At the Fuels and Fire Behavior conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico last month I ran into Richard McCrea and asked him to contribute to our 12 Questions series in which we ask seasoned wildland firefighters about their careers.
Mr. McCrea is a former Helena Hotshot and was Fire Management Officer at three Bureau of Indian Affairs agencies: Rocky Boys Agency in Montana, Olympic Peninsula Agency in Washington, and Northern Pueblos Agency in New Mexico. His fire qualifications included Division Supervisor, Fire Behavior Analyst, Burn Boss Type 2, and Incident Commander Type 3. When he retired he was the National Fire Planner at NIFC with the BIA. Now he is a consultant with Wildland Fire Associates.
When you think of an excellent leader in the fire service, who comes to mind first? Why?
The person that comes to mind is Homer Courville, from Pablo, Montana. Homer was a smokejumper out of the Forest Service’s Northern Region, Region 1. Homer’s family lived a few blocks from away from our house. All the neighborhood kids knew Homer was a smokejumper, jumped out of Ford Trimotors, looked as strong as a bull moose, and he was much admired.
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment as an Incident Commander?
Take good care of the folks that work for you. Everyone goes home. The trees will grow back.
If someone is planning a prescribed fire, what is one thing that you hope they will pay particular attention to?
Pay attention to the weather forecast, in detail. Track the fire danger indices. If your baseball cap blows off, when you get out of the pickup, it’s probably too windy to burn.
One of the more common errors in judgment you have seen on fires?
Not having a good anchor for the fire line and not mopping up and patrolling to secure the scene.
One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
Keep a journal every day.
The stupidest mistake you have seen on a fire?
I was witness to a burnout in grassy fuels, on a steep mountain slope, which was ignited starting at the bottom of the canyon. Needless to say the fire quickly ran up to the top of the ridge and jumped the fire line. The ignition crew knew it was wrong but were ordered by overhead to “do it anyway”. We all stood in the black and watched the blaze roar over the mountain.
Your most memorable fire?
The Yellowstone Fires of 1988. I was on the Huck Fire, as a Division Supervisor, in a spike camp on Pilgrim Creek, several miles from the nearest road. I had one or two crews assigned to me to hold miles and miles of fire line, and no air support. Every several days we would get a wind event, and much of our fire line was breached. It was like 1910 all over again and you had to keep your wits and be a good woodsman. Every afternoon there were huge smoke columns that erupted to the north. One memorable day I hiked alone, back over a high ridge to contact the next division, only to find out that division was abandoned. On that same hike I stopped to adjust my pack and heard something behind me and turned around to see a cow moose and her calf, a scant 100 feet way, but they didn’t bother me, and I retreated.
The funniest thing you have seen on a fire?
I woke up one morning in camp and there was a large shovel box on the ground about 50 feet away. A head suddenly popped up out of the box; a fire fighter had slept in that cardboard hooch to stay warm.
The first very large fire you were on?
Marble Cone Fire, 1977, Ventana Wilderness, California, with the Helena Hotshots for 30 days.
Your favorite book about fire or firefighting?
Young Men and Fire by Norman MacLean.
The first job you had within the fire service?
Forestry Technician, GS-4, Timber Crew, on the Clearwater National Forest at Pierce, Idaho.
What gadgets, electronic or otherwise, can’t you live without?
My North Face sleeping bag rated to 10 below zero.
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