Chapter 10: The Fayette Incident

A Case Study of the CPS

Once in a great while there comes along a great challenge. Sometimes it requires great endurance, persistence, the ability to predict fire behavior, or the ability to overcome great difficulties.

This 38,000-acre wildfire was The Big One for many of us. Not the largest fire that I have witnessed by far, but this fire was one of the most resistant to control that I’d ever seen in all my 35 years of firefighting. This fire was affected by the 5-year drought that dehydrated most of western United States; it was very dangerous to fight.

The purpose of this chapter is to show how even the most complex fires can be out-maneuvered when direct attack strategies will not win. Further, it reveals how I used my fire behavior training and line experience to identify appropriate tactics for various situations. So I will tell this story in stages.

It is important to be flexible as conditions change. The key tacticians on a wildfire are the Operations Chief and the Fire Behavior Analyst. These individuals identify the course of actions that is appropriate to the fire behavior conditions and the capability of the fire fighters assigned. We often hear that it is not so important whether we win or lose; it’s how we play the game. That’s not true in firefighting: we want to WIN.

The First Stage is the Situation Stage

A wildfire that came to be known as the Fayette Incident was ignited on August 21, 1988 near Fayette Lake in the Bridger Teton National Forest in Wyoming. The fire’s speed and intensity was greater than the suppression forces’ firefighting capability, and so the fire escaped control.

fayette-lake

The Incident Management Team that was assigned worked to organize and direct the initial suppression action. For the next seven days, the fire gained more ground than the firefighters, becoming more complex and consuming large acreage each day.

On August 28, a decision was made to replace the existing fire overhead team with a Class 1 team. Three days after the new team was in place, the fire made a major run doubling in size to 20,000 acres. It had now established itself in the Bridger Wilderness. Because it was a wilderness fire, restrictions were placed upon the use of mechanical firefighting tools such as tractors.

It is a general policy of the U.S. Forest Service that no motorized equipment is allowed in the wilderness. The team had to request waivers to allow chain saws, portable pumps, helicopter landing rights and for the use of all other mechanized firefighting equipment. Orders were issued to the crews building fire lines to lay a light hand on the land. Sensitivities were heightened to the damage that fire control efforts could inflict upon a wilderness. No bulldozers were allowed.

Firefighters had to cope with this back-in-time policy and watch the fire escape, all the while knowing that it could have been controlled under different rules of firefighting. Such is the situation in the wilderness. One firefighter was heard to exclaim loudly to others within earshot, “It’s like going to an ass kicking contest with one leg tied up.”

A fire of this size in road-less and rugged wilderness is an ultimate challenge to the logistics section. The logistics personnel must supply all the men, equipment and stock used to fight the fire. They must supply the main base camp and many spike camps placed around the country where the fire is burning. If smoke obscures the sky and helicopters cannot fly, the men working in remote spike camps suffer. The work shifts are 12 hours long and fatigue increases with each passing day. Firefighters become less and less productive each day but the fire burns on. This fire situation had already existed for so long that orders were given that firefighters must be given a day off for each seven worked, and after a specific number of days must be rotated to rest camps.

Stage 2: Traveling to the Fire Site

When the numerous fires of 1988 were burning out of control in and around Yellowstone Park, I was happily retired from the U.S. Forest Service and my 30 years of firefighting. I’d been puttering around with my hobby business—gunsmith—in Ojai, California, USA.

I had been recalled for 40 days in 1987 for assignment to Northern California’s worst fires in history. During that assignment, I had implemented my own brand of fire behavior prediction system, the Campbell Prediction System (CPS). It proved so successful that I had written a course to teach the system. I had new tools and new ideas that helped to predict when and where the fire would change behaviors. This system worked much better for the on-the-line firefighter than the USDA-brand of fire behavior that was the stock and trade of other fire behavior analysts.

On September 2, 1988, I received a call from the Forest Dispatcher asking me to accept an assignment on a fire in Wyoming as a Fire Behavior Analyst. I was especially interested in these fires because they were historical events presenting great challenges. I accepted the assignment and received my order number and flight schedule. I would depart at 1:00 p.m. the following day.

I packed my fire bag and assembled my fire behavior tools that I’d invented during the 1987 fire siege and drove to the Santa Barbara, CA airport. The trip took the majority of the day, but as the plane approached Wyoming I could see the many smoke columns billowing in the sky. My orders were to report to the area command center in Jackson Hole, WY for assignment to one of the many fires burning in the area. I always wonder at this point of my assignment if I’ll be up to the task. Maybe it is the doubts that put the starch in my backbone, I’m not sure. The plane landed and I was met by a driver and whisked to the resource status room located in a trailer parked at the Jackson Hole Ranger Station.

Maps were hung on the walls showing the fires covering area than I’d ever seen. Looking more closely, I could see where some blazes had joined creating ever-larger fires. I could imagine the problem this caused as organizations required revision to accommodate the newly developed situation.

These people in the trailer had all sorts of little pin-ups adorning the room that had obviously been in place for some time. The word was that a 30-day tour was the norm for those involved in the siege. In fact, the situation spanned more than three months. I was at ease with the 30-day prospect because I had no other work piling up at home like most of the regular employees. I signed in and produced my travel orders.

A woman “logged me in” by placing my name and number on a Tee Card and placing it into the Re-Stat board under the Available heading. I was given a motel room key and instructions to check in the following morning for further instructions. I enjoyed a good meal in Jackson Hole and the sights the town offered.

As instructed, I checked in at the Resource Status trailer at 6:00 a.m. “Stand by in the yard area,” I was told. It was so cold that I scrounged up a heater from one of the garage bays but it wasn’t long before I was called from the yard and handed my fire assignment orders. I would be assigned to the Fayette Fire Incident near Pinedale, WY.

My fire behavior tool kit that was checked through the airline with my baggage had not yet arrived and I was frankly worried that in the midst of this chaotic scene I might never see it again. Luckily, I found an old acquaintance, and a friend’s brother in transportation. Ron Raley guaranteed to find my gear and get it to me wherever I was in this maze of fires. I knew that Ron “knew the ropes” and left my problem in his capable hands. He came through too; within two days my bag came to me at the Incident Base.

