The 20-year history of fires in the Boulder, Colorado area

October 19, 2020   |   5 a.m. MDT 

Colorado fire history Boulder
The history of fires north and west of Boulder, from 2000 to October 18, 2020.

The map shows the history of fires north and west of Boulder, Colorado from 2000 through October 18, 2020. It includes two fires that are currently active, the Lefthand and Calwood Fires.

The fire on the map that is most notable for many Coloradans is likely the 6,200-acre Fourmile Canyon Fire on Labor day of 2010:

  • It burned 169 homes.
  • 12 of those were firefighters’ homes.
  • This was one of the first fires where it became known that private firefighters hired by an insurance company defended homes of policy holders that were valued at more than $1 million.
  • The state of Colorado did not apply for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide help for the property owners that were affected by the fire. If a disaster declaration had been requested and then approved by the President, FEMA may have made assistance available for individuals including temporary housing, disaster losses not covered by insurance, related medical costs, replacement of vehicles and clothing, moving costs, and disaster unemployment insurance.

We covered the Fourmile Canyon Fire extensively.

Growing up in a National Park Service family

I recently became aware of an article that appeared in the Spring, 1998 edition of “Ranger”, a publication of the Association of National Park Rangers. It was written by Jennifer Blake, the daughter of Bill Blake who when he retired was the Chief Ranger of the National Park Service’s Midwest Region. Bill and I have spent much time together on incident management team assignments and ridden thousands of miles on multi-week motorcycle trips.

Jennifer’s piece describes what it is like for a child to grow up in a National Park Service family. When she wrote it as a 21-year-old majoring in journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, her parents worked at New River Gorge National River in West Virginia where he was the park’s Chief Ranger and she worked in payroll.

Her experiences are probably similar to other children whose parents work for land management agencies.

I asked Jennifer if I could republish the article she wrote 22 years ago, and I didn’t leave it at that — I encouraged her to write an epilog as an update. She said yes, and both are below.

Bill Gabbert

Childhood in NPS Packs Many Memories

By Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake

My father is Yogi Bear’s worst enemy. He’s Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl wrapped into one. My father is a park ranger. And while he never worked at Jellystone Park, his career moved our family across the country three times and gave me the memories and images that defined my childhood.

I can’t think of my father without thinking of his uniform. The forest green pants and famous Smokey Bear hat are as intrinsic to his appearance in my mind as are the color of his eyes. To this day, I feel strangely at home whenever I see someone wearing one.

Memorable Adventures

That uniform came to represent the small adventures that punctuate and color the lives of young children. I remember visits to ranger stations, drives through apple orchards to spy on bear cubs stranded in trees, and trips to mountain lookouts to spy on forest fires the same way most kids remember learning how to ride their bikes. What strikes me most about these memories is the security I felt knowing that my father and all his powers as a park ranger, which in the mind of a young child were numerous and mighty, were never far behind.

Being a ranger was — and still is — more than just my father’s job; it was part of his identity. I was enthralled with that identity and tried to imbibe as much of it as I could. I was born in Fredricksburg. Va., when my father worked at the national battlefield there. His early tales of my ancestors’ feats on the very grounds on which he worked sparked a passion for history I still carry. I’m probably one of the few people who visited just about every major Civil War battle site before the age of 15.

The stories my father would tell me on hikes through the woods were more interesting than any children’s story. If he had any doubts about the attention I gave his words, they were erased when my kindergarten teacher sent home a note telling my parents that I had interrupted a story she was telling to the class: “Bears don’t simply sleep in the winter,” I proudly informed my classmates. “They hibernate.” I pronounced the word as if it were a special secret that had been passed from my father to me — and, in a way, it was.

That same class later went on a field trip to my father’s ranger station. We lived in Elkton, Va., at the time and the station was located in the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains amid the painting of fall foliage. I’ll never forget how proud I was that day. Actually, I don’t know if I, as a 5-year-old, had any real notion of pride. But I do know that the feeling of being special I had on that day — because I was the kid whom all the rangers knew, because I was the one who donned an oversized, yellow fireman’s hat and tried to aim the hose, because it was my father who got down on all fours and growled like a grizzly during the bear-trap demonstration — still strikes me as significant.

The Park Service, in the fashion of the military, creates a surrogate family. Rangers are transferred to different parks across the United States — I’ve lived in Virginia (twice), New Mexico, Arizona, Georgia. Pennsylvania, California (twice), and West Virginia — and each new park presents a new group of friends. I’ve spent many a Thanksgiving and Christmas with other rangers and their families and it never failed to feel like anything but home. Once, my brother and I were in a school production that called for us to run into the audience and return with our fathers in tow. We were living in Yosemite, Calif., and my father had been called out on an emergency — but my brother and I didn’t hesitate to grab our “Uncle Jim,” who followed us obligingly. My father’s office is still one of the first places I visit when I go home. I’m greeted with excited hugs that most people only receive when they visit distant grandparents.

Moving Not Easy

Not that moving around often was always easy. Starting new schools is right up there with root canals and major surgery on my list of fun. The culture shock I experienced moving from California to West Virginia was worse than when I left Boston to live in London.

I left the beautiful surroundings of northern California and a four-room, 65-person school to arrive in the rundown, economically depressed southern West Virginia. I was only interesting to the other kids as an object of torture. (I distinctly remember an episode that involved a greasy, unwashed junior high boy grabbing my book and sticking it down his pants.) Beckley didn’t exactly welcome outsiders with open arms. I cried so hard and so often my first three months that my eyes were always bloodshot and a guidance counselor once pulled me aside to ask if I was on drugs.

