Do the firefighting orders and watch out situations need to be changed?

The “Safety Matters” group (“A Wildland Firefighter Forum for Change”), is asking for firefighters to express their opinions about the need, or lack thereof, of making changes to the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and the 18 Watch Out Situations. On their Facebook page the group posted the following:


“We agree that the 10 & 18 were designed for firefighter safety, to cover all safety bases on the fireline.

We would like to raise an important consideration. Fire seasons have become longer. Fire behavior is more extreme. There are numerous accounts of fire behavior that “outperforms our expectations”. The new normal is considered to be extreme fire behavior. Drought is rampant; fuel moistures remain critically low and do not recover. Global warming is discussed, and radical weather is seen across the globe. Red flag warnings are becoming typical, more homes are lost in the WUI, and more acres are burned each year. But more importantly, wildland firefighters are exposed to increasing risk while doing the same job.

The 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and the 18 Watch Out Situations were developed in past decades to reflect wildfire conditions at the time of their development.

Is it possible that the 10 and 18 need to be reevaluated, reassessed and reconfigured to reflect a changing fire regime, an increase in fire severity and an obvious shift in what firefighters can expect on the fireline, a shift to the extreme?

Certainly the 10 and 18 should exist in some standard form, but is it possible that they need our careful reevaluation in order to keep pace with and reflect our changing conditions and circumstances?”

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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.

17 thoughts on “Do the firefighting orders and watch out situations need to be changed?”

  1. While it’s easy to “squirrel” this discussion to climate change, it’s not the point. The 10 Fire Orders, if learned as originally intended, still work. I agree with Leo’s point, learning through 10 year old videos may not be the best way. I have said for many years, the 18 is, in MY opinion, better used as emphasis to demonstrate how and where the Fire Orders should be applied. Always grouping them together dilutes the impact of both.

    1. Amen gordie, you nailed it!

      I’m in the camp that the 10 SFOs should be re-vitalized and institutionalized and taught in the (nearly) orginal form of the very eloquent trilogy of a trilogy format.
      I also think the 4 Common Denominators are still completely relevent and more than important.

      As for the ruling assumption of “climate change” that dominates the current scientific funds getting game, research and political thought… if real, long duration, global warming is upon us it is reasonable to expect eventual widespread elevation of ocean surface temperatures. Warm ocean surfaces provide the energy for and spawn wet low pressure systems ( at least in the temperate zones, if not also in the polar zones). When our winters get colder and longer and our summers get cooler and wetter then, and only then, will I begin to consider the advent of global warming. But, I’m in my mid 60s so, most likely, will not be around when this may or, may not, fully play out.

  2. In a different article about temperature changes on Mt. Everest and the deaths of 16 guides from an unusual avalanche, the following statement was made. I think it applies directly to firefighters today.

    “People will get in trouble if they rely on what they knew in the past. They have to have their eyes open and not go somewhere or do something simply because it worked out five years earlier.” American glaciologist Tad Pfeffer with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

  3. I think the Safety Matters group is an admirable effort.

    I am concerned that the Facebook posting contains a lot of politically correct trendy language that may sound good at some convention dominated by intellectuals, but doesn’t hold up. Good standards depend in part on good, factual information being relied on to generate those standards.

    There was a lot of hysteria last year about what a “bad” fire year it was. By objective standards, obviously it was one of the least-busy of the last decade, though marred by real tragedy. Even were it to have been the terrible year for fires that some were trying to make it seem, the physical realities of fires don’t change between good and bad years. Likewise, there hasn’t been global warming for roughly 2 decades. So, why should the non-existent global warming of the last 2 decades be even mentioned when discussing whether the 10 and 18 need change?

    The group says that more acres are lost each year. Well, last year wouldn’t have been exceptional even in the 1970s. And acres burned in wild areas are often “good” burns that are a natural process. Aside from their statement about acreage being nonfactual, are they suggesting that during a busy fire year standards should be 1) relaxed, 2) tightened, or 3) shifted in other ways? Do the physical realities of fires change during busy versus slow years? Are they trying to say that stand-replacement fires require different tactics, or exactly what?

    For drought: were there no fires with low humidity and dry fuel in the 50s or 60s?

    FWIW, I think a few of the 18 are redundant. I also think SFO 3 is stupid. Responsible behavior should of course comply with SFO 3, but it doesn’t add anything to me as a guideline if the rest of the orders are complied with. I also do agree that LCES has come in some situations to be applied to normalize deviancy — kind of a circular, well, Watch Outs are present, so we will say we have LCES to say we are covered.

    1. Mr. or Ms. “SR” wrote:

      “Likewise, there hasn’t been global warming for roughly 2 decades.

