The High Country News has an article about Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, the forest Fire Management Officer on the Tahoe National Forest in California. Ms. Pincha-Tulley has achieved what no other person of her gender has… the qualification of Type 1 Incident Commander.
The article, in which she calls herself a “legal pyro”, is very worth reading, but here are a couple of excerpts:
In late August 2007, lightning ignited the Castle Rock Fire in Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest. More than 10,000 acres had been blackened by the time Pincha-Tulley’s team was summoned. Computer models showed the winds from an approaching cold front posed “a 99-percent chance the town of Ketchum would burn down.”
Pincha-Tulley immediately called a town meeting. Hundreds of frightened residents — “inching toward panic due to the proximity of the flames and the dearth of information,” according to the Idaho Mountain Express — crowded into Ketchum’s Hemingway Elementary School gym to hear the new fire boss explain the aggressive line-building and burnout tactics she planned along the ridge of Mount Baldy.
“We’re going to put a dozer line down your favorite trail,” she warned them. “We’re going to do strafing runs over your house. We’re going to land helicopters in your backyard. We’re going to burn the views you love, turn them black. …”
Instead of reacting in horror, they applauded. Pincha-Tulley’s straightforward manner and clear explanation inspired confidence. “In all of our careers,” District Ranger Kurt Nelson later declared, “we’ve never seen anything like this, where a community, faced with fire breathing right down on (it), had the ability to pull together and actually trust the Forest Service.”
That faith was rewarded. Some 1,400 residents were evacuated and 48,000 acres ultimately charred, but not a single home burned and no one was injured.
Combating fires along the West’s wildland urban interface “is really an art form in terms of applying the science,” she says. “You have to use your intuition. A large part of what you do also comes from knowing who you’re working with … knowing your team, knowing each others’ strengths and weaknesses. We usually spend five or six years at a time together, and the team becomes your second family.
I have a great group of renegades that I adore,” she continues. “We’re known for playing jokes on people … and being serious when we need to be serious … throwing just enough levity in so that people can stop … breathe. We have a grand time!”
Turning earnest, she adds, “Our mission is to safely do the impossible in very short order. And sometimes,” she cracks before bursting again into laughter, “we actually can do it!”