Many Benefits

But I know the benefits of “growing up Park Service” have far outweighed the detriments. For one, when I left for college I had few qualms at the prospect of being thrown in with hundreds of new kids. And I still proudly demonstrate the knowledge I gained from my father and our countless trips though his many parks: I got a curious look from a few of my friends the other day when one of them picked up a stone off the street and said it looked like an arrowhead: I quickly pronounced it the wrong material for a true Indian arrowhead.

My father’s career had taken him in many directions — park rangers actually do a lot more than secure visitor’s picnic baskets from pesky bears. He’s taught defensive driving at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (a fact that became all too clear when he tried to teach me how to drive); he’s served on presidential protection teams—teams of park rangers assembled whenever a president visits a national park — for Ford, Carter, Nixon and Clinton; he was chosen to work at the bicentennial celebration for the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, where he held the door open for Queen Elizabeth; and he served a 30-day detail on the ’88 Yellowstone fires, which ravaged what my father calls “the Mother Park.”

A few years after the fire, my family visited Yellowstone. The park was still badly scarred from the fires and my father seemed to have a tale about every singed tree. The force of nature was displayed in the strips of green grass and lush forest that stood untouched and juxtaposed to the fire-ravaged portions. I remember my father telling us that while the fires were burning, it seemed as if the sun never set because the force of the fires produced such an enormous glow.

The sight reminded me of a song about Smokey the Bear my brother and I were taught as children.

Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear*.
Prowlin’ and a growlin’ and a sniffin’ the air.
He can find a fire before it starts to flame.
That’s why they call him Smokey,
That was how he got his name.

In ninth grade I attended a youth-in-conservation conference and the leaders taught us that song as a joke. Everyone laughed because I already knew it, but I sang it with pride.

The Park Service celebrates America’s heritage; I celebrate the Park Service as my heritage. My childhood is wound tightly around it — inseparable. I’ve migrated to the city, but I still have a fondness for those famous hats. There’s a Park Service visitor center in downtown Boston. Occasionally, I drag an unsuspecting friend there because it reminds me of home. The paint in that visitor center is the same color brown as in every other Park Service visitor center (my mother has dubbed this particularly drab shade “Park Service Brown’’); it also has the same books, the same signs for the bathroom and the same donation box next to the cash register.

I know if I asked enough of the rangers, one of them would at least know someone who knows my father. And because of that, they know an intrinsic part of me.

Epilog, August, 2020

It has been more years than I care to admit (ok – 26 years) since I lived with my family in a national park. And yet, national parks across the country still feel like home to me.

I recently drove 13 hours to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. We never lived there, but it still felt like sort of a homecoming the minute I saw an arrowhead. It’s the gift I was given as the kid of a park ranger and I will always cherish and keep it. My brother must feel the same way because he’s a proud park ranger himself now.

A few years ago I was working in San Francisco. I was at a bar and seated next to a party who had just come back from Yosemite National Park (where I was lucky enough to live from the time I was 7 until I turned 13). I couldn’t help but listen to them as they spoke in awe of what they’d seen. And then one of the women mentioned the small schoolhouse in the valley (my old schoolhouse!) and said she’d love to talk to a someone that had attended school there. I was proud to turn around and introduce myself.

National parks are one of the most constant things in my life. I’ve continued to move around as an adult and my career path is nothing like I thought it would be when I wrote the original article so many years ago. But I still smile whenever I see someone wearing a green and grey uniform with a Smokey Bear hat. I’ve pretty much been a city girl since I moved to Boston for college, but national parks will always be one of my touchstones.

*From Bill: When the Smokey Bear fire prevention campaign began in 1944 he was known as just that, “Smokey Bear” without “the” in the name. But in 1952 Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote what became a successful song named “Smokey the Bear”. They said adding “the” enhanced the song’s rhythm. A Little Golden Book published about the bear in 1955 followed the songwriters lead and also used the incorrect “the” version of the name. All this created confusion, but the name of the fire prevention icon is and always has been Smokey Bear. A new version of the song has been written correcting the name.

California wildfires over the last century, in 106 seconds

California Wildfires 1910 to 2019
Screenshot from the video below about California Wildfires 1910 to 2019. Produced by ESRI.

ESRI has produced a short video that displays the locations wildfires in California over the last 110 years, 1910 to 2019.

UPDATE: a couple of people have pointed out that in the screenshot from the video above, ESRI has the locations of the Ranch and Carr Fires reversed.

How the Mann Gulch Fire became part of the conversation about COVID-19

Seventy years ago 13 firefighters died fighting a wildfire north of Helena, Montana

Mann Gulch aerial photo
From Richard C. Rothermel’s 1993 publication, “Mann Gulch Fire: A Race that Couldn’t be Won”.

“Remember the story about Mann Gulch? We are at the equivalent of about 5:44,” said Dr. Carter Mecher, Senior Medical Advisor for the Department of Veteran Affairs. He was referring to the time when 16 firefighters faced a fire burning uphill below them, forcing the crew to attempt an escape up a steep slope.

In email messages about the COVID-19 pandemic published April 11 by the New York Times, the Mann Gulch Fire was mentioned three times. It was apparent that many if not most of the dozens of medical experts participating in the message threads were familiar with the references.

