news and events » smokejumper magazine

Smokejumper Magazine Header

Smokejumper Magazine Article

return to Smokejumper Magazine

Have Smokejumper Magazine delivered to you with an NSA Membership

Wildfire Suppression - A Problem No One Can Solve?

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction '59) |

One big advantage of being part of the smokejumper community from past years is getting continual feedback from people who went on to jobs “in the real world.” Many of these individuals formed the backbone of the USFS and were movers in wildland firefighting for years.

Their experience and insight, in my opinion, has been relegated to the back burner by the current wildfire community. There is a new generation in control. Refer to Dick Rath's (MSO-73) article on page 10. I know there has been a cli- mate change, the fire season is longer, and many things have changed. But, as much as things have changed, many things have not.

I'm going to print as much feedback and thoughts from these individuals as possible in this issue. Anything coming from our membership and the NSA that will change the current methods of operation will have a snowballs chance of effecting change.

Somewhere along the line, the taxpayers will have to demand a change. But, maybe that will never happen. Fighting wildfire takes highly skilled people - the public knows little about that but is frightened about the end results of uncontrolled wildfire. The budget is open-ended when fire starts burning down houses, and it becomes a blank check situation.

Last March at our NSA board meeting in Boise, we had a chance to get feedback from top fire personnel in the BLM and USFS. A key phrase stood out—“risk adverse.” This has become such a big factor that aggressive initial attack (IA) has become a thing of the past. Don't do anything that will get someone hurt.
Problem with that is the longer you wait to make IA, the larger the fire grows. The larger the fire, the more people and resources involved. The more resources on the road going to a fire, the more chances of an accident. Transporting crews over the highways certainly involves one heck of a risk. Highway accidents are commonplace.

If prompt IA can limit a fire to a couple of engines and two Hotshot crews to control it, isn't the “risk” greatly decreased from a fire that eventually grows into an incident that requires several hundred or a thousand firefighters?

The article by Ben Smith (MSO-64) in the April 2018 issue of Smokejumper concerning the Whetstone Ridge Fire stands key in my thoughts. Please read that one again just to refresh your mind. Ben was run around the block by the USFS all the way from the district level to the regional level. He immediately found out the FS was off base on the initial reporting of the fire by four hours. Refer to Ben's “Letter to the Editor” on page 19.

Ben asked the question as to why smokejumpers were not called immediately as there were available resources listed on the daily resource report. We were told at the Boise meeting that the daily status report is not always accurate and that smokejumpers might not have been available.

The forest administration said that there were two Hotshot crews on the way, so, in effect, why call smokejumpers? The key factor was that the two Hotshot crews arrived 23 hours later.

Let's explore some ideas, input from our members, and expand our thinking about how to handle the current fire situation.

Making Money Off Wildfire

Two years ago a close friend, a retired Fire Chief, and I opposed a move by the Chico Fire Dept. (CFD) to keep 17 staff that were funded by a federal grant. The main argument by the CFD was that the reduction in staff levels would put the community at risk—the fear factor at work.

After a good letter writing campaign and us talking to city council members, the retention of those firefighters at taxpayer expense was voted down 4-3. The taxpayers of Chico are saving about one million dollars a year and untold mil- lions in future benefits and retirement. Chico firemen average $120,000 a year and receive an additional $50,000 in benefits.

With the CFD telling the public of the woes of being understaffed, they still manage to put out a good number of that staff on wildfire during the summer. Why would they want to do that?

Well, as they say, let's follow the money. Once they are dispatched, they are paid 24 hours a day until they return to Chico. Assignments can run up to 14 days before they have to return. A Fire Apparatus Engineer could make about $12,500 in overtime PLUS his/her regular salary during that period of time. In common lingo, it can also be termed the “kitchen remodel.”

Nowdays they have many new positions to fill on a fire. One that is sometimes filled by local fire departments is the Medical Unit Team—an Emergency Medical Team—essentially a “band-aid and blisters” unit. Could be filled by local EMT's at a pretty reasonable expense. When it comes from the fire department, sometimes a Captain goes along. He/she annually makes $200,000- $220,000 locally. They would probably make $14,000 in overtime on a 14-day assignment. I used to have my crews treated by local EMT's and take them to the local emergency room if they required additional treatment.

Another unit that is confusing is the Technical Rescue Team. Locally they are usually involved in technical rescue situations and are a very valued and trained resource. But, do we need them on a fire just to fill in one of the spots on a manpower chart? I remember when we just hauled injured firefighters to the top of the hill, loaded them on the truck, and went back to work. Now we have to have a Technical Rescue Team. Are you seeing that fire is a big business?

Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys—Cal Fire Better!

Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson's song from 1978 tells it all. The future is bleak for you taxpayers—things are not going to get better in the wildfire situation. Best bet for the young per- son—join the ranks.

This is a success story from one standpoint. In the 1980s, I started what I think were the first Asian fire crews in the U.S. The Hmongs are people from the hills of Laos and were our mercenary army in the Secret War in Laos. When our government finally allowed them to immi- grate to the U.S., Fresno, California, became the “Hmong Capital” of America. From there they moved north to Stockton, Marysville, Willows and Chico.

At that time, I was running the Type II Crew Program for the Mendocino N.F. Someone told me about this little-known source of manpower. These were people who were hill people and soldiers—pretty good background for wildland firefighters.

Problem—how was I going to put them through the necessary classes to become wild- land firefighters? I took one of my best 8th grade Hmong student from my P.E. class and had him translate, one sentence at a time, through 16 hours of classroom training. It was not easy, but it worked. It was amazing. All of these men showed up with government approved identification, social security numbers, a pencil and paper. Quite different from the college student types I was used to teaching. Another big difference from the everyday students I had been teaching—after each class, every one of them came up and thanked me for being a teacher. Wow!

Bottom line—I had four crews of Hmong firefighters. They were good. Problem was that the USFS could not figure out how to feed them or just didn't care. These men did not eat steak and potatoes and the regular fire camp menu. I told the Forest Service that all I needed was a 50 pound sack of rice, a cook, and my guys could get by on a lot less than they paid the fire camp caterer. Try to explain that to a person in “Contract- ing.” I had an overweight person sitting in a chair with four wheels telling me what is the required diet for firefighters. Common sense is not a trait of the USFS.

A few years later Johnny, my 8th grade translator, graduated from the Fire Academy at a local community college. I was so proud of him. The graduation ceremony was special. Every member of Johnny's family, youngest to grandparents, was there. I had a special invitation and sat with the Hmong family that filled the whole top row of the bleachers.

Johnny now works for Cal Fire. He has a high school education and a diploma from the Fire Academy. Last year he made $110,000—more than twice what I made as a 38-year teacher with a Master's Degree. Good for Johnny. Do you see what the future job market is going to be? If Waylon and Willie could update their song, it might be: “Let your babies grow up to be Cal Fire firefighters.”

Building in Areas That Will Burn

Santa Rosa Fires—Even after the devastating fires of 2017, they are now rebuilding even more houses in the same areas than were there in the first place. Three major fires burned some of the same areas: 1930s, 1970s (40 yrs.) and 2017 (47 yrs.). What were open fields in the 30s are housing developments now.

When building projects came before the local County Supervisors, Fire Marshalls said fire safety measures for construction were good. National Public Radio (3/18), however, pointed out that 94% of the homes that burned had these safety measures. Project approved 6-1.

The County Supervisors seemed to feel that you can't tell people where they can or cannot build. People don't want to be told where to build even if they are in fire prone areas. They don't want to take basic steps to protect their house—removing vegetation and trees next to houses.

Dave Blakely (MSO-57) wrote a great article published in the July 2018 issue about him “sheltering in place” during a firestorm in Australia in 1983. At the time they sheltered in the home of David Packham, “one of Australia's renowned wildland fire researchers.” While reading Dave's article, which was heart-stopping at times, I thought—If Packham is a renowned fire research- er, and his house was not prepared, how can the average citizen have any clue on what to do?

Here was the house of David Packham: Tall grass surrounding the house, no shutters on windows to prevent breaking of glass and fire enter- ing, house surrounded by trees (standing eucalyptus—worst possible), propane tanks near his house unprotected (brass caps melted away), pile of lumber near the end of the house, pile covered with plastic tarp (toxic when burning), 2nd pile of lumber laying against the house. It's a miracle Dave is still with us after looking at this.

People want to be protected by agencies, e.g. fire dept., and want to be told how to evacuate vs. planning ahead. In other words, they don't want to be told they are in danger but want to be protected when the stuff hits the fan. When that happens, even the best of planning will not do the job.

Stop here and go to “Stop The Fire—No Fault Fire Zones” by John Culbertson (FBX-69) on page 13. How about it? Build it in a wildfire zone—protect it yourself. In a country that prides itself on individual independence, is it unreason- able to expect those individuals to take some personal responsibility?

