Learning the Ropes

The Making of a Wildland Firefighter

1953 T.T.O to L.P.F.

1953 T.T.O to L.P.F.

I remember an incident that made me forever curious about forest fires. During the summer when I was about six years old, my mother drove our ’38 Chevrolet up the Donner Highway in Northern California. The roadway was lined with tall virgin pine and fir trees on both sides.

She stopped the car when we arrived at the edge of a forest fire that was raging on both sides of the road. I was notably impressed by the awesome spectacle that my young eyes beheld. In the roaring fire, entire trees were engulfed in flames. A shower of sparks fell on trees that would be the next to go.

Not knowing why my mother had stopped, I asked what we were doing here. She replied that she was bringing my father something he would need. When I asked where my father was, she waved toward the raging white-hot ball of flames that by now was devouring trees at a tremendous speed. “He’s in there somewhere,” she said. I was terrified that my father was in there. Surely he was burned up I thought. But through the swirling smoke and spark showers I saw him walking up a dirt road toward the car. “How did he do that?” I wondered.

In these few short moments, I had witnessed my first forest fire, had learned that my dad was in it, had concluded that we would surely never see him again, and had then witnessed a “miracle” when he walked out of the flames alive. That must have had some effect on me!

I grew up in California wildfire country, experiencing a normal childhood. I attended high school in Santa Ynez commuting from a little settlement named Paradise some 20 miles north of Santa Barbara. There I roamed the hills and river bottoms with local boyhood friends and spent some of the best hours of my life searching the Forest Service dump nearby. Occasionally, we would find such treasures as an old fire tool, canteen or headlamp. Most were disabled or completely worn out, but we thought it was great fun to scavenge for these prizes.

On July 2, 1950, the day of my 16th birthday, I saw a large column of smoke above Santa Barbara. It was north of town, apparently near the community of Paradise. I was shopping with my mother at the time, although I hated going because it took me away from the forest haunts I loved much more than town.

I talked her into stopping in at the Los Prietos Ranger Station to inquire about the fire. There, I met one of my best pals, Ronnie Cline, who was also there to learn about the fire.

Somehow we were hired and assigned to a fire job on that fire. I remember when the initial excitement had worn off hours later, I wondered how I got way out here in the middle of nowhere walking behind a dozer that was cutting a fire break and covering Ronnie and me with a thick, choking coat of dirt. I didn’t know what we were supposed to do, and Ronnie did not seem to know any more than I. Sometime after dark, the cat stopped for fuel and we took a break from walking up the long ridges toward Pine Mountain. Atop a little knoll within the burn I spied a group of the regulars sitting around a fire with a 5-gallon can balanced on rocks emitting the delicious smell of coffee. These men were worn down from a 16-hour battle, and would have to get up and go after it again in a short time.

When I reached for the coffee can my foot dislodged one of the support stones that kept the can level, and the whole thing tipped over spilling the coveted coffee and putting the warming fire clear out. My hair stood on end as Ronnie punched me and said, “Run!” Frozen to the spot, I gathered in the different expressions of the now standing bunch of men and noted they were all unpleasant. I heard a few cuss words but I somehow survived my first encounter with the old line firefighters. Later that night, we were looking for a place to grab a few winks, but Ron and I had no gear for sleeping, just the clothes on our backs.

The tractor driver dug a ditch and parked the tractor over the top. We crawled under the tractor and spent the night snug in the hole until the morning light revealed numerous scorpions among us.

That is how my Forest Service career began. By the time I had completed high school, a year of college and a hitch in the U.S. navy as a weatherman, I had several fire seasons under my belt. Most of the training I received was hands-on and under the supervision of one of the crew bosses.

Jimmy Waller, one of my bosses, wanted to teach me how to heel a calf with a rope. He would get me to run around the station yard at San Marcos summit engine station and he would rope my feet. If he got one foot in the noose I would usually just hop on the other foot, but when he roped both feet in the noose, they were jerked out from under me and I hit the dirt and flopped in the yard like the calf I imitated.

Waller is still around the Santa Barbara area I guess. In those days he was a dandy dresser and was the spic-and-span ranger on the station. His cowboy boots were polished, his hair slicked back, his pants and shirt sported fine creases and his Forest Service badge was polished to a brilliant sheen. On Sundays, he was particularly neat and shiny.

One Sunday, as he strode by the corner of the old fire station, I swung the rope as he had taught me and roped his hind foot just as neat as you could imagine. I hauled back on the rope and flopped that dandy in the dirt right in front of the station. I did, however, spend the remainder of the day perched on the water tank with the ladder pulled up so he couldn’t climb up until he cooled off some.

