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.

Wildfire history of California, interactive

California fire history map
California fire history map by Capital Public Radio. All fires in Southern California 1878-2018. Click to enlarge.

We often hear, “It’s not IF an area will burn, but WHEN”.

Capital Public Radio has developed an interactive map showing the footprints of wildfires that have occurred in California since 1878. You can see all of the fires at once, or individual years, and the map is zoomable. (The map may not display well in all browsers. It seems to work best using Firefox.)

I may or may not have spent too much time looking at these maps.

California fire history map San Diego County
California fire history map by Capital Public Radio. San Diego County, 2003. The largest fire is the Cedar Fire. Click to enlarge.

A description of Hotshot crews in the 1940s

In looking through the 2018 edition of Hotshot Crew History in America, I was interested in a piece in the Historical Articles section. It was written by the Stanley Stevenson, the Fire Control Officer on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California, possibly around 1950. It appears that Mr. Stevenson had an appreciation for the abilities of hotshot crews. I believe he was later promoted to Forest Supervisor.

“HOT SHOT” Crews

Stanley Stevenson

Fire Control Officer, Cleveland National Forest

Scouting revealed that the head of the Burma Fire of 1949, Cleveland National Forest, was spreading rapidly uphill through medium to heavy brush and would reach the rim of an adjacent watershed unless checked on a small ridge ¼ from the top. One “hot shot” crew under Foreman George McLarty, San Bernardino National Forest, had been working the northern flank from the bottom and would reach the top too late to effect the check. The Cleveland “hot shot” crew Foreman Leon Ballou, and 4 men were flown via helicopter from the southern flank of the fire to the ridge at the head of the fire. The 5 men hurriedly cut a line in front of the fire, back-fired it out and started a direct attack on the fire edge down the south flank to meet the rest of the crew. The crew on the northern flank meanwhile had pushed through and tied to the northern end of the fired out line. Although numerous spots occurred and the crews lost the south flank twice because of whirlwinds, they closed the gap and effected control on a 280-acre fire that would probably have more than tripled its size within 4 hours unless the check had been made and the lines tied together.

Since these crews are trained to subsist on the line with bare essentials, a sustained push taking advantage of lulls in fire intensity is possible. This was demonstrated by the San Bernardino “hot shot” crew on the Agua Tibia Fire of 1950.

Lightning started this fire in very steep to precipitous terrain covered with medium to extremely heavy brush and scrub oak. The west flank of the fire had slopped over the planned control ridge approximately ½ mile from the top of the main divide. Helicopter scouting at 10:30 a.m. revealed that if the slop-over could be controlled the lines being constructed from the top and bottom along the flank would probably control that side of the fire.

Foreman McLarty was flown by helicopter around the slop-over and he then jumped about 6 feet to the ground inside the burn above the slop-over. He subsequently cleared a landing spot and 4 additional men were flown in to begin work on the line. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew were started down the ridge top along an old trail. Helicopter coverage guided the crew to their destination where they split forces and started around the slop-over. Although this action was completed within 1 ½ hours after the initial scouting, the slop-over had spread to a perimeter of approximately 65 chains on a very steep rocky slope in medium to heavy brush oak type.

McLarty and his whole crew worked until dark. They were sent food, lights, and blankets by helicopter. The crew was fed and rested in relays until a “scratch” line was constructed around the slop-over about 11:00 p.m. Early the following morning, the crew was again serviced by helicopter and the fire line finished and mop-up started.

Stubborn aggressiveness on the part of this crew prevented the fire from crossing the drainage and establishing a new head on even more precipitous terrain.

These two examples illustrate the flexibility of “hot shot” crew action. Similar action has been taken many times during the past 4 years. Control possibilities such as these would have been impractical without well organized, trained, and conditioned crews.

One of the “hot shot” crews has been based during the fire season on the Cleveland National Forest. The following notes, although concerned primarily with the Cleveland “hot shot” organization and operational procedures, are representative for “hot shot” crews in the California Region.

The crew is composed of young men whose primary requisites are physical fitness and a will to work. Their lack of experience and conditioning are compensated by intensive training in fire line construction and use of hand tools and fire hose lays at the beginning of each season. These men are termed “fire fighters” and receive fire-fighter rates of pay while on a fire. When not engaged on fire suppression they are paid laborer wages and used on forest projects.

A sub-foreman or straw boss works with and has charge of from 5 to 8 fire fighters. The straw boss is an integral part of each crew and takes his days off at the same time as the crew. Two assistant foremen acts as crew bosses and are each assigned one-half the straw boss squads. One of the crew bosses is capable of assuming temporary charge of the whole crew during the absence of the foreman.

The crew is under the direct supervision of an experienced fire fighter who can act, as one foreman put it, “from general to father confessor.” This foreman must be a skilled leader, fire-wise, and physically fit for very arduous work. He usually assumes the duties of sector boss on fires.

Crew members are hired only after full understanding and acceptance of the rigid rules set up. Camp routine is fashioned after that of athletic training camps with scheduled hours for meals, work, recreation and sleep. Although some men quickly drop out of the crew because of the difficulty of the job and the rigid discipline, three have returned each year since 1947 and ten others including the foreman have been on the crew for the past 2 seasons.

Conservation, wildlife, general forestry, and training films give the reasons for the “why” and “how” of forest fire protection. The crew is given instruction in the use and care of fire line hand tools, followed by intensive work-outs on practice fire lines. Several afternoons during the first part of the season are spent on illustrative lectures, orientation, fire behavior, safety, and correct fire line construction practices. Action on early season fires is discussed on the ground with a large part of the constructive comment coming from the crew members.

After several successful attacks on early season fires, crews begin to develop an esprit de corps and an eagerness to prove their ability. Several distinctive arm patches have been designed and worn by crews hailing their identity. The competitive spirit on large fires requiring more than one crew has provided additional incentive toward better production.

The following summary of work accomplishment, although reflecting considerable more suppression time during the heavier fire season of 1950, indicates the advisability of preplanning and budgeting forces primarily for fire suppression.

hotshot crew history Stanley Stevenson

The value of a trained unit of men that can be sent into difficult sections of a fire perimeter with a high degree of certainty that control will be effected, has been demonstrated many times during the past. The ever increasing demand for “hot shots” when the going gets rough is the fire manager’s endorsement of the “hot shot” program.

2018 version of Hotshot Crew history is available

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has released the 2018 edition of Hotshot Crew History in America. You can download the 296-page, 11 MB document here.

Special thanks go out to Dave Provencio who collected many of the updates and to Brit Rosso of the WFLLS and especially Juli Smith of the National Advanced Fire & Resource Institute for putting it together.

The document has a wealth of information, but the history is not totally complete for every crew. If you have any additions, contact Mr. Provencio: mso_1977 at me dot com

Hotshot Crew History 2018 wildfires

I put together this table of contents, to make it a little easier to find a crew. They are organized by Geographic Area.

Page Geographic Area

  • 3 Alaska
  • 6 Great Basin
  • 30 North Ops
  • 62 Northern Rockies
  • 77 Northwest
  • 101 Rocky Mountain
  • 110 Southern
  • 118 South Ops
  • 174 Southwest
  • 209 Historical Articles

The Eastern Area is not listed but Illinois-based Midewin can be found on page 22.