      Below are links to facts about our warming planet.

      National Climatic Data Center
      New York Times
      University of Colorado at Boulder

      Paul Krugman said in the New York Times article:

      Temperature is a noisy time series, so if you pick and choose your dates over a short time span you can usually make whatever case you want. That’s why you need to look at longer trends and do some statistical analysis.
      …What this tells me is that annual temperature is indeed noisy: there have been many large fluctuations, indeed much larger than the up-and-down in the last decade or so. But the direction of change is unmistakable if you take the longer view. The fitted line in the figure is a 3rd-degree polynomial, but any sort of smoothing would tell you that there is a massive upward trend.

      We strive to deal with facts at Wildfire Today.

      1. Thanks Bill. It is factual that the “noisy time series” of the last two decades doesn’t show warming.

        More broadly, whether warming implies more or less rainfall and humidity for certain areas is also “unsettled,” meaning that, if in future decades we actually do warm again, we don’t know what effect that will have as regards wildfires. At a micro level, it was hot and dry with wildfires in AZ and CA in the 50s and 60s when the “noisy time series” showed cooling, and also when it was warming for a few decades after. Maybe there is a case that global warming (if it resumes) will require a change in the 10 and 18. But as a matter of my opinion, not of fact, certainly, I respectfully would say that the case hasn’t been made in a way I understand. To me, it’s sort of like saying we need to take “gender issues” into account when discussing our approach to wildland fire. Trendy, but I don’t get what it means in specific terms. But, I often am wrong as well.

        1. Mr. or Ms. “SR”-

          You said again that the last two decades do not show warming. The facts are very different. The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a consortium of more than 100 member colleges and universities focused on research and training in the atmospheric and related Earth system sciences, disagrees with your opinion. Here is a quote from their web site:

          Averaged over all land and ocean surfaces, temperatures warmed roughly 1.53°F (0.85ºC) from 1880 to 2012, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (see page 3 of the IPCC’s Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers – PDF). Because oceans tend to warm and cool more slowly than land areas, continents have warmed the most. In the Northern Hemisphere, where most of Earth’s land mass is located, the three decades from 1983 to 2012 were likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years, according to the IPCC.

          If you have scientific data to support your opinion, provide the source. Otherwise, I strongly suggest that you find another venue for your “facts”.

          1. Hi Bill,

            The IPCC itself refers to a warming hiatus, “[d]espite the robust multi-decadal warming, there exists substantial
            interannual to decadal variability in the rate of warming, with several
            periods exhibiting weaker trends (including the warming hiatus since
            1998) (Figure TS.1).” , p. 37 of their technical summary. If you want a technical explanation of why I said roughly 2 decades and did not say since 1998, I can supply that, but don’t want to take the time now to do so. If you want me to reform my comments for purposes of the Safety Matters discussion to simply reference the IPCC’s noted hiatus in warming since 1998, I am also happy to do so.

            As regards the last century-plus? There has been warming over the last century plus. As the IPCC also itself notes, if you go back 1400 years, you find temperatures as warm as or warmer than the last thirty. Different people have differing degrees of confidence in the statistics used, and in the conclusions drawn by a hugely politicized process. As regards the 10 and 18, and wildland fire more generally?

            Well, let’s look at precipitation in areas of the US particularly impacted by wildland fire. It’s been increasing in general. The current drought is certainly sharp evidence of short-term regional variability in this regard. Effects of that precipitation also matter: for instance, if southern Nevada were to receive significantly more rainfall, the risk of catastrophic fire could go up due to changes in vegetation, where in other areas a loss of vegetation due to sustained drought could lead to a decrease of fuel and therefore a reduction in risk. I would refer readers to a summary survey beginning on page 17 of Chad Hanson’s . (Disclaimer: Chad Hanson doesn’t know me, and to the extent people are emotionally upset by my reference to a pause in global warming that the IPCC itself refers to as a “hiatus,” the taint of that reference should not be associated with him.)

            So, if the warming hiatus at issue does cease and we start to get warmer, as noted, we don’t know what effect that will have as regards wildfires. We have large fires now and dry years now, and even assuming we have somewhat more of them (which may not happen) my own view is the same 10 and 18 (or 19 — I think R2 Div Chief made a very good observation on “political fires), subject to whatever modifications might be deemed general appropriate, would likewise work in the future. Even if we get to as warm as it was 1400 years ago.

            More generally, I am always nervous when politics get injected into standards issues. I would suggest to Safety Matters that they flag all issues with heavy political overtones or undertones, and look critically at which actually have bearing on WFF realities. R2’s “Watch Out 19” of political fires, and more generally WUI issues, I believe have direct bearing. (They also have huge budgetary bearing, including the political temptations of “air forces” and the like). Others I don’t believe have that direct connection.

