Incident Commander reportedly removed from team after incidents with landowners

Tepee Springs Fire
Tepee Springs Fire, posted on InciWeb August 28, 2015. Credit: Air Attack.
According to an article in the Idaho Statesman, the leader of the incident management team that was managing the Tepee Springs Fire has been removed from his position about six weeks after reports were filed on a website where firefighters can anonymously provide information about safety issues. Two reports were filed on the SAFENET website (on September 2 and 4, 2015) saying fire crews were ordered by the Incident Commander (IC) to construct fireline in an area agreed to in a meeting between the IC and the landowners who at times wore sidearms when they met with firefighters.

On several occasions  while talking to firefighters, the landowners had been very insistent that certain more aggressive tactics should be implemented. Our first article on this issue provoked a lengthy response from a person believed to be one of the landowners, or at least a person very familiar with the details who sympathized with them.

Rocky Barker, a writer for the Idaho Statesman, reported today that IC Chris Ourada, the fire management officer on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in southeast Idaho, was taken off the Great Basin Type 1 Incident Management team that was assigned to the Tepee Springs Fire east of Riggins, Idaho from August 28 until September 12, 2015.

The latest roster for Great Basin Team 2 updated on October 7, 2015 lists Paul Broyles, who retired in 2008, as the IC. When we viewed the roster on September 27 Chris Ourada was the IC and Mr. Broyles was the Deputy IC. That earlier roster, dated February 2, 2015, has been deleted but can still be viewed on the Way Back Machine. Interestingly, the file name for the current roster is “Ourada_Master.pdf”.

It is very unusual for an Incident Commander to be replaced late in the fire season — on October 7 in this case. More commonly, major changes to a team are made in the winter.

The two SAFENET reports state that hotshot crews had not been constructing direct fireline on the edge of the fire near the private land due to numerous conditions that made that particular tactic unsafe, including cliffs in the area, the location made it impossible to extract resources if an injury occurred, no safety zones were available if fire behavior increased again, and the presence of a nearby under-slung mid-slope fireline.

Two hotshot crews refused to take on the risk of the direct fireline assignment. After explaining their rationale to the IC and the safety issues involved, the firefighters were reportedly told by the IC:

I’m the Incident Commander and you will do what you’re [expletive] told.

The official public response to the two SAFENET reports, issued October 5, 2015, said a “…team chartered by the Great Basin Coordinating Group [conducted] a review … and identified specific improvements and corrective actions, which are currently being implemented”.

Jennifer Jones, a national spokesperson about fire issues for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise, would not comment on the reported removal of an incident commander, except to refer us to a statement from the Regional Fire Director for the Intermountain Region, Sue Stewart:

Safety is always the top priority for the U.S. Forest Service.  Professional firefighters review all reports in SAFENET and ensure that appropriate actions are taken to correct any behaviors, systems or communication issues that could put fire fighters at risk. The Tepee Springs incident was thoroughly reviewed and appropriate actions were taken.

E. Wade Muehlhof, a spokesperson for the Intermountain Region which includes the area where the fire occurred, told us:

The decisions or recommendation made by the review panel are treated like personnel issues and are private.

In 1999 due to many mistakes, errors in judgement, and shear laziness by incident management team members on the Sadler Fire near Elko, Nevada that resulted in several firefighters being overrun by the fire, not only was the IC removed, but the entire team was disbanded. In addition, five members of the Command and General Staff had the fire qualification for their position on the team suspended until they could be recertified. The positions involved included the Incident Commander, the Planning Section Chief, the Safety Officer, and two Operations Section Chiefs.

More information on Wildfire Today:
Our original article about the issues with the landowners and the incident commander.
A further look into the landowner/firefighter disagreement in Idaho

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

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.

11 thoughts on “Incident Commander reportedly removed from team after incidents with landowners”

  1. I’d again say the on scene boss makes any final safety call.

    Any landowner who is setting backburns without notice is a danger that needs mitigation.