I was transported in a van along with five others assigned to various fires in the area along our route. The van transverses Yellowstone Park dropping the others off along the way at various camps. I still had a small but very real knot in my stomach as I usually do before the distraction of work helps to dissolve it.

I was driven through Pinedale, a small town that stood beside a small river far from other towns. Passing over a cattle guard and through a few miles of sage brush-covered country, I could see smoke from the Fayette fire.

We arrived at the Incident Base and Command Post about mid-day. Heaving my fire pack containing my clothes and a backpack tent to one shoulder, I walked from the parking area toward the tents of the Command Post.

In the thirty plus years of fire assignments I still get the same feelings. There is the anticipation of finding old friends, the anxiety of walking into a new situation and that darned old knot in the stomach that I relate to doubts—wondering if I will be up to my assigned task. What kind of boss will I have? Will he be helpful or difficult to work with? I usually focus first on the people and the working relationship and secondly on the fire problem. If I can get acquainted and establish a good rapport, it is much easier to do the work. The national fire organization had done an excellent job of getting me to this location. There was only one hitch: I was still without the tools I needed.

Stage 3: Sizing Up the Situation and Meeting the People

I checked in, signing the form at Re-Stat and asked directions to the Plans unit where incident fire behavior analysts were assigned. Upon meeting some of the Incident Management team members there, I learn that the fire team is comprised of people that I’ve worked with over the years with the exception of my direct supervisor. The Incident Commanders and Operations Chiefs knew me and greeted me warmly. I talk with him and try to get a feel for their perceived fire situation. I get the impression that they are fine organizationally, but are not gaining control of the fire and have no time estimate of control. Explaining that my fire behavior tool bag had not yet caught up with me, I asked the Plans Chief what he’d like for me to do first. He said to get acquainted with the people and the fire for starters.

I picked up a copy of the Incident Action Plan containing the plan of action for the operational period and read it. I saw that the Incident had two Fire Behavior Analysts already assigned. I would start there. Finding a tent with a sign designating it as the fire weather and fire behavior unit, I walked in and introduced myself. They, of course, wanted to know why I was ordered to an incident where two fire behavior analysts were already assigned. I didn’t know and couldn’t answer the question. Maybe they were hoping for relief. It is unusual for two analysts to be assigned on one fire, much less three!

I needed to learn all that I could about the fire behavior and the situation anyway, so I decided to take the initiative. Jim Bishop was a CDF officer assigned as one of the analysts on this fire, so I asked to be allowed to accompany him on a field recon tomorrow. He agreed. Still unsure exactly how I would fit into the organization, but knowing I needed to evaluate the fire for myself, I made plans to join him the following day.

The next morning, Jim and I met at the heliport to fly to an observation point he’d selected. The air transportation was busy moving fresh firefighters into new positions around the fire. Supplies carried in two or sometimes three slings beneath the helicopters were loaded and sent aloft. The Helitack Group was functioning well. I could see that they had a good handle on the situation. The loads were weighed, checked off, and tagged for the destination. Firefighters were assembled and checked for safety equipment. The manifests were completed and the crews carefully loaded and flown to their planned destinations.

Even though most available flights are planned in advance, the Helitack Group must also respond to calls for help from the fireline. Water or retardant may be needed to douse a hot spot or slop-over; a medi-vac may be needed for an injured firefighter. Special requests from the line and recons for fire officers must be scheduled. This operation can make or break the effort of a fire. This unit, I could see, was running well.

Lifting off in the Bell 212 crowded with firefighters heading off for various missions, we circled over the base camp and then, climbing far above the rising terrain, flew to the center of the south flank of the fire. Our landing site was a large boulder the size of a large house perched on the rim of a deep canyon. I could see that if the helicopter failed to return to retrieve us, it would not be possible to walk out of there. I’d been stranded may times before waiting for a helicopter at the end of the day only to find out that a more urgent request had been given priority. I knew that we could easily be here through the night.

Jim took temperature and humidity readings each hour, logging them in this notebook. He was looking for a correlation between the humidity reading and the fire’s extreme behavior. He deduced that when the humidity readings were in the teens the fire behavior could become extreme.

On the other hand, I was looking for the time and aspect relationship, trying to find the time and aspect when the fire became extreme. I videotaped the changes in fire behavior that were occurring throughout the day. I concluded that the fire would only become extreme if it were established below topography that faced south, southwest, or west from 12 noon to 6:00 p.m.In concert, we decided that if the wind should blow hard, the fire would run with the wind and spot in front of the flaming edge. But the fire remained fairly calm for most of the day except for some isolated lopes where the fire ran up and then laid down after burning to the top.

Jim wanted to stay with his humidity theory, and I wanted to develop the fuel flammability concepts I’d used on the ’87 fires. We agreed to disagree.

It was getting late in the day and the helicopter was overdue. I started to make plans in the event we had to remain the night on that rock. It would be an uncomfortable night to say the least. There was no food, little water left and no shelter or heavy jackets to shield us from the cold. And we knew there was always the possibility of a higher priority for the copters; the pilots could be out of time or experience mechanical failure.

We heard it before we saw it, blades chopping the air coming up the canyon. It was a Bell 206. When I got in and buckled into the harness in the right front seat, the pilot did the pick-up-to-a-hover then drop-off-the-edge trick. Great, my stomach always flips when pilots fly over drop offs; it’s like swinging out over a 1,000-foot cliff on a rope. Fortunately, my stomach landed right side up as I felt the helicopter transition from takeoff into a smooth powered flight in free air. I looked over the fire again and then relaxed and enjoyed the view of the country on the way back to base.

Now, I had seen the fire area and met the team. I needed a position and more information about the suppression tactics and capabilities next. I sat in with the two analysts while they prepared the fire behavior forecast for the night shift. No one thought the fire would do much during the night. No weather forecast expected an event that would blow the fire over the land, nor was any rain in sight to extinguish it. The relative humidity was 35% and rising as expected, so the fire was expected to remain calm. Maybe the dew would put it out by morning.

