By Murry Taylor
The big man leaned across the table, folded his hands, thought for a moment, then said that he wanted to make one thing clear right from the beginning: What we did on our forest this summer was partly due to the specific character of our geography, our climate, our roads, our fuels, and about mitigating future risks. All new fires during fire season received a full-suppression, aggressive initial attack approach. The big man who made this statement was Merv George, Jr., Supervisor of the Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest (RRSNF) in southwest Oregon. And the What-we-did Merv was referring to was to initial attack 60 fires and keep the total acres burned at a little over fifty for the year. Note that in the summer of 2020, they had the same number of fires and only burned 20 acres. That is not counting the Slater Fire that came onto their forest from the Klamath N.F. and burned way up into Oregon. No fault there given it was unstoppable right from the beginning. Sitting not far from Merv was Dan Quinones (RAC ’02)- a former Redmond smokejumper, and the FMO on the RR–Siskiyou. Note, I’m not using quotation marks with these statements unless I can remember exactly what was said. Words are important to these two men. I want to make sure that’s understood.
Given the heartbreaking news of Western fires during the 2021 fire season, it was a breath of fresh air when Chuck Sheley (Editor Smokejumper magazine) and I met with Merv and Dan last October. Many of us, including a lot of Smokejumper magazine readers, have been pushing for years to get the Forest Service back to rapid and aggressive initial attack. Chuck has led the charge and now that effort (in some areas) seems to be paying off. Bill Derr’s (USFS Ret.-Law Enforcement) email thread includes several retired Forest Supervisors, FMO’s, Type 1 IC’s, Operations Chiefs, Deputy Chiefs, and Air Resource Officers. The National Wildfire Institute based in Fort Jones, California has been steadily at it as well. Add in former Forest Service Deputy Chief, Michael Rains’ “The Call to Action,” and James Petersen’s “First Put Out the Fire,” and you have major voices calling for an immediate change in how the Forest Service deals with fire these days. As you would expect, among these people it’s fully acknowledged that fire plays an important role in forest health. But, given the longer fire seasons in the West, the massive forest fuel build-up due to less logging, and the critical low fuel moisture due to climate change, it’s clear that, for the time being, we need to put out all fires during fire season as quickly as possible. It’s also understood that some fires will (even with the best effort) escape containment and go big. So, for those concerned about getting fire back on the landscape, it’s likely that plenty of acres will end up in that category anyway.
That said, you can imagine how excited we were hearing from the Rogue-River Siskiyou N.F. about their IA success in the summers of 2020 and 2021. More on that later but now, some history.
In early summer 2019, Oregon Governor Kate Brown established The Oregon Wildfire Response Council (OWRC). It seemed a good idea. I felt that a state like Oregon might make real progress on the mega-fire issue plaguing the West. First, as a relatively small state, they are more politically agile—certainly more than California. Secondly, the timber industry has had–and still has–a strong influence in Oregon politics. And third, both private industry and the Oregon Department of Forestry (with its emphasis on strong initial attack) have historically leaned on the Forest Service to put stronger emphasis on more aggressive fire suppression.
So, I did some research and contacted Ken Cummings, Regional Manager at Hancock Natural Resources Group in Central Point, Oregon. He was on the OWR Council and put me in touch with Committee Chairman, Matt Donegan and concerned citizen, Guy McMahon in Brookings. Kate Brown’s office wrote back and put me in touch with an aide to Senator Jeff Merkley. Within a month Jim Klump (RDD ’64 – former Redding smokejumper and FMO on the Plumas N.F.) and I went to Salem to attend an Oregon Wildfire Response Council meeting. Senator Merkley’s aid was there. After speaking with both the aide and Matt Donegan about what might be done locally, I decided to contact my two local Forest Supervisors, Merv George Jr. on the Rogue River-Siskiyou and Rachel Smith on the Klamath.
When Merv George Jr. agreed to our first meeting (that was in June), I took a half-dozen copies of Smokejumper magazine to give to him. These were the ones in which Chuck beat the “strong initial attack and keep them small” drum hard. Early in the meeting, not long after I’d brought up the subject of strong IA, Merv leaned forward and told me straight-faced, you’re looking at one of the most aggressive IA Forest Supervisors you’ve ever met. He went on to explain that his Hoopa Native American heritage has helped him understand the difference between “good” fires and the devastation that “bad” fires can cause. He also understands the need to put fire back in the woods and, more importantly, the right times to put it there. He went on to explain that he raised his hand for the RRSNF position to try to “fix” the problem. The “problem” being the large fires of late on the forest—the Chetco Bar, (192,000 acres), the Klondike (175,258 acres), and the Taylor (53,000 acres) to mention three. That got me thinking that there could be a big success story if the Rogue River–Siskiyou could showcase that, with the right preparedness and IA effort, you could put out most all fires.
Then, while serving as Duzel Rock Fire Lookout (for Cal Fire) this summer, I got a call from Dan Quinones. That was late July. At that point, they had had 48 total fires, 31 lightning and 17 man-caused. Total acres burned, less than ten. Then he said the other thing (when added to Merv’s comment about being an aggressive IA Forest Supervisor) that made me want to write this article: “Our crews are going around with smiles on their faces. We’re having fun.” I thought to myself, this is it. This is what most old-time firedogs have been saying all along. If you encourage your crews to get out there and go after fires and put them out small, they will naturally become excited and connect with the passion of good firefighting.
Such passion comes directly from successful initial attack. It comes from those times when a crew hits a fire, works into the night, works until they feel tired and hungry and miserable but keep going, digging deep and finding that better part of themselves. That part they instinctively hoped was there. Then, once they catch their fire and walk off the mountain in the morning they feel like kings, and nothing can ever take that feeling away. It’s the tough times that build the kind of character that make great wildland firefighters. The tough times are transforming, and they are empowering. I think this point is not widely understood by many current wildland fire managers. Time after time I’ve heard from various crews, “Murry, they’re ruining firefighting. They’re holding us in camp too much. They’re not letting us do our job.”