Here are excerpts from the messages published by the Times, all written by Dr. Mecher:

  • February 20:  …Remember the story about Mann Gulch? We are at the equivalent of about 5:44. I anticipate that when we reach 5:45, there is going to be chaos and panic to get anything in place. I doubt that what we would then hurriedly put in place will be any better than what they did on that cruise ship . As a consequence, would expect much the same results.
  • February 27:  …That would suggest we already have a significant outbreak and are well behind the curve. We are now well past the equivalent 5:45 moment at Mann Gulch. You can’t outrun it.
  • March 12:   …There is no value to these travel restrictions. A waste of time and energy. The lesson from Mann Gulch was to drop those things that are not essential. That lesson was not heeded. I wouldn’t waste a moment of time on travel restrictions or travel screening. We have nearly as much disease here in the US as the countries in Europe.

For the last 70 years wildland firefighters have studied the fire that killed 13 men who were fighting a wildfire north of Helena, Montana. Lessons can be learned about leadership, communication, fire behavior, firefighting tactics, and improvisation during an emergency.

(More details about the fire are farther down)

I was not aware that the Mann Gulch story had spread like a virus into a much broader audience.

In an interview, Dr. Mecher said he first heard in 1999 about what the medical community could learn from the Mann Gulch fire from a lecture by Don Berwick, former head of the Medicare program and cofounder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Mr. Berwick has spoken about it many times and is the author of “Escape Fire: Lessons for the Future of Health Care”, where several of the 56 pages explore what happened on that steep slope above the Missouri River in 1949.

Escape Fire Don Berwick

Dr. Mecher said the use of an escape fire during the Mann Gulch Fire, which was the first documented use of the tactic,”… pointed to innovation in an emergency on the fly. It also spoke to us of a very fast-moving event and what the consequences were in terms of what happened to many of the firefighters. Years ago when we were working on developing a pandemic plan, or a plan for responding to a disease outbreak, it was one of the stories that we told each other to put ourselves in the setting of a fast-moving event.

Mann Gulch escape fire
Dodge’s escape fire. From Richard C. Rothermel’s 1993 publication, “Mann Gulch Fire: A Race that Couldn’t be Won”.

“I found it a riveting story,” Dr. Mecher continued, “and when we told it to other people I think they found it the same way. It’s a very powerful story. It kind of gets people into the game, to understand this is what it could feel like and that’s why we referenced back to it several times.

Mann Gulch fire wildfire exponential curve
From Richard C. Rothermel’s 1993 publication, “Mann Gulch Fire: A Race that Couldn’t be Won”.

Dr. Mecher referred to the chart from Richard C. Rothermel’s 1993 publication, “Mann Gulch Fire: A Race that Couldn’t be Won”, and said, “That curve looks like an epidemic curve. Fire spreads exponentially and an epidemic spreads exponentially.”

At Mann Gulch after the men had been running for 8 minutes up the hill ahead of the flames, the crew boss, Wag Dodge, told them to drop their tools and keep moving, something that had not been covered in their training.

“The lesson was,” Mr. Mecher said, “if you’re in one of those events sometimes you have to be smart enough to know that you have to drop some things. You can’t outrun it. It moves too quickly. That was a lesson for us, thinking about fast-moving events like epidemics. By the time you realize what you’re in, it’s like a fire. It moves so quickly that it can overcome you.

“One of the things we drew from that story was, ‘What is the equivalent of an escape fire’ “.

After I interviewed Dr. Mecher, I received an email from him that summed up his thoughts about the lessons his medical community learned from the Mann Gulch Fire:

  1. You cannot wait for the smoke to clear. Once you see things clearly it is already too late. You will need to be comfortable living with uncertainty and incomplete information and make the best decisions you can.
  2. You can’t outrun a wildfire or an epidemic. By the time you turn to run, it is already upon you.
  3. In an emergency, you need to figure out what is important and what is not. And that means you might need to drop things you thought, or were taught were essential, and hold on to those things that are the most important. You just need the wisdom to discern the difference between what is important and what isn’t — and the strength to drop things that aren’t important.
  4. And when in the middle of a fast moving crisis, continue to ask yourself, “What is the equivalent of an escape fire?”

A word from John N. Maclean on the topic

A book about the fire, “Young Men and Fire,” was written by Norman Maclean. He passed away before the book was finalized, and his son John N. Maclean, continued the project, editing it before it went to the printer.

I asked John by email about the references in the emails to Mann Gulch:

“It’s tempting to criticize Dr. Mecher for using the Mann Gulch Fire to push a fatalistic notion, that once you’ve crossed a crucial point you should drop your tools and run like hell,” John wrote. “He does in fact say: ‘There is no value to these travel restrictions. A waste of time and energy. The lesson from Mann Gulch was to drop those things that are not essential. That lesson was not heeded. I wouldn’t waste a moment of time on travel restrictions or travel screening.’

“Mecher was wrong about travel restrictions, which have proved to be valuable tools in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. But he was right and early and brave about the general situation, calling for strong actions weeks and months before they were undertaken. In the full context of his reported remarks, it appears he used the Mann Gulch Fire mostly to sound an alarm that immediate action was necessary to avoid a calamitous outcome: right on.

“It’s heartening to see lessons from the fire world make their way into thinking about other disasters. Dropping tools, though, is probably not the best lesson here. The two Standard Firefighting Orders most closely linked to the Mann Gulch Fire offer much in the way of relevant wisdom: Know what your fire is doing at all times. Give clear instructions and ensure they are understood.

After 70 years, do we sometimes take lessons from Mann Gulch for granted?

Most wildland firefighters who have been around for more than a couple of years, and especially those who have read “Young Men and Fire”, are very familiar with the Mann Gulch Fire, but I wonder if we sometimes take it for granted, not seeing the forest for the trees. Not only do many in the emerging disease community know about the lessons that can be learned, but others do as well.