That evening, Jim Bishop, Mark Beighley and I discussed the fire situation as it related to the fire behavior forecasts for a couple of hours. I tried to convince these F.B.A.s that I had a new approach that would work in this circumstance. I felt resistance mostly from Jim. He did not like the idea of fuel temperatures being used in behavior predictions. I should have known better than to try to pull anyone into deep water while they were engaged in a situation like this one. We discussed, then argued, and then shouted at one another. This went on until I was sure that Jim and Mark were in agreement with each other and it was obvious I was the odd man out.

Now how would we operate? We needed to cooperate. I was stubbornly sure that I could do some good using my system if only I was allowed.

I heard my name called on the loud speaker to pick up a package at transportation. After walking the quarter mile down the dirt road to the transportation unit, I found my fire behavior tools had at last been delivered to me. Good old Ron Raley. He had come through for me. While walking over to the fire behavior tent to set up my tools, I wondered if the display would cause renewed attacks on my ideas. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’m into it so deeply now, so what the hell.” I stashed the hard case with the tools by the weather instruments for the night and left for dinner.

A caterer out of a tractor-trailer served meals. Filling my plate with steak, I walked to the suitcase tables that seat four and found some old fire buddy and began to swap stories. After chow, I walked by the shower trailer and was amazed to see it was Vince Mecina’s shower unit from Buellton, CA. That was a long drive for that unit. The mobilization needed to meet the requests of the logistics units were stretched to the max. With dinner over, I returned to the Incident Command Post and met with the Plans Chief to get more definition on what I could do for the incident. He introduced me to Gerry Gelock from the Sequoia National Forest in Porterville, CA.

Gerry was assigned to a special plans unit that had only been used once before during the Wheeler fire in 1985 in Ojai, CA. This unit was to be called the Speculation Unit. This unit would develop long-range views to be presented to the Incident Commander and staff.

Gerry wanted one of the three F.B.A.s to work for him in the Speculation Unit. I volunteered for the duty quickly, jumping at the chance to work alone without my peers arguing with me over my unorthodox ideas. Gerry accepted my offer and I was in the second ever Speculation Unit activated. This was history being made here! The unit’s members included a display processor and a base camp manager who dealt with the spike camp situation, and me, the fire behavior analyst.

What was the capability of the suppression force out there on the fire lines? It is one thing to know what a fire might do, but it’s as important to know what the firefighters can handle. This comparison establishes the threshold-of-control. When this is known appropriate tactics can be recommended. I’m talking tactics that can win. So far, there was no winning for the crews trying to control the head of this fire.

I asked Gerry for an OK to fly over the fire area and to walk the fire line with the Operations Chief in order to gain an appreciation for the situation. He agreed and I scheduled the recon for the following day. The fixed wind flyover was canceled due to the fire suppression activity priorities. I contacted the Operations Chief and he agreed to allow me to look over the worst section of the fire with him.

The Operations Chief on the shift was a U.S. Forest Service District Fire Management Officer named Bob Johnson. The other Operations Chief was Rich Wand from the Cleveland National Forest. Bob and I had worked on more than a few fires together as Operations Chiefs and I knew that he was one of the best fire officers in the business. Rich was experienced as well. He had the night shift.

Bob arranged the helicopter flight to the head of the Fayette fire and we left base camp for one of the spike camps above 10,000 feet. As we landed in a meadow near Lake George, I saw the provisions for the George Spike Camp piled in the clearing. Walking closer to the camp, I realized there was no excess of supplies here; it was bare bones survival.

Bob Johnson was constantly busy answering calls on one or the other of the two portable radios slung over his shoulder. He communicated with Air Operations regarding information and questions about the priorities for aerial retardant drops and with line overhead concerning supplies or fire tactics questions.

We walked out of the spike camp and onto the fire line heading south. I took video footage of this walk on the fire line and was glad I did. The video has since become very useful in my training classes.

The walk on the fire line with Bob Johnson was one of the most important things that I did while on the fire. I wanted to know the capability of the hand crews that were tasked to build the fire line. Bob estimated the crews he had assembled could build hand line at about one-fourth the rate of the Forest Service Hot Shot Crews. These were the only crews he could get. The hand crews that were available for the fire were minimally proficient with minimum training. These crews could not handle much more than two feet of flame length and then not for long. They had few pumps to use water against the fire in the head area and were forced through dirt to knock down the flames. Another tactic employed was to back away from the fire’s edge and build fire line, burning it out toward the main fire. Much of the time the word was defensive in posture.

Next, I turned my attention toward the potential of the fire. I wanted to find out just how predictable the fire was. What events could be predicted? How could they be predicted?

The situation was about as complex as any Bob or I had ever seen. Often the fire would run for miles when it made a run; on another day it would stay in place in one section and run in another. Strong wind occurrences always resulted in fire runs and strong winds were a daily occurrence. The suppression crews could not control the fire on windy days. When the wind did subside the fire came within the threshold of control, but the area was too large and too discontinuous to get the work done before the next wind event.

The aircraft retardant drops couldn’t put the fire out. The green hand crews could not build enough line to contain the flame front, and could not find or contain all of the spot fires ahead of the main blaze.

Would we be here until winter? That seemed a real possibility unless we could do something to win.

The fire’s head was a zone of moving spot fires. The forest litter in front of the fire was old, aged and very dry. Drought had dried the dead fuels until most of the total ground fuels were susceptible to ember ignition. Under more normal climatic conditions, only embers could kindle a portion of the fuels. Now, almost all of the ground litter was susceptible to kindling from sparks in this tinder dry forest. Bob scraped the ground with the toe of his boot and commented, “Look at the duff layer, it is deeper than you think. It is all organic and will burn four to six inches under the surface.”

I was beginning to think that unless the fire line could be constructed beyond the zone of spot fires and burned out, there would be no way the hand crews could be successful. Most of the time burnout attempts failed to burn clean enough to result in a final line.

As we walked along the fire edge, Bob and I discussed the burn out tactic. Bob had given order to construct fire line. In addition to a ten-foot scraped firebreak, he wanted the lower tree branches trimmed within 150 feet of the line on the fire side of the line. The branches were cut off as high as the firefighter could reach with an ax. This work was designed to prevent the fire from burning from the ground litter into the tree crowns. If the fire could be kept on the ground and the line dug deeply to reach mineral soil, the fire would be contained at the line. I asked Bob what he called this trim work. “Orcharding,” he replied.