I heard it again this past summer and not just from crews but from a Central California Type 1 Incident Commander, his Ops Chief and Plans Chief. Their take: Too many times effective work could have been done. Too many times crews and related resources were held back by the local forest. The IC told me straight out, “It’s this safety thing. The safety card is played too much. Too many times it’s too steep and it’s too rough. He went on to point out that by backing off and slacking off, these fires go way big and expose crews to thousands of miles of road trips—often when exhausted–thousands of helicopter rides into unimproved helispots and tens of thousands of miles of fireline with burning trees and snags.”
I heard from others as well. Guy McMahon from Brookings wrote in an email Sept. 23, 2021: “Good morning, Murry. Besides the extinguishment of this year’s fires, there is some good coming out of the organization of folks at RRSNF. You said in your email to me that Dan Quinones told you: ‘My people are going around with smiles on their faces. We’re having fun’. And I can state categorically, Dan has our best interest at heart. He has worked with us to verify OUR found lightning strikes and put people on the ground to make sure no fires were brewing. Contrast that to the former RRSNF Supervisor, who didn’t give a rip, and did not verify strikes, and allowed a 22-day set of strikes to be accidentally discovered by an airline pilot. There’s a serious difference between discovery and a 192,000 acre Mega-fire.”
During the meeting Merv made it clear that the Regional Forester in Portland was aware and supported this strong IA approach. Dan wanted Chuck and me to also understand that he had had Merv’s full backing as well. And that he had told his crews that he would back them all the way. So, there you have it, the line authority of Supervisor, FMO, and crew leaders backing each other in the decisions they need to make when working fire.
The RRSNF approach: They didn’t depend solely on agency resources but went proactive with contract crews and engines during times of critical fire danger. They prepositioned smokejumpers from both Redmond and the BLM. They had a 20-person rappel crew and one hotshot crew—the Rogue River Shots. Rappel crews from other forests were called in as needed. This was all part of a preparedness Phase One and Phase Two program created and initiated on their own forest that went beyond the regular (Regional and National) preparedness level programs. It involved prepositioning a Type 1 helicopter, a Type 3 helicopter w/module, rappel crews, smokejumpers, engines, water tenders, etc.
As far as those critics who questioned how much money this cost, Merv George Jr. told us: I’ve spent millions on this forest fighting large fires since I got here. So, I’m not averse to spending money up front. One example is when a contract engine responded to and stopped a half-acre fire near Agness that had the potential to go big. If that fire had gone big, those savings alone could have made it all worth it.
As Merv made clear, we all know that fire needs to be returned to the forest landscape. The Rogue River-Siskiyou N.F. is on pace to have a record year with prescribed fire. But fire does NOT need to be there in summers of record low fuel moistures and record high fire danger, or in the hottest times of the year. These fires must be put out early and fast. If they’re not, then you end up facing August with exhausted crews scattered all over the West, people from other areas and maybe even agencies working fire on your turf, and skies filled with smoke so that air resources cannot be used effectively.
When it comes to safety, this is something Merv George Jr. thinks about a lot. It’s a calculated risk to encourage vigorous IA, since it can mean extra exposure early in most fire suppression efforts. Such actions can put people in harms way. But, to hold back and risk a fire growing large where it can really do a lot of damage for a long duration, is not—in Merv’s opinion—the most responsible choice.
As an example of just how tough this can be Merv related a story from the summer of 2021. As he told it, the big man grew somber and spoke in a voice of deep concern. He received a phone call from a fellow Forest Supervisor who had just had a firefighter fatality on his forest in Region Six. The firefighter–56 years old–was hit and killed by a falling tree on the fireline. The guy explained to Merv that he would normally go to the family with the news but that at this time it was impossible for him to do so. So, he asked Merv for a favor. Would he go to the home in Medford and tell the wife? Merv said he would. He was in Medford at the time and had his full uniform with him. He contacted a human resource person from the forest, the owner of the contract crew, and a local police officer which is protocol. As you can imagine, the emotional courage it takes to deliver such a message—one that changes peoples’ lives forever–must be steeped in a commitment to do your best in your role as a Forest Supervisor. The three went to the door and knocked. A woman came. At first she was happy to see them. She was a cheerful and happy middle-aged lady with children in their mid-twenties. Then it hit her that something could be wrong. And that’s when Merv had to tell her that her husband had been involved in an accident and that he would not be coming home. The woman collapsed to the floor and sobbed while they tried to comfort her.
This is how serious the safety issue is to Merv and, I think, most fire leaders. It was one of the hardest things Merv has ever had to do. He concluded his story by saying that it is his firm belief that putting out “bad” fires quickly and putting more “good” fire on the landscape, will lead to less knocking on doors in the future.
When I wrote about our October meeting in Bill Derr’s email chain, one of the main contributors wrote back saying he couldn’t see how they could have been so successful on the RRSNF when what he saw this summer while observing Forest Service fires in Northern California was so very different. I wrote him back that it was leadership. Bold leadership! What I call administrative guts. Hopefully the word of what was possible on the RRSNF forest last summer will spread, that fire managers and forest supervisors will see that there is a way to reduce the number of catastrophic fires. I think it will have to come from the forests who decide to resist Washington and Region pressure and take up the initial attack banner on their own.
Some say the wildfire problem in the West is the most important environmental issue of our time. I think they’re right. The Rogue River–Siskiyou leadership has accepted the challenge and shown that this problem can—to a great degree—be mitigated. Fires are being put out small. Crews are going around with smiles on their faces. Like the German philosopher and playwright Goethe once said, “In boldness there is genius and magic.” That’s happening on the Rogue River—Siskyou N.F. these days. Let’s hope it can happen on other Western forests as well.
