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Fire Management – Organized Chaos

By Val Jaffe

Wildland fire management can be organized chaos. But more efficiency will be gained as we find common ground.

Understanding Logging Equipment
“You can’t move a 3,000 gallon nurse tank up that road to the fire. The curves are too tight,” said the agency fire boss, seeing water tanks affixed to a stinger-steered log truck. “But I used the same truck to haul logs out on that road last year,” replies the logger.

Elementary lessons in road alignments and vehicle turning radiuses are frustrating at the staging area.  Fire personnel, from Incident Commanders to dispatchers, are often unfamiliar with multifunctional forestry machines. Pre-season discussions work best for cost-efficient decisions at the fire incident.

Proven Models of Collaboration
Work is tougher on fire teams without machinery expertise; tougher as agency timber programs shrink and foresters retire.

We can learn from Canadian successes. The provincial government of Alberta collaborates on fire management with foresters and private companies, including contracted mechanized crew bosses. The provincial government and the Wildland Fire Operations Research Group (WFORG) also work closely with Canada’s Forest Engineering Research Institute (FERIC) to assure a quality national fire program.

“Often times, during initial attack, the logging community was first on the scene. They had mobilized themselves and equipment – bulldozers, skidders, and water trucks. Their proximity and knowledge of the ground made them a welcome sight and ally,” says Larry Edwards, retired smokejumper and Helena Hot Shot Crew Manager.       

With more frequent, large-fire seasons, loggers have proven that mechanized suppression tactics are effective in Appropriate Management Response (AMR).  Logger experience and ingenuity in the operations planning tent creates common ground where conflicting agency burn policies have proven unpopular. Both direct and indirect suppression strategies use mechanized crews to reduce forest fuels, and safely halt or steer a running crown fire.

• Fuelbreaks and ladder fuel reductions
• Mulching the understory
• Whole-tree harvesting on firelines
• Temporary bridges for access, fire perimeter monitoring and water delivery

Best Value      
Best Value contracting (a competitive process that allows projects to be awarded to the contractor offering the best combination of price and qualifications, rather than just the lowest bid) is also changing fire management, as more equipment categories are offered. For Wildland-Urban Interface areas (WUIs), and elsewhere, skidgines and pumper cats recently made their way into Best Value contract solicitations. Lowboys and soft-tracks are coming soon. Higher equipment and operator standards should lower overall suppression costs and improve personnel safety. 

These documented facts demonstrate cost savings and safety that can be achieved: one dozer or skidgine can clear ground fuels 10 times faster than one 20-person hand crew; one operator in a steel-caged cab on a feller-buncher, equipped with high-speed disc blade can safely fell 4 times more trees night or day than a 20-person Hot Shot crew during one shift. That’s 400 percent greater efficiency for fewer tax-payer dollars. Now there’s a growth service industry!

Willing Worker
Many loggers are willing to transport their equipment interstate to stay active. If not stymied by the fire mobilization process (i.e. inspections, agency ordering) and inequalities of Best Value, Severity, and Emergency Equipment Rental Agreements (EERAs), they arrive on time to protect at-risk communities.                                   

There are legitimate partnership issues yet to work out — worker compensation rates, exclusion from fire planning, and adjusting inflation rates, among others. But it’s a step toward better “organized chaos.”  

Fire Contracting Tips
• Contact your geographic region wildfire Coordinating Group (NRCG, PNWCG, RMCG) for pre-season training and certification.

• Ensure your status is current and correct after meeting all registration requirements.

• Know the various contract and equipment categories before you are dispatched or modify your equipment. Different fire business rules apply for initial and extended attack.

• Market your business and expertise (electronic media business cards and resumes, video, pictures). Describe your safe operator and equipment capabilities by fire task, terrain, and vegetation to agency fire officials.

• Arrive at incidents with approved documents that can be verified quickly.

• Don’t dispatch yourself to an incident of choice; it causes conflicts and unnecessary expense.

• Anticipate night operations. Check your wire connections, grounds, and lights.


Atkins, Dave, et. al. Hooklifts and roll-off trials for removing small diameter material. November 2007

Behar, Michael. Rendering Inferno, Wired Magazine. October 2004 (references Fire Area Simulator, FARSITE, created by Mark Finney)

Bruce Vincent, Environment News, November 1, 2000; The Heartland Institute

California Dozer Operator Group

Central Contractor Registration. Start here if you are not yet a government contract vendor

Eastside Acquisition Team Fire (example sub-region)
includes: Incident Processes Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). Further describes and defines the national business management guidelines ( for local contractors, i.e. what you must do if you want to sign up your equipment for fire and other incidents. Links and phone numbers for dates, pre-season signups, training and certification requirements, and payments.

EaTIS II procurement system

Excavator-mounted attachments; cost comparisons

Finney, Mark A.. Modeling Landscape Fire Behavior and Effects of Landscape Treatments. PowerPoint presentation, March 2004.

Fire Organization Directory, National and Regional Mobilization contacts. Quick phone number reference

Fire Science Lab, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Missoula, Montana

Firewords (Glossary of Fire Science Terms)

Forest Engineering Research and Investigation Center (FERIC)

Miller, C. Scott. Senator decries inertia on controlling wildfires. July 8, 2007.

Montana Association of Land Trusts. Working forests on Conservation Easements, Report to the Montana Interim Fire Suppression Committee. January 31, 2008.

National Incident Management Organization (NIMO). Interagency Team to identify strategies to improve incident management.

National Interagency Coordination Center

NE Washington Wildfire Training Group

Nevada Fire Safe Council on Community-wide Fuelbreaks (excerpt)

Northern Rockies Coordinating Group (NRCG), Contracting for Fire
includes current solicitations and agreements, calendar, EaTIS signup, check-in

Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC). Find a Center and Counselor nearest you to help you through the process, and to enter your information.

Risely Equipment, Flex-Trac

Science Daily, follows wildfire reports and studies.

Smallwood News Forum, Wildfire in Montana

Straub, Noelle. Dems push for new emergency wildfire fund, Helena Independent Record, March 7, 2008.

Wildland Fire Assessment System, Fire Danger Class by Geographic Region