Forest Service criticized for early management of the Rim Fire

The U.S. Forest Service is being criticized for their early suppression attempts of the Rim Fire, as well as their lack of transparency about how it was fought and the cause of the fire. Starting on the Stanislaus National Forest but eventually spreading into Yosemite National Park, it became the third largest fire in California’s history, burning 257,000 acres, 11 homes, and 3 commercial structures. As of October 25, 2013, at least $127 million had been spent on the suppression and rehabilitation efforts.

Rumors swarmed about what started the fire, blaming a variety of causes including marijuana growers, the law enforcement officers pursuing them, or even an object falling to the ground that was related to a military operation. The USFS was very tight-lipped about the investigation and finally said a hunter’s campfire was the cause, but provided little additional information.

According to an article in the Union Democrat, the initial attack as well as the firefighting response during the first 48 hours was less than overwhelming. Below is an excerpt from their article:

…Jim Dunn, [a CAL FIRE S-2T air tanker pilot] who retired in November after a 24-year firefighting career , said he was making drops on the fire near Natural Bridges on Aug. 17 when he responded that afternoon to what later became the Rim Fire.

He told The Union Democrat that both air tankers stationed at the Columbia Air Attack Base responded when the fire was first reported. The Forest Service already had planes in the air and initially dispatched the other Columbia air tanker pilot, but grounded him shortly after Dunn began making drops. He said the Forest Service put him on hold as well, after only a couple hours of dropping retardant.

The fire was only about 40 acres after the first day, but grew to about 250 by the morning of Aug. 18.

“The next morning we started early and nobody was on the ground,” Dunn said. “After about an hour or two, we got retardant around most the (fire) line while it was still in the canyon.”

“On the third day, they (the Forest Service) called us and we made two or three drops — but then they put us on hold,” he said. “The next thing I heard on the air was that it had crossed the Tuolumne (river) and was running toward Pine Mountain Lake.


Thanks and a hat tip go out to Johnny.

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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.

20 thoughts on “Forest Service criticized for early management of the Rim Fire”

  1. Then the USFS ought to be accountable for holding the airtankers and not having folks on the ground.

    A retired Airtanker driver reporting these issues points at more reasons why there needs to be a complete overhaul at all levels of Federal response.

    Embarrassing as usual…..blame everyone else and never look at LMA management as some of today’s driving issues of fire management!

  2. This is becoming the norm now with the backwards hiring. No longer hiring the best qualified and experienced people. Now have to make sure they have equal race/sex over quality. Not to mention all the line officers with no fire experience as well. And it’s only going to get worse along with the lack of funds.

    1. Bill, I think there is a bit of truth in what you say, but there is also the rapid promotion of folks based on textbook standards for which individuals may or may not have concomitant field experience to back it up. So many fire fighters with years of experience have retired in the last 10 years that the FS and other agencies are scrambling just to get positions filled. Sometimes the best qualified and experienced people don’t really have a lot of experience as the folks they’re replacing. I see the same thing happening in CDF. Us old folks are fading away and there is an experience gap due to long term hiring trends.

      1. Of course they don’t have the experience of those they are replacing. The out going are retiring due to aging out. Those that are staying will end their careers with comparable experience as the outgoing folks of today. Just common sense suggests most outgoing have more experience than the incoming. I see good up and coming leaders and I’m hopeful some of the hiring trends will fade.

        1. I fully agree with you, One Ton, that there are good leaders in the pipeline. My point still stands, though. Overall hiring within the FS has lagged over the last 20 years or so due to continuing budget constraints. BD crews have disappeared. Type 2 crews have been reduced. A serious number of our potential leaders were relegated to remain seasonal due to the age limitations of permanent hires. The apprentice program was developed specifically to address these hiring trends.

          My point, though, was that the FS was promoting folks with less commensurate experience than their predecessors – not that there were no good leaders moving up through the ranks. Maybe that is starting to change now – I’ve been out 5 years.

  3. It’s a problem with many agencies…….

    The mentorship program in many is just lip service and the sustainability of programs of folks who just think hanging back at the ranch with their computers is going to solve ALL these fire and management programs.