Murry Taylor, a former smokejumper, is the author of Jumping Fire.
This article will appear in the April, 2022 issue of Smokejumper magazine.
Note from Bill Gabbert: In June, 2012 we first started writing about what I called the Prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires:
“Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.”
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55 thoughts on “How one Forest had 120 fires in the last two years but only burned a total of 70 acres”
Great article, Murray! Thanks for sharing it, Bill.
I’ll never forget Merv George subverting the Washington D.C. office and threatening to fire firefighters because he wanted to allocate boot stipend funds away from firefighters this year.
But sure this article is a cool story, but there are two sides to aggressive Initial Attack. I am a firm believer in aggressive Initial Attack, but only if it is coupled with aggressive burning during fire season. Without an aggressive burning program, then aggressive Initial Attack is simply just passing the risk on to the next generation of firefighters.
I wish Murray would have explained more about how Merv and Dan were dealing with their fuel loads as they directed others to stomp out every fire quickly.
Another issue not mentioned was that the fire load was actually very low in 2021 as “heat domes” and high pressure systems kept lightning out of the region for the most part. In fact, no fires were even jumped in R6 after about August 6th or so in 2021…
Best not to gloat too much during your highs, and don’t get too down during your lows…
Hey Ben, Thanks for commenting here It thought it was important to keep the focus of my article narrow–as in focused on aggressive IA–and not wander too much into other areas of concern. I did mention (and Merv wanted it clear) that the RRSNF is currentlty on a record setting year with prescribed fire. Merv and Dan see “good” fires as something they want to push as hard as putting out “bad” fires. I also tried to make clear that all the “old fire dog” voices I mentioned completely understand the need to get fire back on the landscape, just not during fire season.
I think they actually need to be burning during fire season. There are actually great windows to get a lot of work done and places in the NW like Mt. Hood desperately need to have fire on the ground during fire season. I was on Bull Complex and the only part of the fire that moved was what we put on the ground ourselves. It was surrounded by burn scars and probably could have gone without any suppression resources at all.
I was also on Klondike fire, where Dan Quinones attended many of the morning briefings as Fire Staff Officer. We all watched the Florida Red Team waste millions of dollars with retardant lines to nowhere, and spraying retardant from trucks into road-cuts miles in front of the fire… and they still had people working 16 hour days past thanksgiving on that one… I’ve never seen more IHC superintendents shaking their heads at forest leadership.
I’m not sure I believe the low acreage purported in this article, as I’ve been on a few fires on the Rogue Siskiyou and they seem to total more acres than you suggest… Oh well.
What’s the difference between a lighting strike and a ping pong ball aerial ignition? I guess it’s just liability…
Ben, You make some good points for fires allowed to burn during fire season BUT there’s one thing we have to keep in mind. Historically too many fires allowed to burn have gone big and sucked up tons of resources. Given the fire seasons we are facing now we can’t afford to have any extra drain on resources. If we don’t put these early season fires out small we’re likely to end up facing August with lots of big fires, exhausted crews, people from all over the place not understanding local fire, and skies filled with smoke so that air resources cannot function. That’s the story of these past seasons, and one we need to change. Thanks for your interest in fire and solving its’ problems.
Such a huge step backwards. We just keep kicking the can down the road, and the problem just keeps getting worse. I know and respect both Merv and Dan but feel very frustrated about their decision. I hope other units don’t look to this as a positive example to follow. We need more good fire, and we need managers willing to take the associated risks.
Let the angry villagers come after me.
….agreed. It’s like this article came out of the 70s.
Dusty, As to Riva’s comment: “We need more good fire, and we need managers willing to take the associated risks.” Did you miss the part in my piece saying that the RRSNF is on track to set an all-time record in acres burned with presribed fire? Merv wanted that made clear and I thought I had.
Your not wrong Riva. This is an oversimplified solution to a complicated problem. Murry’s a great dude from the stories I’ve heard about him, but he has no idea what it’s like fighting fire today. What the heck does he think we’re doing? Everyone in California is trying to catch fires small. Between CAL Fires trillion dollar budget, and having more hotshot crews, engines, and air tankers then the whole country, you can easily say California has been the most aggressive state in the country at putting fires out small the last 50 years, that’s one of the reason we are experiencing mega fires. The last fire that I was on this year that got “caught” was June of this year, it was a fire that went for 10,000 acres in the first burn period. Within 2 hours after it started (Right off I-5) we had 5 hotshot crews, dozens of engines, helicopters, dozers, and the super scoopers working in tandem with a quick turn around and we got our ass handed to us for 10 days. The only reason it stopped was because it eventually hit the another mega fire burn scar. I love that old timers like Murry are still engaged, his generation has a lot of historical knowledge and experience that we can still learn from, but when it comes to modern fire behavior and tactics, the old guys need to realize they are not the subject matter experts anymore. He is right about one thing, We all love catching fires, if the conditions were right to “anchor, flank and pinch” all summer long, maybe we wouldn’t all be so burned out.
Riva, In my view, your response misses one critcal point. If we don’t get on with seriously aggressive IA, the National Forests in the West will be completely burned in the next two or three decades. If we go after fires aggressively, then they will still burn in time, only in the next (hopefully) 6 or 7 decades. That delay is SO IMPORTANT since it will give the earlier burned landscape acreage a chance to recover and stablized as healthy forest and watershed. In other words not too much damage in too short a time. Yes, in the past it’s likely we put out too many fires and are now living with the consequences. We can’t change that. But we are where we are now and, given the longer fire seasons and climate change effects, we must limit the rate of burning as much as possible until things get closer to more normal fire occurence down the road. And remember, even with the best efforts, some fires will escape and a lot of fire is going to be out there anyway.