Insurance Companies

The Insurance Commissioner in California said that the claims for losses total nearly $12 bil- lion dollars from the wildfires that burned during October and December 2017. Go back and read John Culbertson's (FBX-69) experiences in the April 2018 issue of Smokejumper. John's everyday experiences gave us a great window into living with wildfire day after day.

Some residents are receiving non-renewal notices for their home insurance. I read about homeowners complaining about the drought caus- ing trees to die and so on. Jeez—if you live in an area surrounded by trees, aka a forest, trees will die, burn, and grow over a period of time. You pick the place you live and determine the risks. Again, people want to be independent on one hand but don't want to be told they are living in a fire or flood-prone area and, on the other hand, are disturbed when their insurance rates go up.

They are independent Americans who don't want to be told where to live. At the same time, they are dependent Americans when it comes to natural disasters. Let's up everyone's insurance so “I can live in an area surrounded by trees—subsidize me so I can live on the hilltop. Surround my area with defensible space—that takes work and planning. I pay taxes for fire protection.”

Anywhere from 20% to 50% of the houses in the northern California areas are identified as high or very high risk areas. The state Insurance Com- missioner wants the state legislature to change California law to prevent homeowners from losing their coverage because of wildfire risk. I really don't want to side with the insurance industry but, in this case, this seems like a good idea.

I'm using California as an example but, regard- less of where you live, the situations are similar. Any houses in Montana and Idaho being built in high risk areas? As Red Ryder said, “You betchum, Little Beaver.”

Tom Kovalicy (MSO-6) recommended that I read “Salmon River Fire” by John Sangster. Great read on the job volunteer fire people do answering the call and saving homes and property in Idaho.

One thing stands out and will never change, be it in Idaho or any other state. The great majority of property owners will not even take the basic prevention steps to protect their homes and out buildings. Wood piles and trees touch the houses - tall grass and brush on the property has not been mowed or cleared. Basic firewise steps that could be done at the owner's leisure during the off-season are left undone. During the firestorm, the firefighters are left to correct the ills of the unprepared property owners.
My recommendation is that only property that has been worked ahead of time and inspected for firewise work would be defended. Put your efforts on those who will take the time and effort to prepare their property for the fires that will come. As in the fable “The Little Red Hen,”— You don't help grow the grain, you don't eat the bread.

Look Out for Yourself—Plan Ahead

Let's look at a national disaster, the Napa/So- noma/Santa Rosa Fires (2017). High winds (70 mph) downed trees that downed power lines that caused transformers to blow. The local resources were quickly overwhelmed. The 911 systems were overwhelmed. The ability for emergency agencies local/county/Cal Fire to communicate was over- whelmed.

First responders had to wait until downed power lines were inactivated by PGE—they couldn't cross active power lines on the ground. Dispatch centers lost power and, in some cases, rooms filled with smoke. Surrounding towns and counties were also overwhelmed with fire, negating the possibility of mutual aid. Everyone was up to their a-- in alligators at the same time. Chaos!

Power can be shut off during a natural disaster. Downside—disrupts hospitals and other critical facilities, traffic lights become inoperative. Some advantage—a lot of disadvantage. It is hard to imagine the nightmare emergency responders from all agencies were facing at that time.

You could have had an engine and crew on every corner, and the result would have been a lot of lost engines and crews.

Bottom line - people are going to have to do a better job of protecting themselves - shelter in place. Build it to burn and it will.

A National Fire Academy

Refer to Les Joslin's article on page 15. Concerning a USFS Academy. There are a lot of good ideas there from Les. Looking at the current wildfire situation, it is evident that experienced and knowledgeable people are needed. We have military academies that produce professional soldiers—why not an Academy that specializes in wildfire management?

Coordination Between All Resources

Read Tommy Albert's (CJ-64) article on page 12. A great example of a mix that results in the tail wagging the dog. Air Tankers are immediately dispatched and lead planes waiting for approval from high up.

Tommy goes on to say, “When I was in Red- ding, the fire siren would go off, and we (lead planes) watched the tankers take off and disappear over the horizon before dispatch would call for us to launch. I would go over to dispatch and ask what was going on? They said lead planes are a ‘National Resource,' so they had to go through the geek, gack, and the gook to get permission to launch. So, on our way out to the fire, we, the LEAD plane, would ask the RETURNING tanker what the fire was doing.”

National Resource

I've heard many times that smokejumpers are a “National Resource.” At our NSA meeting in Boise last March, I head that smokejumpers are still being “held" by home units.