By now, we had walked about a mile and had not seen a crew or another person on the line. The number of hand crews was even more limited as the fire spread. Most of the efforts were expended building line and rebuilding lost line. Not much manpower was available for patrol or holding line and mop up. I could understand why control of this fire was so difficult.

We came to a spot where the fire had burned hot and clean. The flames must have been 100 feet high when it passed through. This area had burned just as the big runs ad burned. I wanted to know what combination of forces created this hot, clean burn. If it were possible to identify the factors that caused the event, we might be able to predict the event. In such a situation we don’t look for air temperature or relative humidity differences to supply these answers, I reasoned.

I questioned Bob for his opinion of the combination of events or forces that caused this extreme fire intensity. After a bit of thought, Bob began to put the pieces together. “This burned 2, no 3 days ago?” He left it a question. “The fire was at the base of a west-facing slope with the wind behind it when it came through here. It sent out spot ahead of it, and then burned out the area where the spots landed. It burned hot, right up until 2:00 a.m.”

I asked Bob if he could tell me what made the fire run in the first place. He answered, “Slope seems to have a lot to do with it.”

I then asked if he believed the percent of the slope or the slope’s aspect that was the key. He paused a few seconds then replied, “Both slope and aspect. It was a steep slope, a west aspect with a wind behind it and the run started about 5:00 p.m. burning to the top and showering the top of the slope with embers. Then the area burned out. It burned hot all night.”

I always knew that I liked this man, but until now did not fully appreciate his extraordinary recall abilities. He had recited to me the key to predicting when and where the fire would run.

I now felt sure that for this extreme fire behavior to occur, that most of the forces that enhance burning were in nearly full alignment. Slopes that were not aligned with wind or the fuel flammability peak for the aspect would not burn with full potential intensities. This would be true for burnouts as well as for the fire itself. All the forces needed to be in alignment to make this fire get up and go. Other areas would smolder and creep at the same time and under the same weather conditions that another part blew up.

Observations of the position of the fire, the time of day, steeples of slope and the wind direction were the guide for predicting the degree of fire behavior intensities. When a part of the fire was in position where it could run up-slope, and the slope was an afternoon hot slope at the time of the peak of the flammability curve with the wind aligned; given the assistance of the up-slope, the fire could roar to the top and spread its spot fires over the land beyond the flame’s tongues.

To compound the problem, the wind velocity would build up sufficiently every few days to drive the fire before it, despite other forces not in alignment. At some point, the fire would become a wind-driven fire.

In order to predict wind-driven events on this ground fire, I knew we must be able to predict when winds exceeding 15 mph would affect the fire.

When the fire was under greater influence from forces other than wind, it would be a topography fire. For these days and nights, we needed to observe the position of the fire on the topography, the aspect of the slope and the flammability curve in order to predict the intensity changes. When these forces line up with even a little wind, a fire will tend to run.

I wanted to find out where on the flammability curve a fire run would start. Where on the flammability curve would fuels be so cool that the intensity would ebb into our crew’s threshold of control?

Getting Comfortable with the Fire Behavior

I’ve learned to be able to see the fuels ahead of a fire as hot new fuel that increases the rate of spread, or as cool fuel that resists ignition and slows the fire’s spread. I can estimate the alignment of forces that will affect the fire behavior upon their arrival. Is the slope or wind-force aligned to assist the fire spread, or are they out of alignment and thus inhibiting its progress? All of the topographic variations have different alignments and are of varying fuel flammability’s.

Each instance where a fire’s relationship to the topography is different, a change of fire behavior can be predicted. With the language I have developed, I can now communicate to others the basis of the expected fire behavior. I’d been using the language in my discussions with Bob and he understood it. I knew we would have to teach crew supervisors how to anticipate these fire behavior changes. As Bob and I walked through the fire area, I was observing the various fire intensities and behavior comparing it to the alignment of forces. I knew from looking at the fire behavior how the fire would react if it were relocated here or there. I could visualize whether the potential fire behavior was becoming more or less extreme. I felt comfortable here on the fire line; I was getting the feel of this fire’s behavior.

Bob and I had passed most of the day on the line and it was time to return to the George Spike Camp for our flight back to base camp. On the return trip, I noticed the fire intensities were increasing. A few tree crowns were torching out. I noted the time: It was near 3:00 p.m. It was approaching the peak heating time period for the southwest aspects. The fire situation would continue to deteriorate from now until near sunset.

We heard a crew working up ahead and as we came upon them, found the fire had crossed the line since we’d passed earlier in the day. The crew was rebuilding the fire line using chain saws and Pulaski tools. I knew that the entire line we had just walked was just as vulnerable as this piece of line. We dropped off the old line and made our way around the slop over and into George Camp. I wondered if the firefighters engaged there knew that the situation would be getting worse for the next two hours.

I looked over the fire area as we flew back down the mountain toward the base camp. The smokes had increased as the peak burning period for the day approached. I remember thinking, “I bet the humidity hasn’t changed much.”

Back at the Incident Command Post, I checked I with Gerry Gelock and recorded my notes made on the walk with Bob Johnson and the Operations Chief.

The Next Step: The Value of Recording Your Notations for the Day

And so I wrote:


  1. Fuels are dry and will readily ignite from embers.

  2. Rock barriers and discontinuous fuels are not retarding the spread of the fire.
  3. Line construction in front of the spot zone is unlikely to be successful.
  4. Untimely burn out attempts will not be clean burns, and will be like fighting spot fire with spot fires. The burnouts must be accomplished in conditions where the forces are in full (or near full) alignment, or with a wind from a favorable direction greater than 20 mph.
  5. The wind direction is the major factor in the direction of spread, as the fire is spreading primarily from wind-born embers showering downwind.
  6. The duff is so deep and dry that dew on the surface will not prevent the fire from spreading under the dampened layer on the surface (The dew won’t do it!)
  7. The suppression capability of the hand crews is 25% of the normal expectations of a Type 1 hand crew. No Type 1 hand crews are available, nor are they’re any expectation of their availability in the future.
  8. The fire’s spread potential is beyond the threshold of all combinations of fire suppression capability. Even during periods of little fire spread, established fire lines are burned over or under causing the crews to re-establish new fire breaks. As the fire gets bigger, crews are loosing ground.

