Highlights from the 1977 CDF Fire Control Handbook

Looking back 45 years at large fire organization charts, “support teams”, and hair requirements in California

CDF Fire Control Handbook, 1977
Cover of the 1977 California Department of Forestry Fire Control Handbook.

Chief John Hawkins shared with us a copy of the California Department of Forestry’s Fire Control Handbook, 1977 edition. The agency was known as CDF before they became the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE.

It is a .pdf copy of Handbook 5600 with a few amendments around 1979 and 1980 to address the agency’s limited trial of the Incident Command System (ICS) in their Region VI starting in 1978, and the planned California-wide implementation of the ICS in 1983. The entire document can be downloaded here  (large 10.2 Mb file).

Firefighters of a certain age will most likely enjoy skimming through the pages of this 45-year old document.

CDF 1977 Fire Control Handbook
From page 51 in the CDF 1977 Fire Control Handbook, amended December, 1980.

The 324-page book contains many operational guides, as well as information about aviation, safety, pre-attack planning, “support teams”, and flood control operations. Much of it is timeless, but there have also been many changes. It is interesting to compare the 45-year old policies with current procedures.

But going back even further, let’s take a look at fire organizations before ICS began to be adopted in the 1980s:

forest fire organization, forest service, 1953
Two-Sector Fire. From Principles of Organization for Forest Fire Suppression, US Forest Service, 1953.
Organization on the, Battlement Creek Fire, July 1976
Organization on the Battlement Creek Fire, July, 1976. From the report.

My career was with the US Forest Service and National Park Service. The CDF organization from the Fire Control Handbook has at least one feature unfamiliar to me, the “Attack” function, which was called the Line Function by the USFS. It is now labeled “Operations” in the ICS. In the USFS it was led by a Line Boss in the pre-ICS days. “Service” became Logistics, and in the Planning section the Maps and Records Officer was replaced by two units, Resources Unit and Situation Unit. Sectors became Divisions, and a new position was inserted between the Planning Section Chief and Division Boss: Branch Director. There were numerous changes in Service/Logistics.

CDF Fire Organization Structure, 1979
CDF Fire Organization Structure, 1979.

And then there is the current Incident Command System structure; keep in mind, you only fill the positions that are needed.

Expanded Incident Command System (ICS) Structure
Expanded Incident Command System (ICS) Structure

The CDF Fire Control Handbook, 1977 edition, has a section on “Support Teams”.

CDF Support Teams, 1977
CDF Support Teams, CDF Fire Control Handbook, 1977 edition.
Motorola pager
Early Motorola pager.

I don’t remember exactly when we started what were later known as Type 2 Incident Management Teams in the Southern California federal agencies. I think it was around 1980 or so.

As a Maps and Records Officer on a Cleveland National Forest team in the 1980s I carried a small Motorola pager to be notified when our team was dispatched. Back then, if somebody paged you, the pager would give an alert tone, sometimes followed by a difficult to hear voice message from the dispatcher. After the message it would go quiet until the next page, but you could press down on the on/off button to hear radio traffic on the frequency. We later upgraded to fancier pagers.

And before we close this out, below are the CDF standards for hair in 1977. Since many CDF/CAL FIRE positions require the use of breathing apparatus which need a good seal over the face, some of the facial hair specifications are understandable. I don’t know what the current CAL FIRE requirements are, but I have a feeling that many US Forest Service, BLM, and NPS fire personnel might run up against some “grooming requirements”.

CDF hair standards, 1977
CDF hair standards, 1977.
CDF hair standards, 1977
Continued, CDF hair standards, 1977.

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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.

9 thoughts on “Highlights from the 1977 CDF Fire Control Handbook”

  1. Hey Bill,
    If I can dig it out, I have an old fire watcher’s/lookout guide. It is from the 30’s. The thing that always stuck in my mind was the admonition to start for the fire you spotted any time of day or night as it might take DAYS to get there. Long time ago and response times have changed. If I can find it, I will copy that page and the cover for info and send it to you if you are interested.

  2. On page 47 & 48 are the 1977 org charts on how to organize a fire under “Joint Command” when the fire includes both USFS and CDF lands. The sharing of a General Headquarters (GHQ), base camp, information and liaison officers is the only thing joint about it. The fire is divided into two boundaries with different perimeters. Let’s make sure we resist ever managing fires by agency turf and adhere to the principles of Unified Command.
    Thank you, Chief Hawkins and Wildfire Today for posting this digital version. I keep an original copy on the shelf as a reference.

  3. not a word about how abusive the working conditions were back then. in 1976 CDF paid about $600/month for 120 hour work weeks. No overtime or hazard pay. You could not leave the barracks for 5 days. You had to buy your uniform, boots. The USFS was much more attractive in terms of wages, benefits, working conditions.

    1. You are quite right. CDF was the poor cousin to the USFS. Here is quote from C. Raymond Clar’s “History of California Government and Forestry” on a fire in the Kern Ranger Unit.
      “We [Kern Unit CDF] had only one fire jointly with the Forest Service in 1928, which was on Piute Mountain. On this fire, I was amazed at the force and equipment they had, and the food put out in their fire camp. As for our side, we had a few men picked up from the streets of Bakersfield. All, or most, were allergic to work. We had a few shovels and rakes, and for a fire camp we borrowed a few kettles and pans from a local Indian, and did our own cooking (such as it was).

    2. Wouldn’t have had it any other way, straight out of high school. Moved over to the FS after three seasons for different reasons, but fire experience during those first three years was off the charts, not to mention the crew/barracks/learning experience working for CDF. First season was in ’78 in southern california, so got to be exposed to ICS from the beginning. Firm believer to this day, outstanding tool.

  4. My first permanent job with the Forest Service was in 1974 as a GS-4 Forestry Technician Pre-Attack planner. Each forest in region 6 received the money to complete a Pre-Attack Plan. The Pre-Attack Planning section in the CDF handbook looks the same as I remember the Forest Service Pre-Attack Planning handbook.

    I included that experience on my applications for my next three jobs. all in region 6. My first assignment at those new jobs was to complete the Pre-Attack planning for the District. They had spent the money but didn’t do the planning. I left that experience off the application for my 5th and final job.

  5. What a gem! I have an operational description of ICS from 1981 and a full ICS training guide from October 1993, along with a brief description of the first time ICS was used on the 1978 Pacoima Fire, but I am always looking for more information on ICS from FIRESCOPE and the years 1973 to 1985 when ICS was new, relatively unknown and people were still trying to figure it out!

    Sometimes it is these little snippets that help researchers, historians, and ICS nerds (er, instructors), understand where ICS came from and how it was intended to be applied. Thanks Chief John Hawkins and Bill Gabbert for sharing!

    1. Have you looked at the wildfire related documents / books in the Internet Archive? There seems to be a lot of state and Federal wildfire related material in the archive.

      Just with the search term California + fire and a year range before 1980 returns a lot of interesting material including full manuals. I have found you have to play around with search terms to sometimes find the most interesting material. And searching the Internet Archive with Google often turns up material that they have not indexed yet.

      For old state and federal publication the Internet Archive is my first go to place. Just discovered that almost all the old Division of Mines bulletins are up there. Still some of the best material on state geology. Even if 60 plus years old.


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