From Dave Nelson (MSO-57): “This fallacy of ‘National Resource' availability has been the same for at least the last 40 years. Most national resources, like Hotshot crews, IMT's, smokejumpers, etc., are assigned to units – either districts, forests or regions, and the old adage ‘possession is nine-tenths the law' remains true with any asset assigned to a unit.”

Reflex Time

Reflex Time is the time it takes to submit an order and for that resource to arrive at the incident. The system is broken. We can see from incident to incident that “Reflex Time” moves at a snail's pace. I continue to ask the question: “If your house was burning, would the local fire department call a meeting and decide when to send a fire engine?” Please go back to Ben Smith's article on the Whetstone Fire in Montana in the April issue of Smokejumper—23 hours. Are you satisfied with that response?


The most critical key to preventing major wildfire events is quick detection and quick initial attack. Refer to my article on the Chetco Bar Fire on page 26. This fire cost over $61 million. In addition, it burned in the footprint of the Biscuit Fire that went over 500,000 acres and more mil- lions. Wouldn't it seem logical to be on the alert for fire in that area? Pre-plan on how to fight fire in that area?


Lookouts seem to be a thing of the past. We need to revert to a system that worked. A single lookout could save millions in suppression expenses. The USFS is asking for volunteers for many jobs. I'm sure a well-managed program could find hundreds of qualified volunteers to man our forest lookouts—that is, if they even exist any more. Refer to Karl Brauneis (MSO-77) article: “Fixed Lookouts vs. Aerial Detection” on page 20.

Murry Taylor's (RDD-65) article on page 21 gives us some insight on how lookouts are still being staffed—volunteers, paid staff, open during high fire danger times. See any ideas there that could help in your area?

Hiring Problems

When we come up 40+ short of smokejumpers for a season (2017), there is a glitch in the system that needs to be fixed. Refer to my article on page 28. I've spent six months on this piece and feel like I'm chasing my tail.

Management of Wildfires on National Forest Lands

Bill Derr (Associate) does an excellent job (page 31) of presenting a consensus of opinions regarding future wildfire suppression and aerial firefighting issues garnered from attendees at the Aerial Firefighting Conference, March 12 to 14, 2018, Sacramento, CA. A lot of food for thought there.

Harvesting Our Forests

When the logging industry was shut down years ago, we lost the ability to thin our forests. Towns dried up, schools were closed, and jobs were lost. One thing we do know—trees will grow.

There has to be some common ground in the middle that both sides can agree upon where we can start our lumber and harvesting industry again. Restarting the lumber industry will have many benefits: Reduction of the fuel load, creation of jobs, tax money going back into communities in depressed areas, and reduction in the annual costs of fighting wildfire. Let's get the USFS back into the field of sustainable, professional logging. Read Bud Filler's (MYC-52) article on page 32. The President wants to put more coal miners back to work. How about thinning our forests—a process that will never end.

Preventing The Disease VS Treating The Disease.

I do not have the expertise of being a professionally trained Forester. But, I'm guessing that the professional foresters in the USFS, BLM, and other departments are frustrated with the lack of emphasis given to the management of our forests. With the amount spent annually on fighting wild- fire, forest management has to have been pushed to the back seat.

My wife, K.G., reads and proofs every article that goes into Smokejumper magazine. She knows a lot about fire and smokejumping. Last week- end we took a 1400-mile road trip to attend the McCall Reunion—great reunion! She continually comments about the overload of growth we see as we are driving through our forests—trees touching trees. Every now and then, we come across an area that has been thinned. You can see open space and good trees—an amazing sight.

What would happen if we would put a couple billion into the management of our forests on an annual basis? Did you know that we have spent over a TRILLION dollars in Afghanistan since 2001? I don't like to delve into politics, but we spent $30.8 billion there in 2016. Someone please show me the results for that expenditure. History has shown that our trillion-dollar war will not achieve any of the expected goals.

Just think what we could do with 10 billion of those dollars. There are millions of acres of our forests that are at a high risk from wildfire. The amount of acreage is increasing each year. Some- one in the higher levels of government needs to make the decision to spend a lot of money on the treatment of our forestlands. The easiest way to fight wildfire is to prevent wildfire.