It’s come to be a force of nature we won’t or can’t suppress our way out of even for a delay. The only fix is aggressive fuels and forest health management on a scale we don’t have the appetite for – at least from my view. An Apollo type program directed at forest health won’t happen.
All this talk of seriously aggressive IA is a lot of “when we were great” sort of ideas that don’t work in our current situation due to fuels conditions or lack of resources or lack of pay.
If we delay a fire dependent ecosystem from burning for another 60 years, the problem will just get much much worse. We have to complete shift were we are ok with things burning whether prescribed or an IMT grabbing another 10,000 acres in the box.
Love it. Keep the troops happy and the fires small. Put fire on the ground when it makes sense and can be handled with local resources. Hope it spreads. It is how did business for 30 +.
…….and is the reason why we are in the crisis we are in currently, but you old boys keep patting yourself on the back. Thanks.
And the forests are denser, less healthy, and more prone to explosive growth when an ignition and weather window line up. These are FIRE dependant forests!
Hey there, Great comment. The Forest Service, fair or not, has a terrible public image when it comes to fire where I live in N. Calif. and I think in most of the West. One of the best ways to fix that is to get back to putting out fires small and keeping smoke from choking summer skies. As I said in the piece, the love of fighting fire is built in successful initial attack. Getting back to aggressive IA will be the very thing to excite crews and build confidence. The comment in the article about firefighters going around with smiles on their faces, and We’re having fun is key here in rebuilding both strong crews and pride in the outfit. The word will spread and the image of the FS will be greatly served.
Good Article. We need more supervisors like Mr. Merv George!!
Hey, I liked Murry’s book!
I’m not going to say I disagree with this article, but in some respects it paints a different picture than what I’ve seen for myself and heard from my buddies. In particular:
-not a lot of good about the forest supervisor (remember the boot stipend?)
-I wonder what fraction of this season’s outcomes is owed to deliberate policy decisions vs so much of the forest having burned in recent big fires? (I don’t mean this as some kind of dunk, sincere question.).
-similarly, what’s the pre-season program of thinning and rx look like? My vague anecdotal impression is that it’s more active than a lot of places, though I don’t know. It might be bad policy for other forests to hit ’em fast keep ’em small without also implementing a lot of prevention work, or without a recent history of big fires that renders new starts relatively easy to suppress.
-being ratholed at the station kept ready and waiting for a fire is _terrible_ for morale, at least for mine.
-partly re the article, partly re commenter “Fight fire safely”, I haven’t heard much good about the RRSNF from guys who were 1039s there–the story I’ve heard is that you spend a lot of time waiting around for the big one, not making much money, and then get laid off early, while contractors do most of the actual work for lower net compensation. I suppose this could be more bearable with a higher base wage, but it’s still not exactly “keeping the troops happy”, and while it may be good policy on some level it sure doesn’t make me want to work there.
I support this method 100%! I’ve always thought it was ridiculous to let a small fire skunk around for days or weeks due to “difficult access” or “steep terrain.” We deal with those factors all the time once those small fires get big. The exposure is so much more on large scale fires. It makes so much more sense to put them out small, plus it’s way more fun and you don’t have to answer to an angry community wondering why their town burned down!
Wasnt this the same Forest Supervisor who didnt want to give out the boot stipend to firefighters?
Sorry, but it strikes me as petty to bring up the boot stipend in a discussion involving millions of taxpayer dollars and lots of forest acres that were saved due to bold leadership.
I don’t think so. I think Merv’s run in with the boot stiped is very telling about how leadership takes care of their people and shows a disconnect.
Wildland Fire Leadership Values and Principles – Respect – Know your people and look out for their well-being.
C. Monster, You write of being disconnected? Amazing! Look, if you don’t want the job enough to buy your own pair of boots, I suggest you look for work elsewhere. There are enough whiners in the outfit already.
My Sincere Congratulations to Forest Supervisor Merv George for having the common sense and COURAGE to stand up and do the Right thing for HIS Forest and Our Forest !!!
Hurrah SIR ! Finally someone in the USFS has the balls and the fortitude to stand up for not only his Forest but for US the TAXPAYERS !
Man am I excited, there is light at the end of this dark, dismal tunnel !!!!!!!
I will wait and see if his supervisors don’t try to beat him down now , I will pray that this does not happen.
Good to see this comment applauding Courage, common sense, and what I call “adminstrative guts.” If the RRSNF’s program had been put into play in the West this summer–even if it resulted in only a 20 percent reduction in burned acreage– hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars would have been saved.
Murry what do you think California has been doing the last several decades. Between cal-fire and the Feds, The state boasts the most aggressive IA approach in the country. On any given IA there’s a VLAT, heavy helicopters, strike teams of engines, con crews, dozers, local government, and feds on an IA within the first 30 minutes.. Other then the Tamarack fire (which started in the wilderness,), every other 100,000+ acre fire the last couple of years was immediately attacked this year. Most Hotshot crews in the state will attest that we are fighting fire as aggressively as we can..With all due respect, your out of your element… fires did not move like this in the 80’s and 90’s, even the early 2000’s. an 8 man load of jumpers is not going to do much on fires that routinely burn up 1000’s of acres a day. Please quit simplifying the solution..
Hey R5, Your comment, “On any given IA there’s a VLAT, heavy helicopters, strike teams of engines, con crews, dozers, local government, and feds on an IA within the first 30 minutes..” is simply, NOT TRUE. As I said in other posts, I’ve worked Fire Lookout for Cal Fire for the past 20 years and have watched hundreds of IA’s while listening in on the radio. A few had a lot of what you mentioned here, but NONE I saw had them within 3o minutes. Also, in my piece I mentioned that some fires would simply get away no matter what IA takes place. I talk to jumpers all the time, and they aren’t put on fires that burn “1000’s of acres a day.” I also talk with a whole lot of hotshot people, Supes. especially, and many complain of being held back too much when they could easily do good work. Congratulations on being a Hotshot, it’s a great thing to be on a strong Shot crew.