Mr. Berwick’s “Escape Fire” has a photo of a group of people sitting on the steep slope in Montana’s Mann Gulch. Below it is the caption, “Learning from disaster. A group of students from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania learn vital lessons in teamwork, communication, and improvisation from the Mann Gulch tragedy.”

Some firefighters have also cross-trained, taking Staff Rides to learn how military leaders, for example, made decisions in stressful rapidly-evolving situations.

Staff ride Battle of San Pasqual
Don Garwood, former Incident Management Team Incident Commander speaks to participants about the Battle of San Pasqual in San Diego County. Photo by Heather Thurston.

Other mentions of “fire” in the emails

“Fire”, unrelated to the Mann Gulch, was mentioned at least four other times in the emails published by the NY Times:

  • “Any big or urban cities are going to face the challenges in containment, and the homeless population needs to be taken care of. If there is any infection there, it will spread like fire.”
  • “By the time you have substantial community transmission it is too late. It’s like ignoring the smoke detector and waiting until your entire house is on fire to call the fire dept.”
  • “I don’t know what medical reserve we have and we have multiple fires burning simultaneously.”
  • “Now, everyone is fighting their local fire, and it’s already quite stressful for everyone. I don’t even know if anyone has extra resources.”

A brief description of the Mann Gulch Fire 

On the Mann Gulch Fire 15 smokejumpers and a fire guard were led by their leader, Wag Dodge, down a steep slope toward the Missouri River in an attempt to get below a fire, where they could attack it more safely than being above it. They knew that fire spreads much more rapidly uphill than downhill — usually.

As they hiked down the slope, spot fires appeared 150 to 200 yards below them in a stand of timber, so they turned around and proceeded back up the grassy slope. Their pace picked up as the fire grew quickly toward them. They moved as rapidly as possible, running where they could on the rocky 76 percent slope as the wind pushed the fire up the hill through the grass.

About eight minutes into their retreat back uphill, Dodge told the men to drop their tools so they could move faster, a concept that was very contradictory to their training to always take care of their Pulaskis and shovels. Two minutes later Dodge took matches out of his pocket and set the grass on fire to the great surprise of the other 15 firefighters. He told them to join him in the burned area but no one did. This was the first documented case of what became known as an escape fire. Dodge remained in the blackened area as two men climbed over a rim rock side ridge and survived in a rock slide. Dodge was not injured but the fire caught and killed the other 13 firefighters further up the hill. About 12 minutes had elapsed since the crew encountered the spot fire which forced them to turn around and head back uphill.

Researchers concluded that Dodge’s escape fire was about 120 feet by 86 feet when it was overrun by flames from the main fire.

A biography of Dr. Carter Mecher, from the National Institutes for Health website:

Senior Medical Advisor/CDC Liaison
Carter Mecher, M.D. (Planning Committee Member), is the Director for Medical Preparedness Policy on the White House Homeland Security Council. He supports the development of federal policies to enhance public health, biodefense, and pandemic preparedness. He served as a member of the White House National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Writing and Implementation Team. He has served as the chief medical officer of the VA’s Southeast Network since 1996. As chief medical officer, Dr. Mecher was responsible for all VA health care services in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. Dr. Mecher received his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and his medical degree from Chicago Medical School. He completed a medicine residency and fellowship in critical care medicine at Los Angeles County-University of Southern California.

1961 Higgins Ridge Fire — 20 smokejumpers were rescued by a tiny helicopter

Twelve years after the Mann Gulch Fire disaster

Bell 47 helicopter Forest Service
Bell 47 helicopter. Forest Service photo.

(This article was first published at

Twelve years after 13 smokejumpers were killed on the Mann Gulch Fire 13 miles north-northwest of Helena, Montana, 20 jumpers were entrapped on a fire in northern Idaho 83 miles southwest of Missoula, Montana.

It happened August 4, 1961 on the Higgins Ridge Fire in the Nez Perce National Forest after an eight-man crew from Grangeville, Idaho had jumped in the area, followed by 12 men from the Missoula jumper base, the last arriving at 1 p.m. The fire behavior on the two-acre fire was fairly benign until a passing cold front brought a sudden increase in the wind at 4:15 p.m. which resulted in the fire spreading rapidly. The 20 men took refuge in a previously burned area. As the wind increased to 50 mph the supervisors of the two squads, Dave Perry and Fred “Fritz” Wolfrum, instructed the firefighters to remain calm and to clear an area for themselves in the ashes.

Lightning was bursting from the pyrocumulus cloud over the fire as the men in their newly issued orange fire shirts covered their heads with their arms when the fire burned around them. They helped each other swat out the flames on their clothes during the ember shower.

They did not hear it because of the roar of the fire, but they looked up and saw the red skids of a helicopter. It was a Bell 47B-3 that had seating for three people abreast, with the pilot in the middle.

Below is an excerpt from the April, 1994 edition of “The Static Line” published by the National Smokejumper Association:

…The pilot was Rod Snider of the Johnson Flying Service and he had spotted the men and their orange [fire shirts].

Fritz and Snider quickly organized an evacuation plan. Snider had to drop down vertically and take off the same way because of old snags surrounding the jumpers [a maneuver that requires more power than departing from a ridge]. On the first few trips Rod took out two jumpers on each run, having them ride in the cabin. Then, with the helicopter getting hotter, Rod told them he would take four out on each trip. Two rode in the cabin and two hung on to the [cargo trays]. Rod was able to ferry all 20 jumpers to the Freeman Ridge fire camp. Fritz and Tom were among those on the last trip out.