    If the on scene, or IHC guy, doesn’t feel that that mitigation has taken place to the extent of removing reasonable threat to his crews safety, he pulls his crew.

    Obviously an IHC wants to fight fires. But in a reasonably safe enviornment that has mitigated all dangers that can be mitigated.

    Those landowners made themselves an unmitigated threat. In more than one way.

    1. Are you saying as a land owner I can not take measures on my own property I feel are necessary to protect my property such as burning around my building or constructing line on my own property?

      1. There’s a big difference between cutting a fireline around buildings and lighting fire. The fire line you cut will only impact your property, and will not threaten the safety of anyone or damage anyone else’s property. The same cannot be said for a fire you intentionally set. It can easily leave the boundaries of your property, and may endanger firefighters or others.
        “Your right to throw a punch ends where someone else’s jaw begins …..”

  2. I am curious why no one was arrested? In the end who got hurt by the operation? Was the line completed? Do I really believe that someone “accosted” federal employees while wearing pistols (felony, or conducted a firing operation, but no one was arrested? Has it since been investigated and turned over to the district attorney?

    This sounds like a lot of drama to me. I sure hope the IC gets a name clearing hearing, or some type of due process remediation.

    The reason why the forest service has problems with their neighbors is because they are terrible neighbors. I would be pissed too if my property was burning, the weather changed to significantly decrease fire behavior, and the “firefighters” didn’t engage. If some rancher can get in there and cut line, why can’t the hotshots?

    The rancher seemed reasonable, with reasonable considerations. The IC made a good plan, two hotshot crews engaged with no negative outcomes, but because a safenet was filed he loses his qualifications? What’s the moral of the story, unless the hotshots buy off on the plan, they will file a safenet and have your quals pulled? Bill, I know that you don’t like confrontational posts, but there is more to this story that is not being reported and this IC deserves some due process.

    1. You are making a judgement about the “plan” as if you were there, had seen the topography, weather, and fuels, had talked to the crews, the IC, and the landowner about their proposed tactics and strategy. The TWO SAFENET reports can’t be taken lightly. Ignoring them and the concerns of the two hotshot crews would set a very damaging precedent for any future firefighters that are justifiably concerned about their safety and are considering turning down an assignment they believe would put their personnel in danger.

      I was not there and can’t make a judgement about whether the punishment of the IC fits the actual events, but I don’t have a bias against the “terrible neighbors” you describe.

      Confrontational posts are fine as long as they are based on facts.

    2. California Firefighter, it seems that you may have a different perspective on safety then myself. For starters, looking back at an incident and saying, “no one got hurt so it must have been safe,” is a poor way of doing business. If you stop and apply that statement to very many “risky” activities you will soon realize that this is a bad way to categorize things as “safe,” because soon you will have a whole bunch of not too bright things in the “safe” pile. This isn’t to say you are wrong about this event, I just think you could find a better way to describe your rationale.

      It is obviously compelling to think that the operation could have been safely performed by firefighters, when there were purportedly “ranchers” doing it. (I’ll get back to that.)

      This is a distraction from the real issue. I have not seen where one firefighter said that this operation could not be performed. They have said that the operation was not safe. Of course every operation on the fireline is inherently unsafe, so simply sorting things into safe and unsafe is not very helpful and leads you down the path of trying to label events where “nothing bad happened” as safe after the fact.

      The conversation is better framed by relative risk and reward. The ranchers were very heavy on the reward side. In the same context of being a landowner, it is highly likely that myself and a majority of the firefighters would have gone down there. This sounds crass as though we don’t care about their home or property because it isn’t ours. This is not true, but naturally it is very unlikely that we would ever care as much as the homeowner. (It does happen though.)

      A huge difference in perspective between the public and firefighters as to the “reward” side of the conversation, is the likelihood of success. If something is highly unlikely to succeed, then there is little reward to balance with the risk. This is the number one reason firefighter’s turn down missions. The public sees this as doing nothing and can’t understand why you wouldn’t do “something.” The public can often think that there is a way higher chance of succeeding then there really is. Typically other members of the public farther separated from the incident can see this. Of course in this case the landowners provide a much more convincing argument that “it is doable.”