I don’t know where you’ve been a lookout, but I have been a wildland firefighter in CA for the last 5 years and my experience directly contradicts your’s. CA is certainly more aggressive than other regions I’ve worked in. I have yet to see an initial attack here that did not over-order resources, especially in the foothills of the west side of the Sierra (Sierra, Stanislaus, Eldorado NFs) and the WUI of coastal southern California. In fact, as incident commanders on initial attacks we are taught to “order more, because it’s best to get people moving and you can always cancel later.” This theory that aggressive initial attack is no longer the policy just does not ring true on the ground.
Aggressive initial attack is always the default option. It is from that position that a forest might consider the possibility of managing a fire for resource benefit. There are two places in the state of California where this is not the case: the Illoulette Creek area in Yosemite and the Sugarloaf Creek area in Sequoia NP. Both of those areas stopped suppressing fires in the 1970s have have seen nothing but positive effects.
R5, I think part of our disagreement may have to do with what each of us call aggressive IA. I know that in past years on the Klamath N.F. what they called aggresssive IA was with a small a. Forty years ago, it was AGGRESSIVE IA, I know, I saw it and it was different than now. Just look at the Lava Fire on the Shasta-Trinity and the Tamarack on the Inyo. Both were major foul-ups and wrong-headed decisions that led to tragic burns and so much loss of property.
Great article from Murry, and a clear demonstration of how strong leadership can lead to minimal fire impacts on a
Forest. I hope other Forest Supervisors will take Merv’s lead on how best to handle fire on their own NFs.
Firefighters have the skills and training, so with good leadership and clear direction, they can stop fires “in their tracks,” as suggested in the Call to Action document, and Jim Petersen’s book “First Put Out The Fire!”
Well written Murat. Many of these thoughts have been around for years. You articulated and summarized them well.
Thx good luck
I think this article misses a few important points.
1) The Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest has had more than 70 acres burned in the last two years. The 2020 Slater Fire which this article openly excluded burned over 68,000 acres on the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest in both the Slater and Devils Fire. Although these fires burned from the Klamath National Forest onto the Rogue River Siskiyou NF, given the conditions at that time and the resources at play across Oregon and in the Almeda Fire when these fires broke out, I seriously doubt the Rogue River Siskiyou NF would have had any more luck suppressing ignitions during the historically high east winds and low humidity levels of September 8 and 9, 2020. The Rogue River Siskiyou was lucky not to have ignitions on their forest during that extreme September fire weather, but almost 70,000 acres did burn on the Rogue River Siskiyou NF in the past two years, not 70 acres.
2) It is also important to note that the article cites the 2018 Klondike Fire (approximately 175,000 acres) and 2018 Taylor Fire (approximately 53,000 acres) as examples of success from initial attack crews under Merv George’s leadership, but both these fires burned with Merv George as Forest Supervisor on the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest. Not blaming Merv here, just pointing out that fire weather, access, terrain and available resources were working against suppression crews and therefore these fires escaped initial attack efforts and burned vast acreages in very remote, rugged terrain where fires are notoriously hard to suppress. The same can also be said for the large fire areas that burned during 2017 in the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest (Abney Fire, Chetco Bar Fire, etc). They also started in very remote, difficult areas with very few available suppression resources. I think blaming the 2017 fires on the Forest and the former Supervisor is unfair, especially since suppression crews repeatedly asked to be pulled off initial attack on these fires due to safety concerns. What generally accounts for large fires in our area is extreme fire weather, remote, inaccessible ignitions and few available resources. Those are the exact conditions that led to the Abney and Chetco Bar Fires. Believe me I lived in the Abney Fire area for 2 1/2 months and watched it all unfold first hand, they suppressed dozens of more accessible ignitions during that storm on the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District with a total of 40 available personnel. They just could not safely suppress the Abney Fire when it was small and the resource just were not available. They did catch those ignitions closer to communities and infrastructure during initial attack and that should be the priority, not remote backcountry fires.
3) The recent fire footprints on the Rogue River Siskiyou (2017 and 2018) are limiting ignitions, moderating the spread and intensity of those ignitions, aiding initial attack, and limiting acres burned. Lightning ignitions in these large recent footprints are still pretty easy to suppress, will self-suppress or will not naturally go big due to recent fire effects. They are also in some of the most difficult locations to fight fire in the area and these areas are basically out of the equation for a few years until the fire footprints are again receptive to fire. That could easily have contributed to the relatively few acres burned in 2020 and 2021.
4) Fires are pretty cyclical across the West with individual areas supporting big fire years with lots of acres burned and slow years with very few acres burned. It fluctuates year to year. Most of this is associated with local weather, climate, fire history, available resources, the location of lightning ignitions and the level of precipitation that accompanies those lightning ignitions. In 2017 and 2018 vast acreages in the most remote, inaccessible country in the Rogue River Siskiyou burned. When lightning ignitions in SW Oregon align with weather and terrain in places like the Kalmiopsis, the Siskiyou Wilderness or the Red Buttes Wilderness we often get larger fires, when the ignitions are concentrated in the southern Cascades and the more accessible eastern Siskiyou, crews usually have more success at containment. As mentioned earlier, much of the most inaccessible fire prone terrain had burned recently in the Rogue River Siskiyou NF and was not fully available during the 2020 and 2021 fire season.