Some of the jumpers were treated at St. Patricks’s Hospital for smoke-burned eyes. Within several days most of the jumpers who had been on the Higgins Ridge Fire were out jumping on more fires.

Rod Snider and James Van Vleck Nat Museum FS History
L to R: Helicopter pilot Rod Snider with James Van Vleck. Photo by the National Museum of Forest Service History, June, 2019.

In June, 2019 a reunion was held in Missoula for the firefighters that were involved in the Higgins Ridge Fire. Eleven of the jumpers gave oral interviews and participated in a panel discussion at the National Museum of Forest Service History (video of the panel). Mr. Snider made the trip and gave his oral history, but unfortunately had to return home the night before the panel discussion due to a family emergency.

Below are excerpts from an article in The Missoulian, August 2, 2019:

“It was hard to find them,” said Snider, 89, a quiet man who received awards for his heroism but shuns the obvious mantle of hero.

“The wind was really cooking in there and you couldn’t see the heliport all the time to get down. I had to come in high and drop down into it when I could see a little break,” Snider said in an oral history interview before he left town.

What made you risk your life to do it? an interviewer in Missoula asked.

“Oh, it had to be done. It had to be done,” Snider replied. “I don’t know. You just can’t leave guys down in the position that they were in.”

His helicopter, a Bell 47G-3 that Snider christened “Red Legs” for its painted landing skids and support legs, was one of the first with a supercharger. But the overload was nonetheless hard on it, he said.

“I felt a little uneasy, because I knew I’d over-boosted everything, But when they gave an inspection later on they couldn’t find anything wrong with it,” Snider said.

The following year Snider received the Pilot of the Year Award from the Helicopter Association of America in Dallas and the Carnegie Medal for Heroism.

In 1976, the nation’s bicentennial year, Tom Kovalicky, 84, of Grangeville and Stanley, Idaho, successfully nominated Snider for the North American Forest Fire Medal, which was being revived for the first time since 1956. Snider and his wife were flown to New Orleans for the presentation that October. And in 2002 he was inducted into the Museum of Mountain Flying Hall of Fame.

An article about the fire dated February 21, 2003 at the National Smokejumper Association’s website was written by a firefighter who was on the Higgins Ridge Fire a year before he became a smokejumper.

Higgins Ridge Fire
by Gary Shaw

The year was 1961 when cumulus clouds built up every afternoon promising rain, but delivering isolated dry lightning storms. This was the year before I became a smokejumper. It was my second year to work on the Moose Creek District of the Nezperce National Forest. The preceding summer I had spent as a lookout fireman on top of Bailey Mountain. This year I had been working trail crew for a couple of months until the sky erupted at the end of July and left fires all over the district.

My trail partner (Ron) and I had been cutting a trail from the Selway River to Big Rock Mountain and were currently holed up in a cabin there when a helicopter picked us up to transport us to a small fire on Higgins Ridge. We were to meet a crew walking in from Elbow Bend on East Moose Creek. We saw smokejumpers parachute into the fire area on our way to the fire. We landed on the uphill side of the fire, grabbed our shovels and pulaskis and started for the fire. We could see the jumpers’ orange shirts through the smoke.

Before we could get to the fire a large cumulous cloud covered the sun and the wind picked up to 25 or 30 m.p.h. The fire blew up in our faces, and we were forced to retreat back into a large rockslide.

The jumpers weren’t so lucky. They were trapped in the middle of it with no escape route. They dug in, buried their faces in wet bandanas in the dirt, and tried to find air to breath as the fire roared from a manageable 2 acres to a 1280 acre holocaust. It was late evening, and the fire was beautiful to watch. It was crowning, and trees several hundred feet ahead of the fire would begin to tremble and then burst into flame like a fireworks display.

The fire was so hot that canteens of water near the jumpers started exploding. When things looked at their bleakest, the cavalry arrived in the form of Rod Snider(NCSB-51) in a Bell 47G-3B helicopter from Johnson’s Flying Service in Missoula. It was getting dark when he flew into the middle of the fire and started bringing Jumpers out four at a time, which is two more than the maximum the copter was supposed to carry. He had two guys on the seat and two more on the runners. He made five trips into the fire and rescued twenty jumpers. The manifold pressure on the copter engine was 200% above maximum, and when the engine was torn down later, two pistons fell apart. I heard that “Crash” received 20 cases of beer the next week.

My trail partner and I stayed on the fire through mop-up. The other crew arrived without tools, which were to be dropped in by air. Unfortunately, communications left something to be desired. We kept requesting tools and instead received three separate drops of sleeping bags. Each person had a half dozen sleeping bags, but Ron and I were the only ones who had a shovel and pulaski to work on the fire. So we did.

When the tools finally arrived and we got the fire under control, I walked down to the area where the jumpers had been trapped. I found exploded water cans, unexploded gasoline cans (go figure), and a personal gear bag with all their cameras melted together. I could see Minolta, Canon, and Nikon logos on the fused metal and glass. I sent the lot back to Missoula. The fire had been so hot that there were no snags, just pointed stumps and ashes over a foot deep.

I remember two of the rescued jumpers departed the chopper and immediately asked for a cigarette. Now that’s a habit!

I’ve always wondered what that fire looked like from the other side. If anyone reads this that remembers, let me know.

The group that organized the oral history and panel about the Higgins Ridge Fire was organized by the National Museum of Forest Service History. Wildfire Today first wrote about the museum in 2009 five years after they began their effort to raise $10.6 million to build a national museum to commemorate the 100+ year history of the U. S. Forest Service. Their vision began in 1994 when they obtained 36 acres west of the Missoula airport where they hope to build a 30,000 square-foot building.