Using the Information

Gerry and I talked the situation over and decided that I would record my findings as an analysis of the long-range situation. This was completed and the analysis was given to the Plans Chief for use in planning meetings. In the following days, I wrote 10 such papers for the Speculation Unit, Long Range Planning effort.

I was in the groove now and would consequently stay in that groove for the duration of the fire. I would assess the fire and its suppression efforts with the Operations Chief and others, and make tactical recommendations to fit the situation.

On September 5th, Mark Beighley (another fire behavior analyst) and I got a flight over the fire in a small fixed-wing plane. The air was rough and the trip was not at all pleasant.

The fire area was hard to see because of the thick smoke over the area. We had hoped to see clearly the terrain and the fuels in front of the fire. What we could manage to see was not easy to analyze. The 20,000+ fire had no discernible edge, except near Fayette Lake where it started. There was smoke here and there with no visible connection between them. It was discouraging to see such a sight since it tends to make you feel that you’re unable to make any tactical suggestions to cope with the monster.

One area we saw was a burn out attempt in the area where I had walked the previous day. The burn out was not clean, and would not create the needed barrier to the fire front. The forces were not in good alignment for the burn out. When the pilot landed, Mark and I drove back from Pinedale airport to Base Camp. Mark went to his workplace, and I prepared the next long-range planning paper.

Writing Notes and Recommendations for an Uncontained Fire


Fayette Fire 9/5/88

Subject: Long Range Planning

Title: Fire Behavior View and Relationships

The field trip on Division U & V revealed the following facts and feelings: This fire is a moving zone of spot fires.

Why? Non-continuous fuels, very old fuels, duff that is dry to the bone an a high percent of organic material in the earth, combined with rock barriers everywhere, sprinkled with pockets of trees and litters with old down logs. That was resistant to minor moisture introduction. Deep duff smolders under wet top layer.

Results in: Stubborn retention of fire in the fuel bed. The dew won’t put it out. The dew won’t do it!

Burn out tactics: Burnouts cannot be expected to produce long even black-line barriers to the fire’s advance. Rather, burn out will most likely result in spot fires much like the burn mosaic. These spot fires can turn into threats later. Do not fight spot fires with more spot fires.

Wind Direction: Is a primary factor in either the fire advancing by spotting, or a burn out to establish a burned strip in front of the fire.

Opportunities: Burnouts undertaken when the wind direction is in favorable direction and at substantial velocities, done with proper timing should be utilized to gain even small advantages. Large-scale burnout done outside the opportunity window will increase the failure incidence.

Identify the Opportunity Windows: Place wind direction opportunity labels on the maps. Show wind direction needed for each division.

Burn Out Tactics To Gain Small Advantages

  1. Burn out heavy concentrations of fuels that yield high-energy releases and embers, during poor burning conditions.
  2. Burn out thickets during poor burning conditions.
  3. Burn out litter and Wortleberry brush that is between barriers or fire lines and the main fire during good burning conditions and timed near the peak of the flammability curve.

NOTE: Local ranchers say the Grouse Wortleberry will not usually carry fire but is a barrier to fire. It is also the main connecting fuel between islands within the burn area.

  1. Orchard prune and burn from the fire line when within the burn out opportunity window.

Staff Work Needed

  1. Wind force is very important. All staff while in briefing or planning meetings should do those things that help visualize wind direction, i.e., use arrows on the maps.
  2. Fire Behavior Analysts need to work with the weather forecaster to get the best forecasts for wind. Display the forecast on the information board daily. Use weather charts in the display.
  3. Operations Chiefs and F.B.A.s should ask for at least 3-day forecasts on wind. Lead-time is very important in this logistically stretched situation; it takes time to get resources ready.
  4. Maintain an attack mode appropriate to this fire’s behavior. Expect, detect, and deal with the spot fires ahead of the main fire only with tactics that are successful.
  5. Use the Plans Units Fire Behavior Analyst to add intelligence and refine the weather forecasts.

The Behavior Extremes

This fire creeps, spots, and torches single crowns most days. When the forces align assisting the fire, the fire will crown in the sparse timber and run with the wind.

Identifying the forces and recognizing the alignments that create the environment for extreme fire behavior is important for all firefighters.

We have the capacity with hand crews and the helicopters assigned to gain small advantages except during extreme fire behavioral events. Maintaining the suppression forces in an attack mode should be done only when they can prevail. Supervisors should identify the conditions that would dictate a defensive tactic and make them known. Shifting to an attack mode should be based upon a prediction of success.


Be Sure That Your Suggestions are Usable by Operations

Before I submitted my evaluations to Gerry, I would go over my conclusions with the Operations Chiefs. This procedure was necessary to ensure that before a suggestion was made, I had input and knew that the Operations Chief could implement the plan. As far as I know, the Operations Chief never rejected any of the long-range planning suggestions we made during the incident.

Setting Up the Work Area and the Implements of the Fire Behavior Analyst

I set up my fire behavior tools near the weather forecaster’s tent. The tools included the Shadommeter, the fuel temperature instrument, and a solar cell hooked up to a wheel that turned by energy created from the solar cell. I used the Shadommeter to identify the times of the peak of the flammability curve for each of the four aspects and the flats.

The Shadommeter

Figure n. The Shadommeter. Used to find the variation in surface temperature and the time of peak fuel flammability on the five aspects.

Collecting Data Pertinent to the Fire Situation

I made a graph of the flammability curves for the Fayette fire and posted it on the information board. The south and west aspects had been the ones that seemed to be most likely to host the most extreme fire intensities on days without high winds. I wondered why this fire had fire runs so late in the day until I saw that the south aspects peaked at 2:00 p.m. and the west aspects peaked at 4:30 p.m. For me, this explained the late-in-the-day fire runs.