5)I wonder about the statement in this article that the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest is on pace for a record year of prescribed fire. As a resident in the forest, I have seen large acreages of prescribed fire approved and very little actually implemented in the last number of years. It seems to me, to be on a downward trend, not the other way around. I also know for certain that Oregon Public Broadcasting came out with a widely read news story in 2018 highlighting this problem and the response by the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest was to include pile burning in the calculations for prescribed fire. Is pile burning actually responsible for the record year of “prescribed fire” on the Rogue River Siskiyou? Does this artificially inflate the numbers? Clearly pile burning has very different affects than actual prescribed or broadcast type burning. I would really like to see the agency differentiate between the two when citing statistics about acres burned with prescribed fires each season. I think the current narrative is misleading and confusing to the public. I also think the agency should be more clear about what they are implementing and what its actual affect might be. Pile burning and prescribed fire a very different tools and should be tracked separately.
Good comments Luke. And, while we’re admiring the chest pounding going on at the RSF from the fire leadership and forest supervisor, let’s not forget that Dan Quinones was the acting FMO during the Chetco Bar fire. Should he be held accountable for the acres burned and lives changed? Or was it not his responsibility to ensure that fire didn’t exceed extended attack? Well, given that his folks were the ones who IA’d that fire, I’m assuming he did everything he could to limit the size and extent of the Chetco Bar fire while keeping his personnel safe. Hmmm….
Facts matter. There was no real IA. Former RRSNF SUPERVISOR McWhorter implemented a rescoure management fire. In other words “let it burn”. Further, it took 22 days for this fire to be discovered by McWhorter and that was an accidental discovery by an airline pilot. Also the size of the fire was blown out of porportion because the IC NIMO team set 5 fires during a wind event. Houseman was advise NOT to set those fires. NIMO caused the conflagration. Facts matter.
Old school article. I enjoyed Murray Taylor’s book when it came out 20+ years ago and before I worked in fire management.
Seems like an outdated piece made to feed egos and remind people about the old days. The word on the street is that things are not so happy on the RRS under Merv.
We need a new paradigm in fire management and this is not it.
An interesting PHD or MS project would be a comparison across forests and approaches looking at 2, 5, 10 year fire cost per acre.
Costs would include all fire suppression costs including severity, standby overtime, primary fire salary and benefits, contracted engines, etc.
You’d have to figure out how to control for fire load, resource availability, etc.
Basically answering the question: does spending lots of money in year X, x+1, x+n save us money over time span Y?
I know I’m not the only one who spent a decade suppressing multiple small fires only to watch lots of resources “lose” (they never had a chance) a fire on a high severity day that burned up all that work and expended money in a few hours.
“…the massive forest fuel build-up due to less logging…” Really??? Don’t think so! How about “…massive fuel build-up due to less fire…” Just how long do you think logging has been practiced in these ecosystems? Maybe 100-150 years at most compared to the 10’s of thousands of years they’ve evolved with fire. Only in specific mechanical treatments where thinning and understory removal/mastication mimics pre-fire suppression structure does logging reduce fuel build-up. And where did that fuel build-up come from? Certainly not less logging but less fire!
Agree there’s a time for “good fire” and that’s not during times when fuel, weather, & resource conditions are not in your favor, but as someone else said putting that “good fire” on the ground is even more important that immediate IA with complete suppression.
Pretty bang on comment
Buyer beware. It’s Merv George. A lot more wrong about him than just boot stipends. Why does everything have to be “my” this and “my” that. Maybe ego?
If its one thing I learned in 40 yrs of fire suppression is you better check your ego at the door. Mother nature always bats last, and it don’t matter how good or experienced you are, some days only she decides if your gonna “catch the fire” .
Just me’s comment about Quinones being Acting FMO during Chetco Bar Fire may not be correct. I am assuming that Quinones is now Fire Staff Officer, taking Eric H’s place after he retired, with FMO’s at each District. As I remember it, he was not Fire Staff Officer at that point. He may have been Acting FMO on that District, which may be what Just me was saying. Chetco Bar languished for many shifts with a NIMO Team managing the fire due to a lack of resources Region-wide. They never ordered any helicopters for that fire, but would borrow a light helicopter for recons. In my opinion, the NIMO Team was slow to corral the fire, and funked around with it, made very little progress, did not have a very good plan of action, until the east winds kicked in. Then NIMO left with no apologies. And then there was the Type I Team inbrief in Brookings.
You a VERY correct on your facts about the Chetco Bar MEGA fire! The others do not know what they are talking about. There was no real IA. Former RRSNF SUPERVISOR McWhorter implemented a rescoure management fire. In other words “let it burn”. Further, it took 22 days for this fire to be discovered by him and that was an accidental discovery by an airline pilot. Facts matter.
I throw up a little every time I hear a type 1 IC complain about the safety card.
The Gila NF is a good example of effective fire management. Granted, it has a lot less wui around it, and large fire history to work from. By allowing lightning fires to move across the landscape during manageable fire conditions, in conjunction with IA when needed, keeps it about as healthy as forest as you can get. Yes, fuel types and weather patterns come into play, but other forests should look at their model. Fast, aggressive IA is needed more than ever now where applicable, but healthy forests need to be maintained also. Plan for aggressive IA when your ERCs are above, say, 90 (just an example), for most, that’s only a month or two. Looks like the RSF beefed up IA resources when needed, a good example to follow if the goal is to keep fires small. I realize that won’t work everywhere, but can be improved in places.
Great article, thank you. You’ve made it clear that initial attack success must be combined with aggressive burning –when conditions are right. The past two summers have NOT been the right time to create black acres. Allowing fires to burn during summer conditions is no way to reintroduce fire to the landscape. It’s been an environmental and public health disaster. I hope people will look at what these leaders are doing and realize that change takes courage. And change is needed.
Where are the truly innovative management strategies? We are celebrating Forest Supervisors who champion Full Suppression? I think we can all agree full suppression is the easiest choice. If you catch it, no problems, if you lose it, at least you tried. The Gila example above is a good one to learn from. Sure most of our Forests have more WUI and infrastructure challenges than the Gila, but we all have to start somewhere.
