Corp. Been in use ever since to manage all types of incidents from IA to recovery and demob. Colorado and Region 2 take notice.

  6. I would agree a high performance medium with a crew is an effective tool, but it’s just one part of an effective IA dispatch package. Getting water and crews to the fire as quick as possible to limit fire spread is the goal. Colorado and Region 2 needs to start looking at the overall effectiveness of their current resource package and what an upgrade would look like. Investing in a mixed bag of engines that have higher water and pumping capacity, upgrading Type 3 helis to Type 2s, obtaining agency dozers, launching air attack and tankers on IA’s, not limiting smokejumper use to remote areas only, developing a move up and cover program that includes cooperators, developing a response package that includes Low, Med, and High response levels for the entire Region. This isn’t rocket science and there are models that are currently out there to piggy back off of. Comprehensive, intelligent, aggressive, IA packages that give IC’s options and flexibility from the moment of arrival. The current R2 model is outdated, slow, ineffective once a fire goes beyond a single tree, and does not provide the public with the product they expect and deserve. My goodness Region 2 doesn’t even recognize the simplicity of ordering of Strike Teams, they have to be configured on incident. It’s time to evolve past Fire 101.

  7. Right on the mark Gary. The missing ingredient is called the Incident Command System. Welcome to the modern world of wildland firefighting Colorado-get use to it.
    P.S. Don’t waste time reinventing the wheel.

  8. Adding to my comment, I believe that the most effective tool in the I.A. bag is a Bell 205 with an attached Helitack crew and a Bambi bucket. It is the boots on the ground that put a fire out, the helicopter is the most effective way to deliver them, and once there the 205’s ability to support them with aerial drops is unsurpassed. Cost effective, mobile and multi-operational, the Helitack method is the most effective Initial Attack platform and should be part of any IA planning.

    1. That same contractor I talked to is à Huey Operator too. Six currently.I think they are perfect for initial attack when you have good water sources .There are ponds and small lakes even in the high desert.

    2. What if there is no place to land, no water source close, and the bucket malfunction? I have a little different prescription, evolving threatening wildfire, lets get some retardant on this fire quickly, take some of the energy out of the fire so folks on the ground and the bucket helicopters can do their magic.

      1. This past season I flew more than 40 IA’s and there was a landing spot within 1/2 mile on all but 2, where it was a bit more. There is almost always water writhin 10 minutes flight time, ( 30 mile radius) and Bambi’s rarely malfunction, and the spare is on the truck. Having said that I totally agree that a 205 is just one prong of an IA effort and ideally should have retardant on tap as well, a la Cal-fire. But on a limited budget getting eyes, boots and water at the same time is a pretty good starting point, and if the fire is already developed beyond their capability then additional resources can be immediately be called.

    3. Before the assumption is made that a type 2 heli is better than a type 3, I would offer that a high performance type 3, such as a Eurocopter AS350 B3E can some of the time outperform a medium helicopter. This is accomplished in a number of ways, including being faster in and out of the dip if the bucket is on the belly, a longer fuel duration resulting in more time in the air, thus more water on the ground, and an ability to land in smaller landing zones than a medium. A type 3 is also less money on contract. If a medium is not staffed with a crew of 16-20 people, then seats are unfilled on initial attack more often than not with the combination of days off, sick/injured, and other training/work assignments. From the technology perspetive I wonder if there are also not advantages to contracting more current aircraft. Ultimately I believe pilot skill is what makes the biggest difference, as a miss is a miss, regardless of bucket size. (25 fire seasons, much of it in the air).

  9. A very well thought out piece. I work as an initial attack helicopter pilot and couldn’t agree more about catching fires when they are small. But, and this is the big BUT, fires are natural and suppression of them is not natural. Do I believe this, heck no. BUT I hear this from so many sides and from so many people from so many walks of life that I’m afraid this warped view has permanently altered our way of protecting our resources. All I need to do is mention that I am an initial attack pilot and someone will share their opinion about suppression.
    What I like about this piece is the recognition that we have long since passed the point of unsupervised fires. Managed forests must take into account that in order to manage them, there MUST be a forest in the first place. Letting them burn because is “Natural” is a waste on so many levels and the interurban interface is only one piece.

  10. Gary is right on the mark. I get frustrated when we lose hundreds of homes at a cost in the hundreds of millions and yet we cannot deploy sufficient IA and WUI resources until the thing is lost and the needed resources are then ordered and will be here tomorrow. He is correct that we pay more in the long run for extended attack fires that could most likely be successfully attacked during IA IF THE IA IC had the resources right now.

    So how do we, in the wildland fire world, fix it and SOON? It’s looking like the 2014 fire season may be as bad or maybe worse than average. Here in Prescott, AZ it hasn’t rained for months. In Flagstaff yesterday there was NO snow. None on the mountains (except at the very, very top) and none in the lower elevations. Likely the entire southwest is in the same boat.

    It’s all about the money. The insurance companies could help reduce their
    losses, but will they? Do most states have an emergency fire fund? mayb instead of hoping we never use it (which we seem to almost always do) we should apply it toward staffing for IA when the conditions are very high or worse.

    And, maybe a standard response tactic? Five wildland engines with three each, two tenders, two dozers, two 20 person crews, air assets and a ASTM or air attack all going on the first notification until the first arriving resources can clearly contain, control and extinguish the fire. Everyone keeps coming until they hear this clearly from an on scene qualified incident commander.

    I’m of the opinion we could “stand up” sufficient qualified resources if the money we spend to put out and deal after the fact with big fires could be used on IA.
    Probably gona hear from ya’ll on this idea.

    1. Agree with both of you I have seen the benefits of initial
      Attack. One of the best tools now with a depleted Fed tanker
      Force is state contracted SEATS . I was talking to a contractor today about exactly this very subject.
      More crews, more equipment. Cheap in the long term…


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