Make Some Definite Conclusions about Your Data

This fire was most dangerous between 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Most of the fire runs could be expected between these hours unless strong winds dominated during other times. The fuel temperature differential between shade and sunlit fuels was significant.

The surface fuel’s highest differential temperatures were occurring in the afternoons. The difference in temperatures were as high as 50 degrees F. The fuels in the sun were much more flammable due to their elevated temperature.

This was important because the trees in the area ahead of the fire were sparse and there was a large percent of the surface area that was sunlit. Embers falling on hot fuel are more likely to kindle flame; there was a high percentage of fuel exposed to the sun in front of this fire.

Where to Hang Out and How to Use Your Spare Time.

Ray Skank, a smoke jumper in the ’50’s called it “crouching.”

I spent much time near my Shadommeter educating those who showed interest. The little solar cell with its spinning wheel sucked some of them in. And they would invariably ask, “What the heck is that?”

So would begin my story, a five-minute pitch about hot and cold fuels and how hot fuel was more flammable even though the relative humidity did not change. I would explain that even at 100% relative humidity, we see different fire intensities. The fuel flammability varies from one place to another because the angle of the radiant energy from sun varies. Radiation is heating sunlit fuels 50 – 80 degrees F. above those fuels positioned in the shade or otherwise protected from the sun’s radiation. This is, I explained why heated fuels are more flammable.

Then I would demonstrate the temperature instrument that registered hot and cold degrees that sat on the table near the Shadommeter. One sensor was located on the shady side of a small log while the other sensor was taped to the sunlit side. The digital indicator would scan the hot and then cold sides recording the readings and indicating the difference between the two. The device cycled every few seconds.

This, I explained, was the cause of the variation in fire intensities for which air temperature and relative humidity could not account. Continuing, I expounded on the subject advising how hot slopes and cold slopes burn at different intensities just like hot and cold fuels. And I talked about the importance of knowing when the peak temperatures occurred on a given exposure.

“You’ll see,” I told them, “when fire potential is at its peak by observing when on the Shadommeter the shadows are shortest. If the aspect is getting hotter (or ascending the flammability curve), the slope is becoming more flammable and conditions are worsening.  The Shadommeter helps to establish the timing of the peak flammability on various aspects,” I hurried on.

Tactics need to be based on the potential of the fire. So knowledge of whether your area is becoming more or less flammable can be very important. I explained how this information could be advantageous.

Burnouts need to be hot enough to burn sufficiently clean to create a barrier to the advancing fire. Improperly timed burning operations that ignore fuel flammability will invariably fail.

The Grouse Whortleberry would not carry the fire. Our timing for burnouts was very importing. Burning too low on the flammability curve would result in a low-intensity fire. Even using heavy pyrotechnics such as the helitorch would not guarantee success. Once the torch fuel burned up, the fire would not continue to carry. By timing those burn out operations to the portion of the flammability curve that creates the fire intensity desired, success burnouts would result.

If all the forces are in alignment and the burnout does not carry, you may be sure that from this point forward, the fire will lose intensity. Stop wasting pyrotechnics. If you light off before the peak of the curve or when forces are coming into alignment, you may reasonably predict the intensity will increase. If that’s the result needed, that’s time to do it. You can learn to adjust intensities by timing burns.

The Next Stage

Situation: No Control in Sight

  1. No book method of fire behavior prediction seems appropriate to this situation.
  2. The fuel complex sustains fire in the duff and organic soils through the nights, flaring up the next day. The dew point temperatures reached on the fire area did not result in extinction as normally expected.
  3. As fuels rise in flammability, the formerly resistant Grouse Whortleberry bush (a predominantly ground fuel) ignites, spreading flames that cause trees to torch. As the fuel flammability increases, the number of trees that torch increases, and groups of trees crown. Within one hour of the peak of the flammability curve, the slopes are at peak flammability and are at their highest potential to burn. When a wind is present and the fire ignites a hot slope, major fire runs develop. Embers flying downwind one-half mile or more cause spot fires to flair in front of the main fire.
  4. These fuel flammability extremes have not been recognized as yet as the basis for tactics selection. Weather forecasts and fire danger descriptors alone are not enough to predict the fire behavior variables.

How to Improve the Fire Behavior Predictability

Understand Fuel Flammability

Identify the proper information needed to aid in predicting various fire behavior intensities. Remember that the atmospheric environment is the result of differential surface heating. There are different, or varying surface temperatures.

The use of air temperature and humidity values to account for the variables in fire intensity is a misuse of tools. We need several tools to help us predict when and where fire behavior differences are caused by hot and cold fuel. Observation is the easiest method to gain the concept of fuel flammability: You can see the difference as easily as you can differentiate between sun and shade on fuels.

We had to identify the points on the fuel flammability curve where the Grouse Whortleberry would carry fire cleanly. This information would be required to develop the timing of the burn out operations that depended on the bush to carry the fire.

Winds

Accuracy of the wind forecast was important to tactics selection in suppressing this fire. We depended upon the forecast to plan tactics. Tactics need lead-time and thus forecast accuracy was a major concern. For our purposes, we needed meteorological forecasts beginning with the gradient winds and including wind direction and velocity to properly plan burnouts operations for the divisions.

Appropriate Tactics for the Fayette Fire

Two tactics were considered appropriate for this situation: burnout tactics and/or individual spot fire suppression.

  • If individual spot fire suppression tactics were selected as the control strategy, operations would continue until snow covered the fire area.
  • If the flanks of the fire could be held and a burn out operation completed tying into the Wind River Mountain Range, we could control the fire within two days.

 Information Required to Burn Out

A successful burn out operation necessitated that certain facts be known. We needed to know the window of opportunity for a successful burn operation on both sides of the fire.

We wanted the wind in our favor and strong enough to ensure a clean burn of such a wide area that the firebreak would hold future spotting. This necessitated us to indicate the wind opportunity window on the fire map for each division.

That’s why we required good, reliable wind forecasts that take into account the topographic affects on the gradient wind, speed and direction. We suggested that we be furnished with an estimate of the percentage chance of opportunity occurrence to be made each day. As it turned out, we needed both a north and a south wind.