Unless Merv is logging, thinning, and RX burning to keep up with historic fire intervals (not to mention the need to treat more and more often now due to climate change), he is helping contribute to fuels build-up and risk transfer to our future firefighters. Managers should be forced to make decisions based primarily on time of year, fuels conditions, modeling, long term forecasts, etc, not gut feelings and extreme edge case what-if scenarios. The answer is not even close to easy, but in wet years we catch the fires we should probably let grow, and in dry years we just can’t catch all of the fires and some of them get big.
The old salty dogs in Smokejumper magazine write some great articles, some entertaining, and some very insightful. It sure seems like quite a few articles, however, are propaganda pieces meant to get politicians and USFS leaders to believe that we could catch every last fire if we just had an ever increasing number of jumpers and planes. Sorry, not going to happen. We already lose a very small number of starts, some go big.
I can’t speak for every FF out there, but I can say that suppressing small fires can be very fun and motivational. It can also be heartbreaking extinguishing fires within NEPA boundaries that allow for RX burns, putting fires out with excellent fire effects, knowing that the heavy equipment, hand line, retardant, Aquatic invasive problems, all probably will cause way more resource damage than the fire. We have enough fires in this era, we don’t need to suppress every one of them to keep our crews happy, hogwash.
“we could catch every last fire if we just had an ever increasing number of jumpers and planes.”
What I’m about to say is only tangentially related to the article, but the other thing about this (or calls for more or larger IHCs, including the original MEL buildup, or for that matter various military initiatives to get more Rangers or whatever) is that you can’t just say “a-ha, our type 1 guys are great, so if we have twice as many type 1 guys we’ll get twice as good production!” They’re good because they’re selected from and received lots of on-the-job training in a pretty big ecosystem of districts, fuels, contractors, loggers, etc. If you scale up the top of the pyramid without scaling up the rest of the pipeline–mixed metaphors, but you guys see what I mean–you can’t expect your new resources to be at the same level as your original ones. This goes double if you actually cut the earlier stages of your pipeline (BD crews, trail crews) to fund the new tip of the spear.
Libre, Your comment referring to Smokejumper mag. articles: “however, are propaganda pieces meant to get politicians and USFS leaders to believe that we could catch every last fire if we just had an ever increasing number of jumpers and planes,” in terribly misleading. We don’t need more smokejumpers and planes, we just need to use the ones we have. Note, in 2020, the smokejumpers made only 4 fire jumps a piece. They only jumped about 280 fires. Thirty years ago we used to average around 10 fire jumps, and using the same math, they would have staffed about 700 fires. That’s 420 more. It’s just amazing that during one of the worst fire seasons ever, the jumpers (for the most part) sat on the sidelines, doing their daily PT, and hoping for fire calls that never came. Who the hell’s paying attention here? Old jumpers and the Smokejumper magazine are not asking for more jumpers and planes, just that the ones we have be used like the should be.
Range Tech, I talk with firefighters all the time and have been a Cal Fire lookout in Siskiyou Co. for twenty years. I listen to radios and attend debriefings and forest fire planning sessions. So, I’ll have to disagree with your saying I have no idea what it’s like fighting fire today. Besides that, I burned most of my 40 acres here in broadcast burns with Cal Fire engines and old jumper buddies holding line. I’m 80 but still love working fire and the people who do it. Yes, fires are burning hotter than they used to overall, so say some smokejumper buddies. But they also say that there are still plenty of opportunities to do effective work and catch their fires. Certainly some of these fires cannot be caught, just too hot right from the get-go. Still, I’ve seen some smolder around a day or more with no action taken at all. Meanwhile jumpers sat in Redding and Redmond hoping for a fire. Some of these fires have gone big. I just attended a meeting today with Klamath Forest Supervisor, Rachel Smith, her Deputy, and FMO, Mike Appling. A lot can be done to make initial attack more successful in R-5 and the rest of the West as well. Like the leaders on the RRSNF, the ones I met with today are committed to make it happen. To conclude, some of the old-timers you speak of are still advising fire teams and deeply involved in the wildfire scene.
Great article Murry!!
Seems that most comments want to discuss absolutes – IA can’t catch them all, fuel build-up is due to lack of fire, etc. The fact is – good fire management is a complex issue and involves a number of subsets – planning, prevention, presuppression, suppression, fuels management – and integration with forest management activities.
The fuels build up is the result of a number of issues such as lack of timber management (much reduced harvesting since 1990 when we had lots of equipment and concerned workers in the woods), environmental laws and challenges, lack of salvage, and yes, limited Rx (good) fire.
What amazes me is that many look to “managed wildfire (bad fire)” as a tool to reduce this fuel loading. There are some limitedd opportunities to use wildfire for these purposes, but they are limited and subject to the limitations of a planned Rx burn.
First, reducing fuel loading by fire is limited to relatively light fuel loads especially under high fire indexes.
Second, wildfires burning under acceptable weather and fuel conditions must be closely monitored and attended to similar to an Rx burn. When the size of the “managed wildfire” exceeds the capability of available resources when required – it is too late. Just like a Rx burn we set boundaries and take action to ensure the burning is complete within the weather window. Ask yourself before declaring a wildfire “managed” – would I light this fire as an Rx burn?
Third, in second above, the premise is under “acceptable weather and fuel conditions.” A condition not likely during the declared /budgeted fire season – or at least for any extended length of time. As with the Tamarack Fire the longer you allow it to burn during this period the higher the risk of a disaster. These have occurred over the past 30+ years. How many successes does a disaster cancel out?