    2. There is Golbal Warming! Unfortunately Global Warming has turned into a political cause instead of a scientific cause. In my lifetime I have seen a huge change, and a resulting huge impact of our world warming. Fire season seems to start earlier and end later.

      Regardless of whether you believe global warming is caused by humans (I believe it is) or is a natural cycle, it can’t be ignored. Ice samples from glaciers, the poles, etc.. all show we are going through an unprecedented change in our environment.

      Of course the media says fires are ‘worse every year’- we live in a world of internet in fire camp, digital cameras, and technology that allows footage from every day’s fires on the news. I remember when I was a green firefighter how exciting it was to go to a fire over 10,000 acres. Other than initial attack at home, most of the fires I travel to are over 10,000, many over 100,000 acres. I think we are taking a safer approach (ie less effective) to fighting fire, and this is partially why fire are larger, but I’ve personally seen more intense and humbling fire behavior in the past 10 years than the previous 20.

      I think the 10 and 18 are great, not a blanket approach or a replacement for common sense, but they ring true. I’d like to add WO #19: Fighting fire and using resources for political gain and CNN coverage. It seems that when the communities of wealthy constituents, summer homes of politicians, or states of blow hard politicians are on fire the tactics are more geared to towards spending money, more retardant, and more media coverage then the normal fire in the Northern ID, Central CO, or MT. When presidents, senators, and congressional members, begin ‘visiting’ fire camps we have lost track of what the mission of the base camp is. Out IMT’s need to focus on cost effective and safe suppression instead of being politically correct when talking to politicians. Our ICs used to spend the day being top notch firefighters and planners. Now it seems they are forced to be diplomats and PR liaisons. I don’t envy them.

  4. I can surely bet that Shane speaks the truth and the facts remain that (apparently) there is some complacency in recent times to the 10’s and 18’s.

    To think otherwise, in my mind, would indicate some denial that 10’s and 18’s are adhered to every incident EVERY time.

    Recent history indicates 10’s and 18’s are sticking in minds for every long.

    That is also why I asked……..”is there an app for that?”

    Could it be generational or could it be that OLD USFS and LMA teaching techniques are not following suit with true education?

    Yeah, we could get into an argument about public schools and all that, but the fact remains…..the 10’s and 18’s are not sticking into alot of cranial housing groups.

    Like aviation……..the fire world has a number of human elements of errors present and there is no way of getting around those facts.

    So good luck with the proverbial changing of the 10’s and 18’s………….

  5. Let’s change them because they’ve been around for so long and they don’t apply to modern day wildland firefighting, give me a break! However you change the wording the meaning will be and stay the same. Read them, learn them, understand them, then follow them and you’ll be just fine.

  6. Not sure where you work, but on my unit you’re expected to know them and are tested on them before you are allowed on the fireline.

  7. Does it really matter since, according to doctrine, we don’t need to know them anymore, and most people don’t know them.

      1. I have to admit, I kind of trolled on that comment. To be fair though, that is the response I usually get when I make my folks recite the 10; and look at the USFS response to Steep Corner. Also, here is a good article on the 10 and 18 by Brian Scholz, who knows a little about the effects of ignoring them.
        The article is from Fire Management Today and is on page 30. There is a follow up article on page 33 by Larry Sutton arguing why we don’t need to know them. This is the guy in charge of our SafeNet program.

        One issue I do have with the 10 is that some of them are vague and open to interpretation. If you look at the purpose of standard operating procedures, they are to be explicit direction for a situation that a leader does not want to leave open to interpretation. The logical comparison is the military’s general orders. They should clearly explain an action to be taken such as: “Quit my post only when properly relieved.” We than get hung by those very same vague orders in court.

        One last thing. I have to respond to SR below. The most commonly broken fire order is #3. Look at the results of Storm King and Yarnell. Actions were based off of the current fire behavior, not the expected. This is what I see the most on large fires. We plan and accept assignment looking at what the fire is doing now at 1000, not 1600.

        1. Hi Shane,

          Fair point. My point is that #3 is addressed already by other orders, unless you assume recklessness or malice in terms of conduct. What else would someone base decisions on, if not current and expected fire behavior? Political considerations?

          As regards the YHF, even on the basis of current fire behavior at the time the bushwhack was committed to, the decision to drop off that 2-track was highly questionable.

          But, knowledge of local conditions and local fuels probably is addressed most directly by #3. If #3 were deleted, you might need to add a clause to #1 of “…and forecasts, [with local conditions and fuels taken into account.] And, as I noted below I am often wrong. 🙂


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