Jerry Williams: can-do, to make-do, to tragedy

This video was posted by Colorado Fire Camp on their Facebook page. It shows less than three minutes of a talk by Jerry Williams, who became Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service. It was 1995, a year after 14 firefighters were killed on the South Canyon Fire in Colorado.

Here is a partial transcript of Jerry Williams’ talk:

…It’s a proud outfit. It’s a can-do outfit… It’s a real short step between can-do, and make-do, and from make do to tragedy.

If the forests we work in start to come undone and get too hot, we’ll go contain/confine and we’ll make-do. Our budgets drop, we’ll go with three per engine instead of five and we’ll make-do.

We come up short Division [Supervisors], we’ll rob a hotshot crew of a Division and put him on the division, and we’ll make-do.

We need to quit thinking about making do.

Maybe we need to quit thinking about just doing the job, and begin thinking about doing the job right.

I used to tell my firefighters, “If we can’t do it safely, we won’t do it at all.” Mr. Williams said it much more eloquently.

Jerry Williams talks about a growing wildfire threat

Jerry Williams, former National Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service, was one of the keynote speakers at the Large Fire Conference that is wrapping up Friday in Missoula, Montana. I was so impressed with Mr. Williams’ talk that I asked him if I could put a portion of it here on Wildfire Today.

He knows what he is talking about when it comes to wildland fire. He started his career in the USFS as a firefighter, became a smokejumper, and worked his way up through the position of Director of Fire and Aviation for the agency’s Northern Region before migrating east to D.C.

Below is an excerpt from Mr. William’s talk, which was titled, Between a Rock and a Hard Place; a Growing Wildfire Threat and the Urgency to Adapt Protection Strategies:


“…Let me come back to these five areas that I believe need attention if we are to get out from between this “rock and this hard place.” They might be the elements of a next generation wildfire protection strategy:

  • Analysis at the program level (fire management and land management)
  • The regulatory exemption for wildfires
  • Accounting for total wildfire impacts
  • Linking land management direction to wildfire risks
  • Firefighting’s limitations

Analysis at the program level:

Last August (2013), the GAO issued a fire-related report that expressed concern over,

…a firefighting culture that values experience and history over data and scientific analysis.

The Fire Services can be proud of their “can-do” attitude and their traditions, but GAO has a point.

In many areas, we have done a good job with project-level or implementation analysis, but many of the larger program-level or strategic questions are left unanswered. Many of us are familiar with the National Fire Management Analysis System (NFMAS), Aerial Delivered Firefighter Studies, Aerial Platform Studies, engine studies, firefighter qualification studies, mobilization reports and a host of other analyses to determine the mix, positioning, and numbers of “the most efficient level” of firefighting assets.

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Forest Service retirees speak out about fire and forest management

Three well known and respected retirees from the U.S. Forest Service have written articles about the current state of forest and fire management and provide advice about where we should go from here. Below are some excerpts that were published by what appears to be a forward-thinking organization, FireSafe Montana.

The first is from Jerry Williams, Former National Director of Fire and Aviation for the US Forest Service, titled “Situational Assessment at the Policy Level: Adapting to a New Reality”:

…In an era where federal budget deficit reduction efforts need to occur, should we go “all-in” with suppression capacity, or should greater priority be given to prevention and hazard mitigation? What are the long-term risks and consequences of alternative wildfire protection strategies?

As much of the West continues to move into a hotter, drier climate cycle, the need intensifies to more urgently adapt regulations, policies, plans, and practices to a changed circumstance and a new reality. Perhaps it is time to pause and — much like we ask of our firefighters – re-assess the situation before we go much further. At this point, the consequences of doing what we have always done may be pushing a potentially bad position that is not well accounted.

Bob Mutch, who retired from a 38-year career in wildland fire research and management with the U.S. Forest Service, wrote “Just Leave the Line”, an article about the risks facing firefighters and at what point should they place more emphasis on protecting themselves than saving structures or vegetation.

…At the 2005 Safety Summit in Missoula, Montana, the goal of Zero Defects was proposed—in other words, no injuries or fatalities during the conduct of our fire business. Such an undertaking leads us away from the un-mindful (mindless?) position that firefighting is dangerous, people will make mistakes, and bad things will sometimes happen. Under that premise we can simply say “I told you so!” when the bad event occurs. With a commitment to zero defects, when an injury or worse happens we are immediately placed on notice that an intolerable action has occurred that must be corrected. Or better yet we will become so much more mindful because we are anticipating the worst that we prevent the unwanted outcome from happening in the first place.

Stephen F. Arno, a retired research forester with the Rocky Mountain Research Station considered the increasing number of acres burned in recent decades and has some advice about stemming the tide, in “Living with Fire-dependent Forests”:

…Westerners will continue to be plagued by increasing peril and costs of wildfires until we adopt a saner attitude about the role of fire in our forests. For some inspiration we could look to the Southeastern U.S., where states have “right-to-burn” laws (limiting liability to reasonable levels) and provide extension forestry help to foster responsible prescribed burning by private landowners. We could do likewise by accepting that fire will continue to be a fact of life in our forests, but that we can influence the way fire affects our forest by managing its structure and its fuel using mechanical treatments, fuel removal, pile burning, and prescribed fire. Even in the most severe conflagrations of recent years, forest properties and homesites that were thinned and made fire-resistant experienced far less damage. It is high time to heed the advice that California timberman George Hoxie published in 1910: We had best adopt fire as our servant; otherwise it will be our master.

I like Mr. Arno’s last line: “We had best adopt fire as our servant; otherwise it will be our master.” 

IAWF logo

That is what I think of when I see the logo of the International Association of Wildland Fire, which was actually inspired by the myth of Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to humanity.