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.”