And the declaration of a “managed wildfire” during the fire season isn’t the only problem. As I understand it some fires have escaped while the responders weighed the safety vs. success ratio instead of attacking the fire – anchor and flank. Yes, some fires will escape regardless of the suppression action – but we should strive to keep them to a minimum. In my opinion any fire that escapes initial and extended attack needs to have a formal review.
Someone mentioned above that the Tamarack was the only example of a “managed fire.” However, there are numerous accounts of delays in IA response on other fires such as the Dixie and the Caldor. I would guess there are more – and they have not been adequately documented at this time, but worth looking at more closely.
For example, regarding the Caldor Fire I keep hearing about the confusion of what agency had the responsibility of the fire and the lack of suppression resources availabe. If true, the responsible agency/authority and cooperating agencies were negligent in setting up presuppression agreements (fire response and operations protocols) and retaining sufficient resources to protect development and resources in the area. This fire started in the front country where there were a significant number of structures at risk. Would guess that both the FS and CDF would be concerned. And what happened to the old concept of “reassigning resources to a new fire when needed.”
I could go on, but apologize for rambling on so much. As I mentioned earlier fire management is a complex subject and much needs to be done. Keeping fires small while working on the longer term aspects is key. As Murry mentioned above – if we allow fires to burn uncontrolled we will have burned up most of the area before we can do what is needed.
Yes, I am an old school firefighter – in fact, older than most, but don’t think the physics of fire have radically changed. Like an old Alaska IC said “the dragon is sleeping – kill him before he wakes (or something close to that).”
Oh – and one last comment that will confirm just how old I am. What happened to wearing a FS uniform? I see where the FS still provides up to $800/year or are we saving that?
Hey Dave, Great to see you comment here. You cover most of the important issues from the perspective of a man with decades of first-hand leadership and experience. I hope people pay strict attention to what you’ve so astutely pointed out. Thanks.
People may be happy to know that Merv George may have had something to do with the infrastructure bill getting passed with a $20k pay increase for wildland firefighters.
I probably shouldn’t get in too deep here, but a senate staffer that worked with grassroots and wrote in the pay raise actually read the article on wildfire today and was so disgusted that he made some phone calls to the washington office of the USFS to get the boot stipend cleared up.
It’s safe to say that was in their minds when they decided to force change, realizing that change wasn’t coming from the inside of the agency… so, thanks Merv. Happy Holidays all!
And thanks Bill!!
A summary of this article was posted in The Smokey Wire blog (800+ Subscribers) and this was my Comment: “One reason Merv George is having good luck with fire suppression the past few years is because most fuels have already been substantially removed on his forest by the four Kalmiopsis Wilderness fires during the past 35 years: the 1987 Silver Complex, the 2002 Biscuit, the 2017 Chetco Bar, and the 2018 Klondike.”
My PhD research focused on catastrophic wildfires in western Oregon and my career as a reforestation contractor included more than 18,000 acres of successful prescribed fires in the same region. I have never been able to find out whether the rare endemic plants that were the basis for the creation of the Kalmiopsis have benefited or been damaged by these fires, despite several attempts to do so. My personal opinion on these fires has been constant for several decades — wildfires should be extinguished ASAP (as George is doing), but active management — including prescribed fire — needs to be dramatically increased. Maybe even in our federally-designated Wilderness areas.
I think going back to 87 and 02 is maybe a little bit of a stretch, no? I don’t know the Rogue-Siskiyou that well but there’s plenty of stuff on the western Klamath that burned in 87 and went absolutely yard in the last 3-8 years.
My comments fly in the face of those that are skeptical of the accomplishments of Forest Service employees in the ROGUE RIVER SISKIYOU NATIONAL FOREST. To be sure, Initial Attack is not the only solution to fix our forests, but to be critical of those IA efforts is just not right.
I have been ‘lucky enough’ to be one of 5 private citizens invited to participate in two separate conflagration task forces to ‘chart’ the movement of two raging out of control wilfires fires. Every FS employee that had a formal title attended these all day meetings, which begged the question, “who is commanding fire resources?”. Both fires expected burned acreage was charted with a high and a low expectation of acreage burned. All prognostications included ‘making it’ to the rainy season.
Forest Supervisor has said publicly, that he estimates 25% of wildfires will escape initial attack, for a whole host of reasons.
I WOULD ACCEPT ANYONE’S EFFORT IN MAKING A CONCERTED INITIAL ATTACK ON ANY FIRE, ANY DAY, for once the fire reaches the ‘committee task force’ level, the fire is lost. Management until the rains come is a solution but……
Initial Attacks, that put the fires out, provides the opportunity to focus on the components of creating a healthy forest. As many of you have already pointed out, fire does play a role in healthy forests. The real work then begins – how to navigate the myriad of rules and requirements, nepa, eco interests inside the FS and outside the FS, naysayers, ignorant public, unions, logging, to name but a few, in doing what is necessary to create that healthy forest. The forest industrial complex is very strong.
My first choice is not ‘making it’ to the rainy season’……
MERV and DAN,
Just a note of support and compliments to both of you AND YOUR TEAMS for the efforts and hard work in preventing disastrous forest fires these last couple years.
We are grateful to both of you for taking the time to TELL THE STORY of how to successfully address the every year problem of fire starts from lightning strikes.
We have known for sometime of the efforts to publicize your successes and are mindful of the fact that the risks are high when ‘counter to norm’ solutions are implimented. Should you have the need for any further support you can call on us.
One last note.
We have been ‘PUSHING the Forest Service rope of change’ on a nation wide basis, since the disaterous MEGA fires of 2017-2018, with very little to show for it.
Your leadership has reinforced the word LOCAL. Change starts from within. With a bit of luck at all our backs, perhaps we can all start to focus on restoring a healthy vibrant RRSNF.
CREDIT MUCH DESERVED…..
CONTINUE TO TELL THE STORY…..
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