Two Different Wind Directions are Needed to Accomplish the Burn Outs

On the north flank, we needed a wind from the north and near quadrants. On the south flank, we needed a wind from the south and near south quadrants.

The selected divisions for burn out operations had to be identified on the maps used on the fire.  We suggested that a large “BO” be written near the division number on the map to identify the division as a candidate for a burn out operation.

The operations group was standing by to activate the firing task force in sufficient strength to accomplish the firing operations within the time of opportunity.

Even when the burn out operation is underway the burn boss has some control over the fire behavior intensity. If he requires more intensity for a more aggressive burn out, he can time the ignitions to be accomplished during the time (point) on the flammability curve to create the desired conditions. The burn boss can also introduce the fire onto the terrain with a desired alignment of slope, wind and flammability to assist in creating a clean burn out. This sense of alignment of forces is especially helpful in the control of the burnout or backfires that are ignited.

This paper was presented to Gerry with some misgivings. I knew it was some of my best work, but the concepts of fuel flammability, alignment of forces, the opportunity-window and more was new stuff to most of the staff. I had done my best to drag them over to my Shadommeter display, but wondered what they must be thinking by the time they’d heard my spiel. I watched the faces of the staff officers when they received their briefing from Gerry. One in the group turned around and gave me a hard stare; it didn’t seem that he liked what he was hearing.

I’d prepared the Operations Chiefs for the content, and they seemed to agree with the concept. That’s when I knew the pre-discussions with them were actually paying off. This was the day the boss would either bless me or kick me out. I was not a regular employee like the remainder of the staff; I was a retiree and had no status in any fire service. I was paid by the day, a temporary hire. They could put me in the motor pool doing oil changes if they wanted.

Other members of the Incident staff made inputs at the planning meeting and the meeting was adjourned. Gerry and I want back to our workstation — the small tent with a solo light bulb and a table. I waited for Gerry to show some signs of dissatisfaction with my work but none came. I was more than a little disturbed by the one staffer with the dirty stare earlier at the meeting. That look haunts me to this day. Just my luck, I videotaped the meeting so now that haunting stare is eternally recorded.

The next day the wind was blowing a stiff, fire-awakening breeze. The weather forecast contained predictions of a cold front passing over the area packing winds of 60 m.p.h. There were reports of fire to the north of us being blown far across the terrain. The Meteorologist seemed to have a hard time coming up with the time of the frontal passage.

Operations Chiefs had made preparations and were ready to conduct the burn out operation if there was an adequate opportunity. Fronts bring with them a 180-degree wind shift: This could be our chance to kick butt.

In my fire behavior kit I carry some information about weather, fuels and such mostly taken from publications of interest. I had the graphic diagram of a cold front depicting the wind direction changes. I placed the card on the map and pointed out tot he Operations Chief the potential wind shift would occur when the front passed over the fire. We could see that there was a possibility that the two sides of the fire would be within the wind opportunity window required to successfully burn out the flanks clear to the rocky ridge. If it worked we could contain the fire.

Only one of the operational teams had controlled any of the 26 fires burning in the area. While others were feeling doomed by the passage of the cold front, we were hopeful it would result in a favorable situation for a strong burn out — out opportunity window!

The two Operations Chiefs began to plan for the possibility. The Meteorologist, the three Fire Behavior Analysts, and Ops Chiefs poured over the fire map calculating the amount of line to be constructed and which direction the winds would blow. The Meteorologist talked fast and rambled a bit. He was unsure of his thoughts, but could tell others what the main office had told him.

This planning session was fast becoming humorous. The Operations Chief would ask for an evaluation of what would happen if he fired out one line and would the fire then overrun the fire line of the opposite side before the wind shifted? The weatherman stammered. He did not seem to have a good feel for this situation. And I knew that this could be our only chance until the snow fell.

I videotaped that session also and each time I view it remind myself that this is a complex business and we all have much to learn. Maybe fronts are hard to predict in that region. Perhaps meteorologists called in from afar suffer from weakened confidence.

Operations were prepared. They had the firing plan written and the resources standing by. The firing teams were ready. Now all we needed was to learn the time the front would affect the wind direction on each flank. The staff developed their best estimate. We were about to fight the fire with fire at its greatest intensity potential. This was not an everyday event.

The firefighters prepared firebreaks from the anchor points on each side of the fire to the Wind River Range. Those rocks were to be the natural barrier and stop the head of the fire.

The front approached, causing one team’s fires to race before the wind uncontrolled. It was a chaotic time for a great number of firefighters. Fires threatened communities and the Yellowstone Lodge. There were firestorms occurring in many locations. Around camp, some tents were blowing over and the dome tents used by the crews could be seen rolling like so many tumbleweeds before the wind.

The map was prepared with a “BO” noted next to the division identifier and a percentage chance of coming into the window display by division. The north flank showed a 90% chance of experience their opportunity window. The south flank offered only a discouraging 25% chance. The front would cause the wind to shift from the west to the south before it arrived, and as it passed the winds would shift to the northwest. So it was planned to fire the south flank first and then in a post-frontal operation, fire the north flank.

The cold front approaching the fire will cause the wind to blow from the southeast

The cold front approaching the fire will cause the wind to blow from the southeast

The fire will either be blown north then south, then east or be much bigger by tomorrow, or Operations and the firefighters will prevail. Not by brute force, but with well-executed plans.

After the front passes, the winds will shift and blow from the nortwest

After the front passes, the winds will shift and blow from the northwest

The south flank must be fire out before the wind shifts. Is there enough time and resources to get the job done? On September 8th, the burn out started. The fires roared to life as the wind bent trees and lofted burning embers up into the clouds, smoke that rose to the height of thunderheads. The exhausted firefighters –some had even been on other fires before this assignment– dug down into themselves for the strength to go on.

The firing operation was working! The lines were holding!

The head of the fire roared into the Wind River mountain range and ran out of fuel in the rocky barren cliffs. The cold front was passed us now.

On September 9, our situation was changed. Now our job was to hold the fire lines we had worked so hard to establish.