    The downward spiral not only begins not only what Bill has stated….

    BUT with the lack of leaders who can teach, mentor, and sustain programs after the boomers are gone and drawing retirement checks.

    OPM, Congress, SES and other have to get their heads out their fourth point of contact……

    Is this an organization one or any really wants on an all risk all hazard operation?

    If you can not handle the programs you already have……mind not another program and funding train until you can master and SUSTAIN a program already handed down to you by Congress.

  4. Losses, one fatality, truck driver hauling erosion control straw near the burn, lost control of his rig and ended up in a canyon. Why was there so much indecision on; drop retardant, don’t drop retardant, maybe we should drop some retardant, will the retardant run into a water source? Experience, who was making those decisions, stop, go, stop, maybe go, maybe it will go away. Cal Fire was pouring it on (retardant) and appeared to have the upper hand at forty acres, trying to “bail out” the Forest Circus again. The flight time from Columbia AAB to the fire is six (6) minutes. Cal Fire knew the fire was in a very bad place under a community of 5000 people, but when you work for another agency you do as told.

  5. I was a wildland firefighter for 17 years. I was a helitac squad leader as well as a hotshot foreman ( union hotshots ), then went on to become an engine captain before resigning for personal reasons. I came back to the forest service after 16 years in private business. I was hired as a recreation technician, and before coming on had taken a firefighter refresher course and passed the arduous physical test and was red carded as a firefighter type 2. When I showed up to the district I presented the FMO my past quals., he wanted nothing to do with me. My job was out in the field and I made contacts with forest users daily patrolling the district. On my truck I had 30 gallons of water for cleaning restrooms and carried other tools for cleaning fire pits etc. The FMO would not give me any fire equipment such as a fire shelter.
    One Sunday the district lookout tower called in a smoke near private property. I was in the field and looked out in the direction of the legal and saw the smoke was close by. I advised dispatch that I saw it and would investigate. I was there in minutes, the fire was 50 yards off a forest road. I put on all my PPE except the shelter and walked a short distance to the fire edge and determined it was on forest land, started by lightning and about 2 tenths of an acre, with 2 foot flame lengths, low intensity. I advised dispatch and waited 45 minutes for an engine to show up. While waiting I put a shovel to the fire and made a scratch line to stop its spread. The engine showed up and I was released.
    When I came in the office the next morning I was summoned to my supervisors office and given a reprimand for engaging the fire. I was allowed to put out fires in campgrounds and dispersed areas but not allowed to in other areas.
    I tell this story to relay the ridiculous management policys some of our fire leaders have in place. I understand safety first and I went through all my LCES before leaving the road.
    Our fire leaders have moved away from initial attack to stand back and burn out from the highway.

    1. A long time ago I was in a very similar situation and took the same action. My supervisor said: “Thanks for the good job, you saved us a lot of time, money and work”. Things have changed.

  6. Greg……

    Sorry about the treatment from a US taxpayer.

    These are not stewards of the land, but folks enforcing old and dying policies and some of these folks need some of that very latrine duty you were doing…

    Thanks for your service….

  7. To be the devils advocate, there are often times that airtanker pilots might not “be in the know” why they were told to “load and hold”.

    I might be mistaken, but I was under the assumption that for the first and second day of the fire that both FS and CAL FIRE air attack platforms were rotating fuel cycles.

  8. As far as the rumors about pot-growers, I don’t believe USFS sources were implicated in those? I know a local fire and rescue guy said he thought pot growers were the source, which was part of why USFS came out and said it was an illegal campfire.

    1. Wild and Scenic River?? Expand on that please… as far as I know retardant is still allowed with a 300 foot buffer from the high water line… 600 foot if there is critical habitat.