      On the risk side of things, it is obvious that multiple experienced firefighters thought the assignment was too risky. Even the IC/team themselves had made this decision originally.

      Just as the ranchers naturally see a greater reward, firefighters often see a greater risk then the general public. The most important thing for the public to understand, is that you are not asking a firemen to do a risky thing “just once.” You are really asking them to change their standards, which means they would be taking on more risk dozens if not hundreds of more times. This is where a good shot superintendent stands their ground, because they see these same situations over and over again. Far more then this IC will or perhaps ever has.

      One last thing, which personally I hate to bring up, is that anyone that has fought fire long enough has seen or knows someone who has gotten seriously injured. In my sixteen year career; I’ve broken my back from a tree, hauled two different shot crewmembers off the hill with broken backs, and personally knew two who died a short distance from where I was working. This doesn’t even touch the black column of smoke that I watched which I later learned was burning two firefighters, and the list goes on… Like I said, I don’t like to bring this up, because I feel like it is tugging on emotional strings. It is a bit of the inverse to the argument that because “nothing bad happened” so it is safe, but none the less it does matter. This also has a huge effect on fireline supervisors. It is one thing to take risk for yourself, it is a whole other thing to put it on someone else’s child.

      It is important also to know that it is not the job of federal agencies to “protect homes.” Their job is to stop the fire and if they can reduce the impact to homes/property in the process then they do so. Like it or not, this is the policy set in Washington. It is on the local citizens to establish a structure fire department.

      In conclusion, Cali FF surmised that the ranchers and some other crews took on the mission and did it safely. What exactly did they accomplish? The fire is still burning in this drainage over a month later. Perhaps they won some small battle in there that was meaningful, but given the after affects, I would have to say it’s not likely. This tells me they took on risk for no reward other then some warm fuzzy feelings. If that is in fact the case, then it would appear to be poor risk management by all those who chose to engage in that drainage and certainly reflects poorly on that IC’s behavior as reported.

  3. Among other things, this IC was removed for his arrogance and treatment of the Hot Shot Crews, threatening them to build line that they had properly deemed unsafe for various reasons based on the Standard Firefighting Orders, .Eighteen Watch Out Situations, Downhill Checklist, and the Common Denominators.

    This particular IC did in fact “have a power trip putting people in harm’s way” and that’s why his IC quals are being pulled, and NOT so much for anything with the landowners.

    WFF supervisors and resources are placed in similar situations on almost every fire. Therefore, it’s up to the FF and the supervisor on-the-ground to accept or reject each assignment based on the above WFF Rules. The HS Crews in this case, followed the ‘How to Properly Refuse Risk’ protocol and did not accept the assignment based on the WFF Rules. The IC banished them to Division Siberia for their refusal. The HS Crews filed a SAFENET which brought it all out into the open

    1. Fred, what you wrote either indicates that you had intimate knowledge of what occurred at the fire and the during the deliberations by the person or group that decided to remove the IC from the incident management team …. or, you are making some guesses and assumptions and expressing them as if they are facts.

      We strive for accuracy here at Wildfire Today.

      1. Bill,

        I understand your concerns. My information comes from “the deliberations by the person or group that decided to remove the IC from the incident management team.” It’s NOT based me “making some guesses and assumptions and expressing them as if they are facts.”

        I know and respect that you “strive for accuracy … at Wildfire Today.”

  4. There has to be more to the story that is not for public veiw I fine it hard to believe a IC to have a power trip putting anyone in harms way

  5. Would not August 28 have coincided with the end of the fourteen day operational period for Ourada’s team, which I believe was the second of three type 1 and 2 teams that worked the fire? So, he would have been off roster for essentially one operational period, immediately following the end of their assignment. And had they had another assignment just before?


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