National Museum of Forest Service History
An architect’s concept of the future National Museum of Forest Service History.

The museum’s fund drive received a significant boost this month when it received a $2 million contribution from the estate of Bill Cannon, a Forest Service retiree.

From the Ravalli Republic:

…Cannon spent most of his Forest Service years in California and Oregon, with an interlude in Hawaii where he was assigned to state and private forestry work. He finished his career in Washington, D.C., where he worked on program planning for the Forest Service’s state and private programs.

Meanwhile, according to a press release announcing his gift, he used his avocation of studying financial markets to become an adept investor.

Cannon became impressed with the National Museum of Forest Service History on a field trip to the site while in Missoula for the 2000 U.S. Forest Service retiree reunion.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Battling Bushfires in the Land of Oz

Victoria Fires 12-30-2019
One of the fires in the East Gippsland region of Victoria, December 30, 2019. Photo by Ned Dawson for Victoria State Government.

The 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia will be one for the history books, much like the fires they had in 2001-2002. Today we have an article from a guest author who shortly after the 2001 Black Christmas bushfires wrote about firefighting in Australia. Dick Mangan retired from the U.S. Forest Service as the Fire Program Leader at the Missoula Technology Development Center and is a past President of the International Association of Wildland Fire.

Battling Bushfires in the Land of Oz

Dick Mangan
Blackbull Wildfire Services
Missoula, Montana USA
Copyright 2002

For the Christmas 2001 holiday season, many of us in the United States and Canada were experiencing a classic “White Christmas”. Temperatures were cold, there was snow on the ground, and the wildfires of 2001 were just a memory of days past. Wearing a warm wool sweater, and with a mug of hot coffee (or hot, spiced wine) in hand, we logged on the fire web sites to talk amongst ourselves about GS-8 engine foremen, getting 1000 hours of overtime, and a 30% pay raise for fire folks in Southern California.

But a half a world away, in the Southern Hemisphere, there was no sitting back and enjoying Christmas with your family if you were an Australian bushfire fighter. Experiencing some of their worst fire weather conditions in nearly 40 years, and with a helping hand from lightning storms and local arsonists, the State of New South Wales and firefighters from all over Australia were fighting nearly 100 bushfires that burned 1.2 million acres and destroyed 170 structures. December 2001 in the Sydney area will be known in Australian history as the year of the “Black Christmas”!

As the Australian fire situation reached the American media, the fire web sites picked up the discussion: “why aren’t the Aussie’s asking the U.S. firefighters to come down and help”; “what the Aussie’s need is the A-10 ‘Firehog’ to stop their fires”; “what about the CL-415 ‘Super Scooper’?”

It was apparent that the combination of the information flow over the Internet, coupled with the Australian and New Zealand forces that came to help us in 2000, both created an interest and questions in the minds of US firefighters about fighting bushfires in Australia. It probably helps, too, that “Crocodile Dundee”, Foster’s beer and everyone’s favorite Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, are constant features on American television.

Over the past few years, I’ve been extremely fortunate to make multiple trips “Down Unda”, both in my position as Fire & Aviation Leader at the U.S. Forest Service Technology Center here in Missoula, and more recently as an invited lecturer at the Country Fire Authority (CFA) Fire Training College at Fiskville, Victoria in their Operations Officer’s Professional Development Course. During my visits, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of the Australian firefighters, and discuss their firefighting strategy and tactics in both classroom settings as well as over a brew in the local pub.

So, what’s it like fighting bushfires in “the sunburned land”???

The Land “DownUnda”

Before we start talking how they fight bushfires “DownUnda”, it’s best to get an appreciation of the Australian landscape. Although it’s about the same physical size as the US, the population of Australia is only about 18 million people, compared to the 285 million that live in the US. And, nearly 90% of the population lives in the immediate vicinity of the Coast. The Eucalypt forests of Australia have a long and storied history of burning. In his book “World Fire”, Steve Pyne says, “Australia is, more than any other, a fire continent.” Why is that so? Well, aside from a highly flammable fuel types that cover much of the country, and an aboriginal culture that has used fires for centuries in almost every aspect of their lives, the weather also cooperates to help the country burn: on February 6, 1851 the city of Melbourne recorded a maximum temperature of 117°F. This is coastal city, not a town like Phoenix or Tucson in the Southwestern desert of the US.

The Australian Fire Problem

Not only does Australia have the climate and the fuels to cause a major fire problem, it also has the history to show that these forces, combined with lightning or human-caused ignitions, can wreak havoc on the countryside when the conditions are right:

*  In January 1939, the temperature in Melbourne hit 112.5°F, with wildfires burning “millions of hectares”, and killing 71 people;

  • On January 7, 1967, fires in Tasmania killed 62 people, and burned “thousands of square kilometers” in the second worst fire in Australia’s history (to that date).
  • In January 1969, an “enormous grass fire” killed 17 recreationists;
  • On Ash Wednesday 1983, 76 people were killed and 2676 needed medical attention as 400,000 hectares of ground and 3000 houses and other buildings were burned in the states of Victoria and South Australia;
  • In New South Wales State around Sydney in January 1994, 4 were killed. 100 injured, 185 buildings destroyed and 800,000 hectares were burned by bushfires.

The fires that occurred over the Christmas holidays in 2001 are just part of the continuing saga of fires in Australia that will likely continue into the 21st century.

The Fire Organizations in “Oz”

For someone who spent more than 30 years fighting fire in the US, it was a real cultural shock to make my first trip to Australia and find out how differently their organizations are from those in the US that I was familiar with.