It was on one of my first timber fires while assigned to an engine crew that Jimmy taught me about stump holes. We were sent to a fire on Figueroa Mountain in the summer of ’51 with the old Green Hornet fire engine. It was a 1948 Ford 1.5-ton truck with a bolt-on tank and pump. We arrived after a couple of hours on the road and when we approached the fire scene, I recall the fire was on the up-hill side of a narrow bench road above us. We were attempting to hold the fire above the road and were holding our own when some line boss on scene barked orders for us to bring the truck quickly to a slop-over below the road.

We rolled down there and positioned the truck in the middle of an inside turn in the crooked road above the slop-over. The chief who was yelling orders grabbed the live reel hose and dove over the bank directly toward the fire below. I started the pump and gave 100 pounds of water pressure to that line. When I looked over the road berm, the fire was running up the draw toward us and the guy manning the hose was gone! The hose he had taken over the side was abandoned. Before I could get my fear and confusion under control, I hosed down the sky. I saw Jimmy jump into the engine cab filled with smoke and the fire’s licking tongues of flame. He had guts that cowboy. Rolling the windows up, he ground on the starter. The truck was reluctant to start (you probably remember how Fords like to keep you in suspense), but after a few seconds more of grinding the truck engine caught and roared to life. I was covering the flame side, crouched beside the rear wheel weary of the fumes from the gas cap watching the paint beginning to blister spraying water like crazy from a 1/8-inch nozzle.

Jimmy got us out of there and saved the truck, but I never again saw the guy who jumped over the side into the flames of that slop over. Later, when things calmed down Jimmy taught me about hot stump holes. He pointed to a white ash circle among some pine trees and told me to take the hose and straight stream those little white ash circles to mop up the fire. I did as I was told and found that when I shot a stream of water under pressure into the ash, the stream blew the ash and coals up into the air and my face as well. Jimmy got a good laugh on me for that one.

In 1959 I was the Captain of an engine company on the Cleveland National Forest at Descanso Ranger Station. I was a believer in training the crew. We trained and trained developing skills and techniques to use the equipment to its fullest extent. I thought the crew was the best-trained and most able crew anywhere. I would find out later that I still had more to learn. The dispatch came one hot summer afternoon. We were driving to the edge of a wildfire along a dirt road at the top of a ridge. A water tender —we used to call them nurse tankers —was backing away from the fire and blocking our passage. The driver was older than I and though he was not as experienced as I at firefighting, he was a good truck driver and a part of my crew. He yelled for me to stop and retreat. The fire was making a run toward the road.

I didn’t recognize any danger from the scene before me and so continued in toward the advancing fire. Positioning the engine just off the road, we laid hose toward the fire with the intent of hitting the base of the flames as the fire topped the ridge in front of us. The fire enveloped me and my hose-man in a fiery wave, arcing over us and licking the truck behind us. The engineer was an aggressive young man named Chuck Mills. He was committed to keeping us in water, and to do that job he had to crouch under the truck for protection from the flames. Every few minutes he would roll out from under the truck to put out fires on the hose bed, only to dive back under the truck. Somehow we held the fire as planned and felt like we’d really done some good firefighting that day.

Later, the District Ranger, Ed Hielman, called me and gave me a cautionary lecture about being too aggressive on attacks. I was too proud of my crew to take it seriously, a rather common attitude among firefighters I think. Another life lesson was about to be given to me. One Saturday, Chuck Mills and I were fooling around the fire station where we both lived arguing about hydraulics or some such thing when a fire call came in. We were in T-shirts and jeans and thought nothing of jumping into the engine and rolling to the fire in street clothes.

We picked up a couple of crewmen who were in the barracks and tore off Code 3 to the scene. I positioned the truck on one flank and made the engine position safe. I started a hose lay through the spotty burned area to the other side of the fire where we would “Y-off” and lay hose both ways. Chuck Mills was the nozzle man and was squirting water and adding hose to the lay. It was near a large boulder surrounded by unburned brush where he signaled to cut off the flow of water so that he could add two gated Y’s to the end of an inch-and-a-half hose line. It would take 15 seconds according to our proficiency drills held in the station. As the water was cut off, the bush next to the large boulder flashed and the flames licked over Chuck. He gasped for air and inhaled hot gases. He dropped like he was tackled and started crawling toward the safety of the engine. I ran to him, pulling him out of the area and got him into a sheriff’s car for transportation to the emergency ward.

Chuck was almost killed that day. He did not have any burns, but the hot gases he inhaled almost did the job anyway. After that, he quit smoking saying he’d had enough smoke for a lifetime.

So I started to realize that there was some training missing. We knew our apparatus as well as any crew. We were strong and aggressive and could conquer most fires. Now there was doubt. A small flare-up almost cost me a good friend and companion.