  9. Like any complex situation, getting just one person’s perspective or opinion just is completely inadequate. Oh, so you can see the whole fire from your plane and hear a few channels of radio communication? Well, that is great, but it isn’t the whole picture. Sometimes policy limitations trump applying the most aggressive tactics- you can’t use dozers in a National Park, you can’t dump retardant in critical salmon habitat, etc. I’ll bet that policy played a role in decisions regarding retardant use early on, and just blaming the IC or other managers is not fair, especially when they are legally required to follow policy.

    Regarding the experience of those coming up through the ranks- I don’t know how it was in the past, but now I see a lack of mentorship in the DOI and USFS. Budget cuts and admin workloads mean that there isn’t as much of an emphasis on mentoring on the fireline. Providing real supervision only seems to happen when an employee is horrible; not when they are decent but would really be helped by some guidance and mentoring. So there ends up being a lot of wheel reinvention, which isn’t efficient and needlessly frustrates good leaders.

  10. If an airplane crashes or a ship runs aground there is an immediate response to try to identify what happened. There is no accountability for a destructive wildfire. Not to necessarily place blame, but what was the situation leading up to the wildfire escaping, human or nature. There needs to be a board of review establish that investigate circumstances which contributed to a wildfire disaster. It is only when we look into how we do our business that we will find solutions to our mistakes.

    1. Humans are fallible, we will always make mistakes, and sometimes we will repeat mistakes. It is not always about what we learn from our mistakes, but how we react to them in the moment. This is where good fire line leaders excel. Rapid course corrections in a dynamic fire environment is more of an art than a base of knowledge. Sometimes catching a moving fire is like catching water with a screen. There are many holes to plug before you start seeing a difference, but the chance that you will plug every one of them is slim. This is where we have accidents, escapes, injuries, and equipment failures. Although politically incorrect, sometimes it is what it is, and we move forward.

  11. All the proceeding comments are based on an faulty, misleading and poorly researched article in the Union-Democrat? It’s very disappointing to see people climb the ladder of inference with so few facts.
    The facts are – for the Rim fire:
    *over 32,000 gallons of retardant were applied between detection (approx 1540) and dark on the first day, 65,000+ the second day and (largely due to visibility issues) 23,000 the third day. Numbers jump significantly from there for a total of over 2 million gallons of retardant over the course of the fire.
    *Despite Mr. Dunn’s quotes in the paper – aerial resources, regardless of the agency, were never told to stand down for jurisdictional reasons. Fluid decisions by ATGS may have for short periods based on tactical needs or visibility issues, but the USFS never refused help on this fire.
    *Boots on the ground: IA resource were on scene within 20 min. of report scouting access into a remote, steep, record dry canyon. CALFIRE helitack pilots refused to insert crews at the origin for lack of safety zones. USFS dozers, engines and (morning of day 2) IHC crews attempted to gain SAFE access for direct tactics until fire behavior dictated indirect. A IMT2 was ordered within the first few hours and in place by the end of day 2 – within a few days of that the fire was in unified command with CALFIRE.
    *4 fatalities with in the footprint of the Rim fire, most recent in 2004 (CALFIRE Eva Schicke) and 1987. This is dangerous ground deserving of respect.
    *The fire grew, literally, exponentially for 6 days. That’s doubling in size every day. 55,000 acre runs.
    Shame on you – if you’ve never been bit in rear by bad reporting, in this case the Union-Democrat, you haven’t managed fire at a level deserving to comment on this.

  12. Thanks for sharing those retardant delivery numbers. For forty eight hours the Cal Fire tankers tried to hold the Rim in check until ground resources could access. If you are new to wild land fire fighting there are two types of wildfires. One, you have a chance to contain during the first burning period. Second you might as well have stay in quarters (we don’t do that of course) the fire is going to burn until it runs out of fuel, slope, daylight, wind, the wind changes direction the relative humidity increases, or contained eventually by fire control tactics. The initial days of the Rim illustrate what can be accomplished by an aggressive air attack program. However the air program relies on the ground resources to finish the job.

  13. It is also important to note that during that time there were other starts in the state that were managed very effectively. I was in a complex of 27 starts in a populous area that could have been devastating, but for the great job of attacking them with very few resources. In this case the ATGS made some great calls and the fires never made the headlines.

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