First, the bushfire suppression responsibilities in Australia rest with the individual States and territory, rather than with a strong centralized Federal fire force. New South Wales (around Sydney), Victoria (the Melbourne area), South Australia (surrounding Adelaide), Queensland (the Brisbane area), West Australia (Perth area), the Northern Territory (from Darwin, south), and the island of  Tasmania: these are the major governmental entities with a responsibility for bushfire fighting in Australia. The role of the Federal government (the “Crown”) in bushfire activities is pretty much limited to the area of research, which I’ll discuss a little later in the article.

Probably the most significant difference between the US and Australian fire forces is that a large majority of the Aussie bushfire fighters are volunteers! Yeah, there are full-time, paid firefighters in the bigger cities (I refuse to call them “professionals”, implying that volunteers are somewhat less-than professional), but they are a small percentage of the total Australian Fire forces. In States like Victoria, the Country Fire Authority  (CFA) has responsibility for fire suppression on all the private, non-State lands: they have a work force of 800 paid staff and 65,000 volunteers. New South Wales Rural Fire Service has 450 paid staff and 70,000 volunteers. The Country Fire Service in South Australia (CFS) protects 33.4 million acres with 17,000 volunteers in 430 fire brigades. The paid staff on the fire services of the various states provides the senior leadership, administrative support, trainers, maintenance personnel and day-to-day resources necessary to run a 24 hour-per-day fire operation.

Another major difference between US and Australian fire forces is the almost complete lack of any hand crews used in bushfire suppression: nearly all the suppression action is taken by “tankers” (“engines” in American ICS talk) and occasionally by dozers on larger fires. Farmer’s tractors with plow units are also used extensively on the grass and brush fires in the non-forested areas. The general rule of thumb is that you fight fire to the end of your hard line reel, rather than making the multi-thousand foot hose lays that occur in many of the western US states.

The Incident “Controllers”  (Incident Commanders under US ICS) on most initial attack and extended initial attack fires, are often volunteers. During the 1990’s, the Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC), which is the US equivalent of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), has set minimum “competencies” for all positions in the bushfire fighting organization, and many volunteer fire brigades are meeting the requirements of those “competencies”.

But the volunteer fire services in Australia face many of the same problems that we have on volunteer departments here in America: an aging workforce; dual-career couples, with limited time for activities outside the home and family; an increasingly complex fire work environment that has training requirements not only in bushfire suppression, but also in structural fire, hazmat, and emergency medical assistance, all while holding down full time jobs.

Across Australia, acceptance of the “AIIMS” (Australian Inter-Service Incident Management System) Incident Control System (ICS) is widespread, and being effectively used on most bushfire incidents. There are several differences in the Australian implementation of ICS compared with the US version, however. First, the Aussie’s classify their fire’s in the opposite order that we do in the US: their least complex fires at initial attack and extended initial attack are called “Type 1” fires; the most complex are classified as “Type 3” incidents.

Incident Management Teams are used on Australia’s largest and most complex bushfires, much like they are in the US; however, they are generally formed on an “as needed” basis, rather than having pre-designated teams that stay together year after year as is common with US Type 1 and Type 2 teams. They are interagency in nature when a multi-jurisdictional fire occurs, and since they are based at the State level, are often on the scene of an emerging fire within hours of its escape from initial attack.  An organizational difference between Australian and US fire teams deals with Fire Safety Officers. While US teams have qualified Safety Officers working for the Incident Commander on the Command and General Staff Group, the Australians have yet to incorporate the Safety Officer position into their ICS organization. They believe, for the most part, that safety is the responsibility of each individual firefighter. Assigning a Fire Safety Officer might cause an individual firefighter to pay less attention to their own safety on the fireline, believing that someone else was watching out for their well-being.

In Australia, there is no National-level Coordination Center such as we have at Boise, Idaho. When the fire situation exceeds the suppression resource capability of the State where it occurs, the fire dispatchers of the affected State must “run the trap line” for available resources from all the other Aussie States. This situation offered interesting challenges both during the “Black Christmas” fires of 2001 in New South Wales, as well as during the mobilization of Aussie and New Zealand fire overhead to Montana and Idaho during 2000.

Protecting the Firefighters

The Australian bushfire fighters are exposed to most of the same fire hazards as their American partners. Like us, they wear protective clothing intended to protect them from the effects of radiant heat and burnovers. While most US firefighters are wearing Nomex® fire clothing, the Aussie’s tend more toward Proban®-treated cotton. And while most US firefighters are wearing the 2-piece shirt & trouser ensemble, most Aussie firefighters tend toward the one-piece jumpsuit style of protective clothing. There is no “standardized” design or color of protective clothing for Aussie firefighters, although some of the States are recognizing the potential cost saving to be realized from some degree of standardization of design, if not color. The upcoming International Standards Organization (ISO) standards for wildfire protective clothing, and the economic benefits of standardization, will likely move more of the Australian States towards a more common design for their protective clothing.

Although the concept of fire shelters were first introduced by the Australians in the 1950’s, the idea quickly lost favor among their research community, and was never pursued as it was in the US. While there are some strong voices in the Australian fire community that continue to down play the potential life-saving aspects of the fire shelters, believing that training can overcome the risk of becoming entrapped and needing a fire shelter to survive, the shelter is gradually being looked at among some Aussie firefighters as another tool that may ultimately increase their safety, and may even save their lives.