For someone to make a decision to move in this direction is going to take a big set of brass balls. The wildland firefighting industry in the U.S. is making big bucks and expanding. It seems like everyone that has a surplus jet wants to get into the air tanker business. How long before we see the Airbus A380-800 being outfitted with tanks that can drop thousands of gallons of retardant? Has anyone evaluated the effectiveness of these very large air tankers? How many of the smaller Air Tractor aircraft could we put on a fire for the cost of a single DC-10? The DC-10 can carry up to 12,000 gallons of retardant. An Air Tractor with a scoop system can deliver up to 14,000 gallons of water on a fire per hour if there is a local water source.

Final Thoughts

I started putting together this issue nine months ago. This issue of Smokejumper is different, as I have cut out many of the shorter articles in order to address the problem of wildfire in the U.S. It is now July 2018 and I'm fast approaching my deadline for the Oct. 2018 issue of the magazine. I just got back from a trip to San Francisco and drove most of the way under a cloud of smoke from fires burning around the Clear Lake area in Northern California. I'm beginning to wonder what is left to burn? Cal Fire is very aggressive in initial attack (IA) and still the situation is out of control.

What is going to happen to our forests where IA is very slow at times? I'm guessing our read- ers in Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon will be recovering from smoke inhalation by the time this issue gets to them In October. Most of California should be black.

Let's do some thinking. Will the fire seasons get any less severe? No way! It's going to get hotter and drier with no end in sight. 2018 will be worse than 2017 and on up the line.

Will the USFS re-establish lookouts and beef up aerial detection in order to get to the fires ear- lier and cut expenses? No way! In a country that prides itself on volunteerism, the FS needs to be a leader in this area.

Will we ever get to the point where homeowners who build in high-risk areas are responsible for protecting their own property? No way! As much as we want to claim we are independent Americans, people want to be protected from flood, famine and fire. The American public can be likened to the young smiling face of Alfred E. Neuman, the star of MAD magazine from the 1950s-"Me Worry?"

Will the amount of money spent on fighting wildfire decrease in future years? No way! The taxpayers will foot the bill for any amount of money if their lives and property are threatened. Fighting wildfire will have a blank check for the foreseeable future.

Will the future billions of dollars spent make any difference? No way! Get ready to see that amount increase on an annual basis.

Will there be any accountability for the way fires are fought and the lack of initial attack? No way! The “at risk” card can be played at any time.

I'm not a professional forester, but I think I have a good deal of common sense. In my opinion, the best and most fiscally responsible option is to prevent the disease, rather than treat the disease. If we do not reduce the fuel load, there is no way we can stop the annual burn and terrific amount of money spent on wildfire control in the U.S.

Read “The Forest Fire Debate” by Bud Filler (MYC-52) on page 32.
Bud has spent close to 60 years in forestry from smokejumping to mills and management. Bud has some common sense ideas that would go a long way in reducing the wildfire problems in our forests.

It is really hard to get people to think about preventing or reducing the disease (wildfire) vs. treating the disease. Prevention is not in the thought process of the citizens of this country. How much do we spend on rebuilding and aiding those who build their houses on a flood plain? Same with those who build on the coast line in hurricane-prone areas. Go back to the start of this article and see what is happening in the areas in Northern California that were burned in 2017. They are rebuilding at an increased density. Guess what's going to happen down the line in 10-20 years?

Let's move to the dream world. There is suddenly a change in the country. We have figured out that trees grow. They can be harvested. There can be a tremendous amount of jobs created by harvesting trees. People look around their house and figure out that it is mostly made of wood and that the furniture is not concrete. Wow—where does this wood come from?

On the trip that I took to Laos and Vietnam five years ago, I saw forests being cleared with no professional management. When our vehicle passed one of those logging trucks on the narrow road, I hoped that it would be a quick pass as those logs were stacked way too high and tilting our way. So, I'm guessing that a good portion of your house and furniture might have come from another country. Let me know if your house is constructed from Styrofoam and you will get an award.

In this day of such political animosity, can't some group sit down and develop a plan to reduce the fuel load in our wildlands? Logging and fuel reduction can be done that would meet the aims of the majority of our citizens.

I went to a wildland fire conference a few years ago and heard from a bunch of educated and dedicated people. The most discouraging part of the conference was a comment from a high level forester who dealt with the “extreme conservationists.” Bottom line: They would rather the forest burn than be thinned or logged. I cannot fathom that this would be the desire of the majority of the people in this country.

Sure, there have been many practices in the past that have not been environmentally sound. But, at the same time, does that mean that we give up and go completely the other way? There has to be a middle ground reached. We cannot allow the radicals to rule the roost.

We have so many acres in the United States that need to be thinned. Jobs would be created, new industry would also be created. What would be better - jobs and industry or black ash?