TBT: Time to Think

For Throwback Thursday, we’re revisiting an article we wrote August 9, 2008, titled “Time to Think”.

When I walked into Bill Supernaugh’s office one day in 1995 I found him looking out the window with his feet up on his desk. I was the Fire Management Officer and had an appointment with the Assistant Superintendent of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to brief him about the prescribed fire we were going to ignite in the park in a few days. I got along well with him and felt comfortable smiling and saying, “Oh sorry, I didn’t know you were busy–I’ll come back later” and half turned to walk away.

He pointed to a chair and told me to sit down. In the banter that we usually engaged in before getting around to business he explained that he was “thinking”, something that he felt was important for a manager in his position, supervising the Operations of a large workforce and a big chunk of public land. Taking time to think gave him the opportunity to mull over the issues of the day and strategize about the direction the park would take. He said a person in his position was more of a thinker than a doer.

I wanted to slink down into my chair and disappear, because what he said made perfect sense and I was giving him a hard time. I was there to brief him about a project I was going to DO, and he was going to take my information and THINK about it, then approve it, ask for more information, or give me advice about how to do it differently, or not at all.

At 5:00 a.m. on August 26, 1992 Hurricane Andrew made landfall, knocking the crap out of south Florida and four national parks including Everglades, Big Cypress, and Biscayne Bay. Early the next morning I was in a rental car south of Miami driving through Homestead trying to navigate on back roads while driving over downed power lines and other debris. The first power line was scary as hell, but then we realized there was no electricity anywhere. Navigation was difficult because all of the road and street signs and many of the usual landmarks were gone. Even someone with us that was familiar with the area was disoriented.

We were a Type 1 All-Hazard Incident Management Team with a mission to rescue park employees and restore the infrastructure. It was a huge job and after a few days as Planning Section Chief I felt a little overwhelmed, with lots to do and not enough time in the day to get it all done. In confessing my situation to our Incident Commander, Rick Gale, he said “Order the personnel you need to get the job done. You are paid to think, not do.”

Hurricane Andrew Incident Management Team
NPS Type 1 All-Risk Incident Management Team at Hurricane Andrew, southern Florida, August, 1992. Left to right: Bill Gabbert (Planning Section Chief), Steve Holder (Logistics SC), Bill Pierce (Operations SC), Marcia Blazak (Finance SC), Rick Gale (Incident Commander, sitting w/white shirt & sunglasses), Pat Tolle (Information Officer)

After that, I made time, like Bill Supernaugh, to think. Occasionally I even put my feet up on a desk.

Until he retired from the day to day operations of Microsoft, Chairman Bill Gates scheduled a twice-yearly “Think Week” ritual, where he would take a helicopter or float plane to his secret lakeside cabin and… think….by himself….barring all outside visitors. He would rarely leave the cabin during the week except for an occasional walk on the beach, having a caretaker slip him two simple meals a day at the cabin. He subsisted on the two meals, Diet Coke, and Orange Crush.

Think Week was legendary in Microsoft. Gates would pore over about 100 papers written by company executives, researchers, managers, and developers, who hoped to obtain approval for their new project, or a new direction for the organization. Comments that Gates wrote on the papers could give the green light to a new technology that millions of people would use, or send Microsoft into new markets. He had to be careful what he wrote, after finding that a casual “Hey, cool, looks good” could result in 20 people being assigned to a project.

Barack Obama appears to understand how important it is to set aside time to think. Here is part of an accidentally-captured conversation between Obama and British Conservative Party Leader, David Cameron. Cameron asks Obama if he will be taking any time off for a vacation this summer:

Mr. Cameron: Do you have a break at all?
Mr. Obama: I have not. I am going to take a week in August. But I agree with you that somebody, somebody who had worked in the White House who — not Clinton himself, but somebody who had been close to the process — said that should we be successful, that actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking. And the biggest mistake that a lot of these folks make is just feeling as if you have to be …

Mr. Cameron: These guys just chalk your diary up.

Mr. Obama: Right. … In 15 minute increments and …

Mr. Cameron: We call it the dentist waiting room. You have to scrap that because you’ve got to have time.

Yes. You have to have time to think. Those of us in the emergency management business too often see time to think as a luxury we don’t have. True, at times, when split second decisions can have life-long, or even life-dependent outcomes. But when initial attack becomes extended attack morphing into a long duration incident, thinking is not a luxury. It is a necessity.


“All successful people men and women are big dreamers. They imagine what their future could be, ideal in every respect, and then they work every day toward their distant vision, that goal or purpose.”
― Brian Tracy, Personal Success

How the National Park Service responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks

Pentagon September 11 2011 9/11
Aerial view of the Pentagon Building located in Washington, District of Columbia (DC), showing crews responding to the destruction caused when a highjacked commercial jetliner crashed into the southwest corner of the building during the 9/11 terrorists attacks. Photo September 14, 2001 by TSGT Cedric H. Rudisill, USAF.

When a hijacked 757 airliner crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001 shortly after two others were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City, no one knew what would happen next. The National Park Service has many parks, facilities and employees in the Washington D.C. area. The agency is responsible for managing and protecting those areas as well as others across the country, such as the Statue of Liberty, St. Louis Gateway Arch, Liberty Bell, Washington Monument, and the other 385 units (at the time) within the NPS system.

In an effort to document the events of 9/11, determine how the National Park Service responded that day and the months that followed, and learn lessons, agency historians and ethnographers conducted more than a hundred oral history interviews with Service employees in parks, regional offices, and the Washington headquarters. Janet McDonnell, a Historian for the NPS, started with those interviews and wrote the 132-page report, “The National Park Service: Responding to the September 11 Terrorist Attacks.” It is very well written and comprehensive, broken down by geographic area, Washington and New York City. It also covers the use of multiple incident management teams that helped to mitigate the wide-ranging effects across the country.

One of the sections concentrates on the role of the Park Police Aviation Unit, which is a division of the NPS. Fire Aviation has a story about how their personnel and two helicopters assisted in the D.C. area after the attack.

Another section describes how the other NPS employees in Washington responded to the events. That is below, but first a few details that will add some background.

The document refers often to Rick Gale — on 15 different pages, according to the index. Before 9/11 Mr. Gale had been the Chief Ranger of the NPS, based in Washington and responsible for law enforcement within the agency. After that and at the time of the attack he was the Director of Fire and Aviation working out of Boise. He had been a Type 1 Incident Commander, an Area Commander, and the Incident Commander of the NPS Type 1 All Risk Incident Management Team. He was very well known and respected in the wildland fire and incident management community. When I was the Planning Section Chief on his All Risk Team we were activated and detailed to Washington to develop Continuity of Operations (COO) Plans for the NPS facilities at the Main Department of the Interior building and three other Park Service facilities in and near Washington. The plans that we completed in March of 1998 are referenced many times in the report.

The purpose of the COO Plans, as we wrote then, were to establish procedures “to ensure that essential functions and activities of  (___the facility___) are able to continue or be reactivated as quickly as possible during the full range of human-caused, natural, technological, or national security emergencies that have some reasonable likelihood of occurring at this facility.”

On 9/11 Mr. Gale happened to be temporally in the city at the Main Interior building in Associate Director Dick Ring’s third floor office when they learned about the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. Mr. Gale and Mr. Ring knew each other well, and had spent weeks working together in hurricane-ravaged Everglades National Park in 1992 when our Incident Management Team was assisting with response and recovery from Hurricane Andrew. At that time Mr. Ring was the Superintendent at Everglades.

The report points out that after the attacks Mr. Ring convinced Director of the Park Service Fran Mainella that it was in her best interests to keep Mr. Gale within shouting distance at all times so she could take advantage of his wisdom and experience in emergency incident management.

Mr. Gale, who spent 41 years with the NPS, passed away in 2009.

Below is the section of the report that describes the initial response by the NPS in Washington, mostly centered around the Main Interior building.


arrowhead NPSAt 8:45 a.m. (EST) American Airlines Flight 11 carrying ninety-two people from Boston to Los Angeles crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Twenty minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 with sixty-five passengers and crew also heading toward California ripped through the South Tower. At 9:40 a.m. (EST) American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 commercial airliner carrying sixty-four people and 30,000 pounds of fuel for its long flight from Dulles to Los Angeles, smashed into the west façade of the Pentagon with such force that it penetrated four of the building’s five interior rings. The Federal Aviation Administration promptly banned takeoffs nationwide and ordered all flights that were in the air to land at the nearest airport. Then came the alarming news that United Airlines Flight 93 with forty passengers and crew en route to San Francisco had crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Not long after, reports circulated that this plane had been headed toward Washington, D.C., and heroic passengers had intervened to thwart this plan.