While Australian firefighters don’t carry fire shelters, and believe that their training will keep them from becoming entrapped on bushfires, they do place a high degree of trust in the protection systems designed for their tankers. Since most of their fire suppression is tanker based, and firefighters are seldom far away from their tanker, it makes sense to that this is your safety zone in case of a fire blowup. But, to be survivable, the tanker must be able to cool the radiant heat and direct flame contact that occurs during extreme fire conditions. The Australian answer: an emergency spray deluge system that envelops the entire tanker in a mist of water when threatened with a burnover. Successful in saving firefighter lives in some instances, and unsuccessful in other circumstances, the concept of creating a survivable environment in a tanker has gained widespread support across Australia. Tanker protection spray systems, reflective curtains, and cab modifications are being aggressively pursued as methods of protecting bushfire fighters in case of entrapments.

Since the large majority of Aussie bushfires are suppressed in the first burning period by firefighters close to their tankers, the use of web line gear has not really surfaced as a need among Aussie firefighters. There is a significant amount of importance placed on adequate hydration, but carrying line packs with 20-35 pounds of gear is not the norm.

Essential items such as drinking water are delivered to firefighters on a regular basis, since much of the fire fighting is close to the road system.

Science and Research

As I mentioned earlier, the presence of a national Federal fire force is non-existent in Australia. But, there is a small group of really excellent fire scientists at work DownUnda whose impact is felt worldwide in the wildfire community. The Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organization (CSIRO) host a small but dedicated group of fire researchers comparable to the folks at the Missoula and Riverside Fire Labs in the US. Although much smaller in number than their American counterparts, these folks have made significant contributions to the body of knowledge about fire behavior and fire safety for all of us around the world. Phil Cheney and Jim Gould have done some outstanding fire behavior research on “Project Vesta” in Western Australia that provided significantly new and different information about the rates of spread that affected firefighter safety. Phil transferred that information immediately to field firefighters through his CD-rom video “the Dead-Man Zone”, unwilling to wait for the normal. drawn-out process of publishing in Technical journals. Another CSIRO-sponsored fire research project was “Project Aquarius” under the direction of Dr. Grahame Budd. It looked at the physiological effects of firefighting on the firefighters, and reported out that the purpose of fighter protective clothing is “ to LET heat out, not KEEP heat out.”  With only a small staff, the CSIRO Bushfire group has made important contributions to fire safety in Australia as well as the rest of the world’s fire community

In addition to the great work done by CSIRO at the national level, some excellent work is also being done in the various states around Australia: Richard Donarski with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, and Barry “Rocky” Marsden with Victoria Natural Resources and Environment are both players on the National and international scene in the area of fire equipment development. There’s also a volunteer firefighter in South Australia, Dr. Bruce Paix, who has made significant contributions both within Australia and abroad to the issue of Tanker protection systems. Bruce exemplifies the best of the Australian volunteer spirit, donating his time and expertise to not only fight bushfires, but to develop a safer system to do so.

Where There’s Fire, There’s Smoke

One of the emerging issues in the world of Australian fire these days is the subject of fuel reduction and the social impacts of smoke. Sound familiar??? The recent fires around Sydney have aroused the interest of the local population about fuel reduction projects, but another portion of the residents don’t like the smoke, while others are against changing the “natural environment”. Just like life in the old US of A!!!

Firefighting Gone Wrong

Like the US firefighter community, the Australian bushfire fighters have seen friends and neighbors killed battling fires. On of the most recent tragic evens occurred in December 1998 in Victoria when five (5) volunteer firefighters were killed in a tanker burnover on a bushfire near the town of Linton. The impact of those fatalities, and the recommendations of the three (3) year Coronial Inquest that were delivered on January 11, 2002 have the potential of having the same impacts on the Australian fire fighters as the South Canyon and Thirtymile fires had on their American counterparts. Tanker burnovers are the most common cause of deaths among the Aussies, and they have responded by focusing a great amount of energy on developing improved systems for protecting firefighters inside their tankers. Spray systems, reflective curtains and fire-resistant components for inside the tanker cabs are all being aggressively used to make the tankers less susceptible to burnovers like occurred on Linton.

So What’s Next, Mate??

Now that we’ve looked at fighting bushfires in Australia, what’s it all mean to those of us in the US??

Well, first of all, I think that we can safely assume that very few of us will be called “DownUnda” at portal-to-portal pay, with H-pay and OT, to help out our Aussie friends.  The Aussie volunteer spirit is the mainstay of their fire organization, and they’re willing to work hard to keep that spirit alive without much help from the outside. I do believe that there are circumstances where US firefighters can offer some specialized help under serious fire conditions – helicopter managers and Safety Officers come to mind – but for the most part, don’t expect to see large numbers of Yanks heading south. The Aussies and New Zealanders that helped us in Montana and Idaho in 2000 were mostly top overhead, who could easily fit into our Incident Command System and manage large fires with hundreds of firefighters. I doubt that we’ll see those opportunities arise on the shorter duration fires that occur in Australia.

I’m also afraid, however, that the changing culture of the wildland-urban interface dweller in Australia will put more pressure on their friends and neighbors in the volunteer fire services to take exceptional (and unacceptable) risks to defend the homes and properties that they have developed in indefensible places (just like here in the US.) The “can do” spirit of firefighters around the world that has helped us become so successful also has the potential to put Aussie volunteer firefighters in risky situations in the years ahead. To prevent this form happening, solid training and strong leadership at the local fire brigade level will be essential.

If you ever get the chance to meet and visit with an Aussie firefighter, don’t let the opportunity pass you by: they’re good mates!! They share a common bond with those of us in North America in the wildfire suppression world, and are rightfully proud of the successes they have, year after year, as a volunteer fire force in a fire environment almost unparalleled anywhere else in the world.