A New Stage for the Fire: Analyze Holding Tactics


The historical facts:

  • Spot fires outside the fire line have been problem even weeks after control has been established.
  • The fuel bed has been dry and is extremely resistant to dry mop-up efforts.
  • Each time the wind increases; smoldering duff is fanned into flames.
  • No single treatments used over the fire history has been 100% effecting in extinguishing the smoldering duff.

The Projection of Future Fire Behavior

  • If weather doesn’t turn wet and considerable precipitation fall, the fire will continue to require spot fire detection and suppression.
  • The fuel bed will resist moderate rain and can rekindle after a rain as soon as the surface dries.
  • If winds of 20 – 40 M.P.H. occur and fuel moistures remain low, uncontained spot fires could turn into fire runs.

Actions to Consider

  • Recognition of future possibilities that could reduce the cost of the future operations are:
  • Consider providing infrared devices to fire crews to increase their ability to locate hidden hot spots.
  • Wet water additives and foam used in mop-up operations will enhance the extinguishing properties of plain water. This would result in fewer rekindles.
  • The mobility of fire suppression resources should be increased to diminish the size of new hot spots by quicker suppression action. The fire area is 12 miles long and 7 miles wide.
  • Prioritizing fires for attack, rather than using a first-come, first-served attitude will reduce acres lots.
  • Safety training for firefighters will prevent accidents and reduce costs. The fire can remain dangerous until out. Spot fire attack is risky.

The contents were discussed in the evening planning meeting. The next day, I check on the progress of the fire suppression work with the Operations Chief.

The crews were holding on to the line established earlier. The difficult task of mop-up was the major operation now. I needed to focus on the long-term situation now; On September 10, I focused on mop-up.

The Mop – Up Stage


Fayette Fire Mop-Up Tactics
Long Range Planning

There are three key areas to be considered which maximize suppression advantages during the mop-up phase of a fire.

  • Spot-Fire Detection. Train search teams in spot fire detection methods. Sight and smell are both important tools, Search patterns based upon fuel flammability are a better bet than random search patterns. Consider the hand-held IR units to aid in locating hot spots that cannot be seen. I don’t think supply ever furnished us the infrared units.
  • Train crews in mop-up procedures and have supervisors check the work to ensure that it is done properly.
  • Use wet water or foam to increase the affect of plain water. The fire could not consume the water additives. All other fires were now clearly in a more desperate situation than ours by now.
  • The Incident Action Plan should focus on mobilizing all available resources to take advantage of this period.
  • A plan for abandonment of sections of fire line should be developed and the basis for the plan made known.

On September 11 it began to rain at the base camp and snow at the spike camps located at higher elevations. Things were going so well that I wrote the next installment for the Long Range Planning Unit. It follows.


From Rain to Eternity
Long Range Planning

The Objective:     To increase the success of mop-up and lower the incidence of rekindles.

The current set of conditions does not allow us to put out this fire easily.

Rainfall quantity has been insufficient to quell the fire. The control lines are around a series of spots, and in between the unburned fuels are plentiful and in proximity to burning fuel.

The duff is deep and remains dry. There is more than 30 miles of fire line to patrol. Duff has hidden fire under the surface for over a week at a time. The local residents have warned us of the usually dry and windy spells after a rain such as we just experienced. How will we ever finish the job?

Those areas that we mop-up need to be done correctly and finally. Mop-up workmanship is the most important thing to emphasize in order that we might be able to move forward in this situation.

Overhead should be encouraged to assess the mop-up problem by investing time trying to mop up areas themselves until they have a full understanding of the complexity of doing the job right.

Supervisors need to give one-on-one instruction if that is what is required to get results. Crew bosses need to check the work before recommending the line be downgraded to patrol status or abandoned.

All the management personnel on the fire should ask themselves who should comprise the leadership of the staff. The leadership should encourage quality workmanship and the Incident Action should reflect it.


The next day’s weather forecast called for continuing rain and snow. I had another idea, leading to another paper that was to be part of the Long Range Planning effort.

The situation was changing to a survival test for the firefighters working from high elevation spike camps. My paper was short and to the point. If it continued to snow on the spike camps, we would not be able to service them by air. The mule train was already over-taxed and could not fill the gap. The firefighters would be cold and hungry, and unable to work. The fire would not run away under these conditions, so I made the following recommendations to Plans:

  • We should pull our firefighters off the mountain as soon as possible. We should send them to town for some rest and rehabilitation. If the weather cleared and warmed, we would have fresh and rested firefighters to re-engage the fire.
  • We should plan to have in place the resources needed to take the earliest opportunity to hit the fire hard with fresh troops as soon possible to re-engage the fire while it was still weak.

These suggestions were quickly acted upon for our camp was getting wet. As it always happens, we were discussing the implementation of the plan while protected from the rain by a tarp. Norm Silver, I think it was, noticed the tarp bulging overhead. He hooked his finger over the edge of the tarp creating a funnel for the pool of water to pool over his head before spilling down his front side. This was a heck of a way to start your day.

I had all of my fire gear in a state of readiness in anticipation of the move to town. I struggled with the pack and Shadommeter case slipping and sliding all the way down the rain slicked road to transportation. Everyone was moving like the rain off a tarp. I look for a truck that might be going my way, and was quickly promoted to driver of a school bus. I happily accepted the job with a bus filled in short order with camp personnel. I pulled the lumbering bus onto the road to town and crept along with the rear sliding from one side of the road to the other.

The advance party had taken over a condemned school building in town. We were told we could crouch around in the building, but could not sleep inside. Unfortunately, we were also restricted from constructing our pup tents on the lawn. But that order didn’t last long; there was some town ordinance prohibiting sleeping outside of buildings in town.

Even though it was drizzling, the tents kept us dry and warm enough. I remained there for a day and then was released to Jackson Area Command for another assignment.

Two days later, I was on my way to the Huck-Mink fire. Seems the Huck fire burned into the Mink fire and now no one knew what to call it. There I met my old friend Steve Gallegos serving as Incident Commander. He reminded me that I was the first foreman of his career.

This fire dance of ours goes on.


Copyright © 1991, 2016 by Doug Campbell.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *