Fire Camp – Rosebud Complex – 2012

“People from all walks of life show up in one spot, they build a team, they build a city, they fight the fires, put it out, save the day, feel great about their public service, and they all disappear again.” Incident Commander Stan Benes.

Today we have an article written by W. Scott Olsen. It tells the story of his visit to the Rosebud Complex fire camp in August of last year, a fire that burned 171,000 acres south of Rosebud, Montana. We have previously mentioned other wildfire-related articles written by Mr. Olsen, who is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, but this is the first time we have published one in its entirety. He describes it as an insider’s look at the morning briefing at the Rosebud Fire Camp last year.

Chalky Fire
Chalky Fire, part of the Rosebud Complex, 2012. Photo by Mia Victoria Zuehlsdorff.

Fire Camp ~Rosebud Complex ~ 2012

I am tremendously early.

Southeastern Montana is on fire and I am heading toward the Rosebud Complex fire camp. I have directions, hastily written on a yellow legal pad, fluttering in the open window gusts of my Jeep, but in truth I have no idea how far I need to go. All I know is that the morning briefing happens first. No set time. Just first.

Yesterday, on the phone with the public information liaison, I was told I needed boots if I was going into the black, into the burned and burning. At least eight inches tall. Lug soles. They had the fire resistant green pants and yellow shirts for me there, as well as a hardhat and gloves. But I needed my own boots, and a backpack to carry water. No problem, I said. The Jeep headed west.

I found a hotel room in Miles City but didn’t sleep very well. Two hours from here to the fire? I had no clue. State highways, rural routes, back roads and gravel are difficult to time.

I left at 4:00 a.m.

I am tremendously early, the world still dark, so I pull over at a historical marker. The Grave of the Unknown Man. “In 1886,” the marker reads, “ranchers buried near here what many believe to be the remains of Private Nathan Short…Short was believed to be carrying a message from General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.”

On a hill behind me, a lone horse stands in silhouette at a fence line, watching me. Behind him, the daybreak is an indigo highlight on the horizon.

Perhaps I was driving fast.


Imagine the way it must begin. Lightning and then fire. Thick full smoke in the air. The local fire engine crew arrives. They are probably volunteers. They spray the water their engine holds and dig whatever fire break they can. But the wind comes up and the fire grows fast. Grass fire can race over three acres in a minute and there is no way the one crew can get ahead of it. Embers and firebrands are lifted by the wind and start new brush when they fall. The local crew calls for help. There are more engines, more crews. And behind them comes the supply trucks, the water and food, the equipment—shovels and Pulaskis and radios—and the need to keep it all working, to keep it all organized, to keep it all sane. Way out in the open country there is suddenly a small, temporary, town. It wasn’t here yesterday. It might not be here tomorrow.
Continue reading “Fire Camp – Rosebud Complex – 2012”

Wildfire briefing, August 23, 2013

Firefighter dies in Portugal

A female firefighter was killed and nine were injured Thursday on a wildfire in Portugal near the small city of Tondela. Commander Antonio Ribeiro of the Serra de Caramulo firefighters said the crew ran from the fire but the firefighter who died fled in the wrong direction. Euronews reports that three firefighters have died this month. High temperatures and strong winds have contributed to the spread of 13 large fires in Portugal.

The national wildfire situation

Today there are 49 uncontained large fires listed on the national Situation Report in the United States, and that number does not include individual fires within complexes. There are currently 854,480 acres within the perimeters of those active fires. The national Preparedness Level has reached the highest category, PL 5, for the first time since 2008. And while it may seem like much of the west is on fire, the number of acres burned to date, 3.4 million, is much less than average, which is 5.6 million.

Competition for firefighting resources is occurring. There is only one California-based Type 1 or Type 2 incident management team available that is not assigned to a fire; 33 IMTeams are assigned nationwide. But surprisingly, there are no Area Command Teams committed.

We have 11 large and very large air tankers working right now on exclusive use contracts, and there are another 9 that the USFS has borrowed from the military, the state of Alaska, and the Canadian government. In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers on contract.

Forest Service runs out of money for firefighting

For the sixth time in the last ten years the U.S. Forest Service has run out of funds for suppressing wildfires. Even though the number of acres burned to date this year is below average, the USFS is having to divert funds from other non-fire accounts in order to cover the shortfall. This is due in part to reductions in the amount of money Congress allocates for the FLAME fund, which is supposed to fund firefighting while protecting other accounts. The Washington Post has more details.

Scott Olsen writes about a firefighter’s first day on the job

You may have seen the articles written last year by W. Scott Olsen, a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota about “the war on wildfires out west, meeting shot-callers and looking at the operation from the inside”. He has just published a new article at the Huffington Post about a wildland firefighter’s first day on the job.

Granite Mountain 19

The issues surrounding the deaths of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots June 30 on the Yarnell Hill Fire continue to make the news. Firefighters with the New York City Fire Department have raised $30,000 so far for the families of the 19, and they are hoping to add to that total. The Prescott Daily Courier asked the candidates for Mayor and the City Council to express their positions on the discrepancy between the benefits for the seasonal and full time members of the crew. And there is a debate about whether the city’s hotshot crew should be rebuilt.

Investigative reporter John Dougherty has two recent articles about the Yarnell Hill Fire: “Yarnell Hill Fire: The Granite Mountain Hotshots Never Should’ve Been Deployed, Mounting Evidence Shows” and “A Granite Mountain Hotshot’s Father Says the Blaze That Incinerated His Son Could’ve Been Controlled“.

Montana residents contribute for free coffee for firefighters

Residents near Lolo, Montana are contributing to a fund to provide free, good quality coffee for firefighters working on the Lolo Creek Complex. According to an article at KZBK, Samantha Harris, a barista at Florence Coffee Company in Lolo, said customers have been donating money to give firefighters coffee.

“We have a huge tab here so all the firefighters’ coffee is paid for,” Harris said. “Which has been really fun to tell them their coffee is free.” The tab is at nearly $300, she said.

Florence Coffee Company is at 11880 HWY 93 in South Lolo, Montana.

Photos of pyrocumulus

The Alaska Dispatch has some very impressive photos of pyrocumulus smoke columns caused by wildfires.

Goat manure fire stinks up town

A burning pile of goat manure is affecting the quality of life for residents of Windsor, Vermont. The pile ignited from spontaneous combustion Wednesday at George Redick’s 800-goat dairy. Windsor Town Manager Tom Marsh said he could smell the fire at his home which is five miles from the dairy.

Running for your life

White Draw Fire, South Dakota
White Draw Fire, South Dakota, July 29, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Last year we told you about a series of articles written by W. Scott Olsen, a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Mr. Olsen described the topic as “the war on wildfires out west, meeting shot-callers and looking at the operation from the inside”. The five articles are very well written, looking at the inside of firefighting from the eyes of an outsider.

He is working on a book that will be out next year and part of it has been published at the Huffington Post. This time he talks to a woman who had a very close call on a fire, having to run, literally, for her life. When the fire suddenly approached the road she and the crew were holding, she ran for hundreds of yards, falling three times. She had a serious burn on her arm and the hairs in her nose were singed indicating she inhaled superheated gasses.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

“I heard radio traffic about the paramedic coming. I smelt my skin burning. I felt a hot spot on my head. I threw my hard hat off and under my bandana was an ember burning my hair. My squad boss dumped a jug of water on my head immediately. I sat down and my knee immediately seized up. I couldn’t move it. The paramedic arrived and ordered a life flight through the helibase.”

Mr. Olsen tells what happened next and how it later affected her career.

The article does not mention anything about fire shelters being used. And the fact that she and presumably other crew members ran hundreds of yards apparently near the fire before they reached a safety zone, points out how reluctant firefighters can be to stop and get into their fire shelters.

After the investigation is complete of the Yarnell Hill Fire incident in which 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died, we may find out how, when, and under what circumstances decisions were made about the use of fire shelters. Preliminary information indicates that some of the firefighters were found in their shelters and others were not, but 19 shelters were deployed.

A week in fire – a series of articles

W. Scott Olsen, a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, is writing a series of articles on “the war on wildfires out west, meeting shot-callers and looking at the operation from the inside”.

The articles are very well-written. If you are involved in fire, you will appreciate the fresh point of view of an outsider. If not, you can learn a lot about how wildfires are fought and how the resources are managed by the “shot-callers”. Here are links to the articles that Mr. Olsen has written so far in this series.

Below is an excerpt from the “Monday” article in which he is describing a meeting of the National MultiAgency Coordination group (NMAC) at NIFC in Boise:

…After the weather, the talk turns to resources. The VLAT—Very Large Air Tanker, a DC-10—has been moved to California. The Rocky Mountain area wants two Heavy Tankers in addition to the MAFFS—Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, Air Force C-130s—deployed yesterday. Wamack goes around the table and asks what issues others may want discussed and there are very few. Then he suggests they move the national preparedness level from PL4 to PL3. This is not a small issue in that it will change how the entire nation handles its firefighting resources, and it is a step toward a more relaxed readiness. But the numbers from the field do not match the criteria for PL4. No one disagrees. It’s not difficult to move back to PL4 or even PL5. But that’s not where we are.

Without ceremony, the meeting ends and everyone goes back to their tasks. Nearly everyone has a telephone on their desk and a cell phone in their pocket, and both of them ring. This is the whole nation’s firefighting center. I keep thinking the whole thing should lapse into organizational chaos. All it would take is one person with a real turf-issue. But without exception, every person has front line fire experience. Every person has personal history and gut-deep understanding of what’s going on in the field. The federal agencies do not compete here. It’s not a world where the question is “What do you want from me?” It’s a world where the question is “What can I bring to the table?”


Thanks go out to Dick