I was becoming a little wiser and more cautious with each new experience. Winning another promotion, I accepted another kind of assignment. I was to be the Superintendent of the El Cariso Hot Shot Crew, based at El Cariso above Lake Elsinore, CA. In 1959, the El Cariso Hot Shots had been burned over on the Decker fire. Five firefighters were killed. I took over the position and vowed to remember the lessons of the past. I devoted my efforts to the safety of the crew for the two years I remained as Superintendent. During that two-year period between 1961 and 1962, Gordon King and I started to make fire line fire behavior predictions. We would go to an overlook where we could see the place where the crew was burned over on the Decker fire. We began to practice a discipline of making sure our tactics were developed after the fire line prediction was made. We had our share of close calls during the two years, but came out without any losses. I continued to climb the ladder of the Forest Service organization and in 1966 found myself the D.F.M.O. (Fire Chief) on a district of the Sequoia National Forest. That summer the El Cariso Hot Shot crew suffered another burn over situation loosing 13 good firemen to the flames. Gordon King, the crew leader, had extensive experience and had been on Hot Shot crews for 11 years. After the accident he was devastated, never recovering from his anguish. I think that I realized for the first time that if it could happen to Gordon King, it could happen to anyone!

More to Know—the Other Half of the Story


Teaching, 1995

The importance of knowing the capabilities of the crew and equipment to fight fires is evident; but if you do not know what the fire is going to do it is just not enough.

The question before us now is, “How do firefighters engaged in operations on a wildfire maintain a safe work situation? Luck?” Surely the old timers who saw many of the historic fires would know. I knew such people. Stubby Mansfield was such a man. He had a feel for fire. He knew what to do and when to do it. I have seen him in action. In fact, a number of other seasoned firefighters seemed to know what the fire would do and over the long haul. They maintained a good safety record even with great exposure.

What is it that they know, these Charley Caldwells, the Mark Linanes, and other long-enduring Hot Shot crew leaders?

And so began my search for fire line prediction knowledge. I found that the people who knew fire and could avoid trouble still had no language with which to communicate that knowledge to others. Think about this for a moment. How do you as a firefighter tell others what you think is about to change? Do you draw upon some past fire behavior training to do it? It’s not easy to relate the fire behavior training offered to on-the-spot predictions that would have saved Chuck Mills from injury, prevented Gordon and his crew from anguish and death, or averted the tragedy Danny Street faced when he lost men on the Decker fire. Were these fire behavior events predictable? Were these fire behavior changes predictable by on-the-line firefighters? I can’t help but think that some of the old timers would have avoided the danger.

Although I attended the fire behavior courses offered during the span of my career, I still did not find the answers I needed in the material. The fire behavior courses taught me the fire behavior perspective of a planner rather than a firefighter. And I had not seen any planners in accident reports of burn over situations. Rather, I needed to know how to predict changes in fire behavior while engaged in the work of fire suppression. And though I applied the fire behavior officer’s training while assigned to large forest fires, I never felt that predicting the least, greatest or average flame length or rate of spread to be particularly valuable to the users of the information. Even the prediction of the future fire perimeter was not especially important most of the time. It seemed more a curiosity for the operations chief.

So I continued on my search for an on-line fire behavior prediction system that could prevent accidents.

It was while I was reading a research paper written by Clive Countryman, a research forester working for the Forest Service, that I found some of the information that would lead to a whole new prediction system. The Concept of Fire Environment published in 1966 unveiled for me a methodology for the creation of the missing fire behavior language. From the day I read that paper to this point in time, I have worked to apply the basic idea of fuel temperature differences of various aspects and times to develop a predictive tool that the line firefighter, or anyone, can use.

In 1987 and 1988 after I had been retired from the Forest Service for four years, the dispatcher called to ask if I would be available to go to fires and serve as a Fire Behavior Analyst. I accepted but with some misgivings because of being out of active service for four years. I received travel orders and boarded a flight for Northern California. Before that assignment concluded, I had worked over 80 shifts on the fires of 1987. The next fire season, I was again called. This time my orders were for Yellowstone where I logged another 20 shifts as a Fire Behavior Analyst.

Since I had no computer to practice the Fire Behavior Analyst textbook procedures, I worked from the basis of my experience and used the new fire line behavior prediction system I was developing.

The personnel in Plans and on the fire line responded with encouragement. They were supportive and gave me great performance ratings for my work.

After the ’88 fire season ended, I started to write the training program that is now the Campbell Prediction System (CPS). The CPS reveals how burn over situations could have been predicted by the line firefighter, and incorporates a new language that until now was nonexistent.

My hope is to provide a basis for firefighters and others who are interested to be able to predict changes in fire behavior. If accurate predictions can be made of fire behavior change, then there should be no burn over situations. No firefighter should be so aggressive that he or she would risk burn over of themselves or their crews to protect any property. No firefighter should attack before predicting the fire behavior’s potential for change.

I do believe I know what those observations were that the seasoned firefighters used. And with a language, the prediction system becomes “teachable” at last.