Main Interior Building, Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Rick Gale, chief of the National Park Service’s fire aviation emergency response and head of its incident management program, was sitting in Associate Director Richard (Dick) Ring’s third floor office in the Department of the Interior’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, when a call came in advising Ring to turn on the television. It would prove fortuitous that Gale who normally worked at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, happened to be in Washington that day. Ring turned on the television just in time to see the second plane strike the World Trade Center in New York City. Gale headed back to his temporary office in the ranger activities division. Not long after, Ring received word that the Pentagon had been struck. He stepped outside onto his small balcony and glancing south saw an ominous cloud of smoke rising in the distance.
Continue reading “How the National Park Service responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks”

Firefighters conducting very large backfiring operation at the Carr Fire

The Carr Fire has burned over 186,000 acres west and northwest of Redding, California

map Carr Fire california
The red line shows the perimeter of the Carr Fire at 10:16 p.m. PDT August 10, 2018. The white line was the perimeter two days before. The beginning of the burnout can be seen at the north end of the fire. Click to enlarge.

Above: Map of the Carr Fire, August 11, 2018.

(Originally published at noon PDT August 11, 2018)

Firefighters have decided to use a bold tactic to stop the northern spread of the Carr Fire in California. Since it started from a burning vehicle near Redding on July 23 it has burned over 186,000 acres in an area about 27 miles long by 19 miles wide.

(To see all of the articles on Wildfire Today about the Carr Fire, including the most recent, click HERE.)

The tactic they selected a couple of days ago was to go approximately five miles north of the fire and backfire, igniting ahead of the main fire hoping that eliminating burnable fuel will stop the main fire when it reaches the backfire. This is taking place along a 12-mile stretch at the northwest part of Shasta Lake near Moist Cove working to the northwest, roughly following Road N7601 and dozer lines they are constructing. Then they make a left turn south for another five miles to tie in with the main fire east of Trinity Lake.

If crews can get the backfire to consume the fuel for at least several hundred yards (more is better) toward the main fire, they will have a pretty good chance of success.

Backing off from the fire, WAY OFF, and removing the fuel by burning it, usually from a ridge, has often worked very well. Sometimes firefighters ignite a backfire from the next ridge ahead of the fire, which may not provide enough time to complete it to the point where it will be effective. The late Rick Gale, who over several decades fought some of the largest wildland fires as a Type 1 Incident Commander and Area Commander, would say, “Don’t choose the NEXT RIDGE, choose the BEST RIDGE”, even if it is miles away.

If the north end does not move any further, the backfire would encompass approximately 40,000 acres, roughly 12 miles by 5 miles in size.

The Carr Fire has been spreading more slowly in recent days. It has been fairly quiet around Redding, but has continued to grow on the northeast and southwest sides.

Resources assigned to the fire include 335 fire engines, 76 hand crews, 12 helicopters, 112 dozers, and 125 water tenders for a total of 4,665 personnel.

According to CAL FIRE, 1,077 residences and 22 commercial structures have been destroyed in the fire. Three people working on the fire have been killed, including two firefighters and one CAL FIRE heavy equipment mechanic.

A Red Flag Warning is in effect Saturday for high temperatures, low humidity, and gusty winds.

Below: The California Air National Guard shot this video from the cockpit of one of their Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) C-130’s as it dropped retardant on the Carr Fire in Northern California July 31, 2018.

Sid Beckman, NPS regional FMO

Sid Beckman NPS FMO
Sid Beckman. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

After five years with the National Park Service (NPS) and 16 months as the Fire Management Officer (FMO) for the NPS’s Pacific West Region, Sid Beckman looked comfortable today in his office on the fifth floor of a high-rise building in downtown San Francisco. He came to the position after 29 years with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and three years in the fuels side of the program under Regional NPS FMO Sue Husari who retired after 39 years of federal service.

This week Mr. Beckman and his staff are looking back at the last year to see if there are any lessons learned that should be addressed as they move into Fire Season 2014. They are going through program reviews, preparedness reviews, and accident investigations looking for common themes. Individual reports are of course read routinely, but this is the first time NPS fire management in the region, at least in recent years, has studied a variety of documents at the end of a fire season looking for common threads. Their findings will be presented upstairs to the Regional Director, the Assistant Regional Director, and the park FMOs in the region.

The fire budget for the NPS, after suffering a 30 percent decline, stabilized this year, and his understanding is that next year’s budget will be similar.

We asked about the impacts of the 257,000-acre Rim Fire that started outside Yosemite National Park but burned into some of the back country areas of the park. Gus Smith, the park’s ecologist, is leading a fire science team in an effort to determine the research needs related to the effects of the huge fire. Some of the topics they will look at include how previous prescribed fire and fuel treatment projects affected the fire, and if they were effective in mitigating the fire behavior as the fire approached or burned through the areas. The USFS is also involved in looking at the effects of the fire, which cost about $127 million to suppress.

Mr. Beckman described how firefighting has changed during the course of his career.

My first season was in 1976. I worked on hotshot crews in southern California. You worked for a Superintendent, you showed up for work, you wore your boots, you spoke when spoken to, and that was your job. Now, we’ve shifted to a learning culture. And I truly believe that today we have greatly improved the training of our firefighters and our expectation for them to be part of the process. It is not the safety of the individual alone but the safety of the entire team. Now firefighters have a voice. Firefighting is some of the hardest, most challenging work we can do. At times it is dangerous. Most of the time it is dangerous. And the danger is not just on the fire line, but traveling to and from. You can get hit by a rock or a tree — that is far more common than burn overs.

When asked what he liked most about the job, he said:

Hopefully, that I’m supporting people in the field, that the decisions we’re making at this level are helping them and making their job easier.

We told Mr. Beckman about a large sign that Rick Gale, the former Chief Ranger of the NPS in charge of fire and law enforcement, posted above his office door in Washington, DC. It read: “What have you done for a Park today?”

When we asked what he liked least about his job, he smiled and said:

Filling out my travel [forms] online.

His advice for a firefighter that might want to advance into an upper management position at a Park, Forest, State, or Regional Office, included:

First of all become a good firefighter. And when I say become a good firefighter, understand fire. Understand fighting fire, understand lighting fire, understand managing fire. Get those root skills. Spend time in the dirt dragging your knuckles. Don’t get in a hurry to get to the top. Because you’re going to learn the most when you’re out there making those decisions in the field.

And then take every opportunity to learn. When you’re on the fire line find the old salts. Pay attention to what they are doing.

If the agency offers you the opportunity in the off season to get some formal education never turn it down. Don’t get preoccupied with getting a Red Card as much as becoming smarter and more knowledgeable about what you do. And that includes all the things that may not seem important like understanding fire policy.

[Paul] Gleason talked about being a “student of fire”. There’s the fire side, and then there’s the fire management side and understanding all of that. That was the biggest benefit to me, taking those opportunities to raise your hand when it really didn’t sound that exciting, “Hey, do you want to learn about NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act]?” Then you understand how the machine works, and hopefully learn to make better decisions.

12 Questions for Edy Rhodes

Today we have the ninth article of our series in which we ask current and retired leaders in the wildland fire service to answer 12 questions.

We appreciate everyone who is cooperating with this project. Some of their responses may add to the knowledge base of our new firefighters coming up through the ranks. If you would like to nominate someone who would be a good candidate for these questions, drop us a line through our Contact Us page. And their contact information would be appreciated.

Below we hear from Edy Rhodes, a former Area Commander. She worked for the U. S. Forest Service for 25 years before transferring to the National Park Service, retiring as their Division Chief of Fire, Aviation and Structural Fire.


When you think of an excellent leader in the fire service, who comes to mind first?
Too many to mention, but here are a few:

  • Steve Pedigo, Dick Cox, Rex Mann, and Bobby Kitchens who promoted incident management teams in the South resulting in involvement in the national Type 1 rotation.
  • Rick Gale and Mike Edrington, in their roles Fire Directors, as Area Commanders and as leaders of the 520/620 Steering Committee and cadre. They mentored countless individuals in their careers over the years.
  • Also, the Forestry Technicians who taught me the basics and kept me safe while giving me room to make mistakes during my early career years. Junior Gay, Daniel Boone NF and Bruce Harvey, NF’s in FL, come to mind!

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment as an Incident Commander?
In general, “Before you get on the horse, be ready to ride!” Specific to large incident management, provide strategic leadership and all it entails from being proactive, confident, decisive and a good communicator with your team and all stakeholders involved.

Edy Rhodes
Edy Rhodes

If someone is planning a prescribed fire, what is one thing that you hope they will pay particular attention to?
An approved plan, appropriate weather conditions, adequate resources, and good communication by all.

One of the more common errors in judgment you have seen on fires?
Assuming that everyone is on the same page; Failing to “connect the dots” and “close the loop” with those that need critical information that may affect them.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
What a rewarding career that fire management would be! The opportunities to travel, see remarkable places, and work with extraordinary people has enriched my life tremendously.

The stupidest mistake you have seen on a fire?
It was on a RX burn, when the fire jumped the line on our section, setting off a huge, grassy field next to the municipal sewage treatment plant, which was adjacent to the regional airport. Thank goodness, we were able to get the treatment plant personnel to turn on the effluent sprinklers, which extinguished the fire, before the smoke completely shut down airport operations. We got a lot of phone calls on that one!

Your most memorable fire?
The Yellowstone Fires of 1988.

The funniest thing you have seen on a fire?
A couple of mules got loose from their pack string and went bucking down the mountain scattering their load everywhere!

The first very large fire you were on?
The Hog Fire, Klamath NF, 1977.

Your favorite book about fire or firefighting?
Young Men and Fire

The first job you had within the fire service?
Forester Trainee and firefighter on a local crew on the Daniel Boone National Forest, KY.

What gadgets, electronic or otherwise, can’t you live without?
Laptop, iPhone and iPad. Love my Google maps!


I want you to figure out HOW we do something

…I want you to figure out HOW we do something.

Those words spoken by President Obama today sent chills up my spine. I’ll explain why in a moment. He said them today while speaking extemporaneously to workers at the headquarters of the American Red Cross while talking about the recovery from the impacts of Hurricane Sandy. Here is more of what he said (the added emphasis is mine):

Obviously we are now moving into the recovery phase in a lot of the most severely affected areas. New Jersey and New York in particular have been pounded by the storm. […]

This is mostly a local responsibility and the private utilities are going to have to lean forward, but we are doing everything we can to provide them additional resources so that we can expedite getting power up and running in many of these communities.

In places like Newark New Jersey, for example, where you’ve got 80-90 percent of the people without power. We can’t have a situation where that lasts for days on end.

And so my instructions to the federal agencies has been — do not figure out why you can’t do something, I want you to figure out HOW we do something.

The last part in bold is almost exactly word-for-word what Incident Commander Rick Gale used to tell his Command and General Staff. I heard him say it many times in strategy and planning meetings on incidents. Rick, who passed away in 2009, had been an icon in interagency fire management and in the National Park Service for decades. He was one of the first Type 1 Incident Commanders and Area Commanders, was Chief Ranger at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area north of Los Angeles, Chief Ranger of the National Park Service, and the National Fire Management Officer for the National Park Service.

Many firefighters have can-do personalities, and that defined Rick perfectly. They will figure out how to get things done — usually safely, and usually within the rules. But they will get things done if it is for the betterment of the public and the agency.

When I heard Rick say those words, it sent chills up my spine. I served with him for several years as the Planning Section Chief on the National Park Service’s Type 1 All-Risk Incident Management Team. We were only assigned to the largest and most complex incidents, and frequently we had to do big things on big incidents. Agency employees in Administration, Human Resources, and Procurement are not used to doing big things quickly, but usually we needed to get them done in a hurry. Road blocks were common, but Rick implored us and the folks we ran up against to make it happen — to figure out not why you CAN’T do something, but figure out HOW to get it done.

We had remarkable success in accomplishing big things quickly.

I remember it like it was yesterday. We were helping the four National Parks in south Florida recover from the effects of Hurricane Andrew which hit the Florida coast August 24, 1992 as a Category 5 storm with 155 mph winds. The exact wind speed was difficult to determine because the hurricane literally destroyed the National Weather Service’s anemometers.

We had many challenges to deal with of course, but one, for example, was restoring electrical power and telephone service to Flamingo (map), a remote area of the park that had a visitor center, employee housing, and administrative facilities 38 miles southeast of park headquarters at the extreme southern tip of Florida. The power and phone lines had been destroyed by the hurricane and we wanted to repair them, but Rick thought, well, what about the NEXT hurricane? Are we going to have to do it all over again? So we brought in experts to draw up the design and specifications for an underground power line from the border of the park all the way, 38+ miles, to Flamingo. And not only that, we threw in a fiber optic line as well, to provide phone and internet service, which would also be buried and hurricane-proof.

Hurricane Andrew Incident Management Team
NPS Type 1 All-Risk Incident Management Team at Hurricane Andrew, southern Florida, August, 1992. Left to right: Bill Gabbert (Planning Section Chief), Steve Holder (Logistics SC), Bill Pierce (Operations SC), Marcia Blazak (Finance SC), Rick Gale (Incident Commander, sitting w/white shirt & sunglasses), Pat Tolle (Information Officer)

This could not be done cheaply, of course, and pencil pushers in Washington were telling us it could be many months or years, if ever, that approval and the funds could be found to do something like that. But Rick kept pushing everyone — do not tell me why you can’t do it, I want you to figure out HOW we do it. Marcia Blazak, the Finance Section Chief, was used to working with Rick, and the two of them were an unstoppable force.

It cost about $9 million. And it was done quickly, in a matter of weeks.