Getting Our Heads Around the New Fire Environment

by Dana Skelly

On May 3, 2016 a wildfire in Ft McMurray, British Columbia forced the largest evacuation in Alberta's history.  The timing and magnitude are one of many possible to illustrate the increasingly dangerous fire environment.

Fort McMurray residents evacuating in 2016. Credit: DarrenRD

These days, there is hardly a wildland firefighter that hasn’t said or heard “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”  We know that wildfires and the fire environment are more extreme each year. Thinking about a shift from a fire season to a fire year is yesterday’s news.  Retired Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott put it very well:

Folks can say what they want to say, but firefighters are living climate change. It’s staring them in the face every day.

Knowing it is one thing. How do we use that to improve our day-to-day, real-time risk assessments and choices on the ground?  

Dolan Fire Deployment, 2020

Last summer I was out as a Fire Behavior Analyst (FBAN) with a Type 1 Incident Management Team on the Dolan Fire in California.  Dolan was immediately south of the 2016 Soberanes fire scar on the Monterrey District of the Los Padres National Forest.

While our team was there, the fire grew more in one 24 hour period than any fire had on that district to date, beginning in the afternoon on 9/7.  Growth continued through the evening culminating in a final push on the morning of 9/8.  This push led to a fire shelter deployment of 14 firefighters that morning, injuring three, one critically.

This happened when so many other fires experienced the labor day East Wind event.  Tragedy was rampant up and down the west coast.  “Unprecedented” didn’t seem to come close to describing what happened.  Prior to this, the most homes burned in a single fire in Oregon was 43 in 2015.  Nearly 10 times that number of homes were affected along the Oregon coast alone in 2020.   Entire towns were devastated.

Yet on Dolan, when the final push happened—when the deployment occurred—winds were light. Most of the firefighters who deployed were quartered at the Nascimento Guard Station.  Their experience told them that they did not need to evacuate the night before.  With no howling wind and never having seen growth like that in such a short period, I bet a lot of us would have thought the same thing.

So here we are—we know things are different.  If experience alone isn’t enough to assess risks, what do we anchor to?

Fuels Aren’t Recovering Like They Used To

In 2017, we had a winter with average to above-average snowpack across the Western US.  An uptick in activity in late June in places not typically active until later in the summer started raising eyebrows. Live fuels were behaving just as you’d expect after a good winter.  Fires would check themselves in drainages at night.  It was a different story in dead and downed fuels.  Where they could preheat live fuels, we saw continued fire growth.  By mid-July, heavies were tracking with 2015 levels.  2015 was year 6 of widespread drought.  Not what we expected.    

In the Pacific Northwest, daytime temperatures have risen an average of 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of the 20th century.   

Dr. Matt Jolly from the Missoula Fire Lab has noted that nighttime temperatures have risen at more than twice the rate of daytime temperatures.

Think about your slides for what nighttime humidity recovery means in terms of available fuels.  How off are they with this temperature change? A nighttime recovery of 74% today is not the same for fuels as when temps were lower.  Fuels are not getting the same relief that they once did.   

There is another index, Vapor Pressure Deficit (VPD), which is similar to relative humidity but instead of being relative, it’s an absolute.  It goes up as temperatures go up.  It translates to plant stress.  It’s not a number you can get readings of in the field to gauge your hourly conditions.  But it is more precise than drought levels, can be seen in Fire Family Plus, and can give better context to your fire environment.  We saw this on the Dolan fire where VPD hit new extremes while no other index tracked with record-setting growth.  FBANs and fire planners can use it to help paint a picture in terms of what kind of fire environment to expect on the line today or on your burn tomorrow. 

Small Changes = Less Fragmented Fuelscapes = Larger Fires

When the Dolan fire grew last September, we had an absence of the marine layer for several days before things broke open. Marine layers come in along our west coast, usually at mid-elevations, and create a break in the fire environment above and below them.  Above a marine layer, things can be much drier and more active than you’d expect, even overnight.  The layer creates a cap where below it, fire will smolder.  You can have holdovers that pop up weeks or even a month later when the marine layer finally recedes.

This breaks up the continuity of fuels across a landscape.  Even if the fire is raging above this layer, fire will not rush through it.  You can only get so much momentum when your fuels are fragmented this way.

When the marine layer breaks you now have one continuous fuelscape.  Everything has become available.  

Fuelscape continuity on a larger scale

Scientists have been putting together how increasing temperatures translate into the what we see on the ground.  This graphic shows how these temperature changes have increased available fuels and how that plays into increased fire footprints:

Illustration showing temperature changes correlating to homogenous fuelscapes

Image Credit: Mohammad Reza Alizadeh. 81,500 square km = 20,139,089 acres.

Based on this research, increased temperatures from 1984-2017 have resulted in 20 million acres added to our fuelscape.  Historically, elevation and aspect disrupted the continuity of available fuels. They created natural, temporary fuel breaks.  These natural breaks are much less reliable every year.  In other words, we not only have more fuel available, but we also have a more continuous fuelscape.  Any given start now has an opportunity to build more momentum than we have seen before. There is less to slow or stop it.  That translates into what we see increasing each year: rapid, intense, and explosive fire growth.

Bring It

The most important thing to know on the ground today? Recognize that what you are calibrated to equate in your mind in terms of RH/fuels/fire behavior is not current.  It will lead you to underestimate risk.

When I brief crews on an incident, I know they will see things that no one has seen before. We are routinely asked to make tough decisions in a dynamic setting with little information or time. The fire environment has been changing exponentially in recent years, but our strategies and tactics have been slow to catch up.   Getting everyone to the same baseline is the key to support the critical thinking we need.

  • Increases in temperature mean more widely available fuels & increased diurnal wind flows.
  • Fires burn more actively later into the evening.
  • We are seeing longer duration, more intense wind.
  • We are seeing longer periods of lower humidities. 
  • Today’s July fuelscape is like yesterday’s late August fuelscape.  

Thom Porter, the current chief at Cal Fire, has a great way of framing what we see today.  

“They talk about career fires. And a career fire was sometimes on the order of 10,000 to 50,000 acres. 50,000, that was crazy….Once in a career. It dawned on me at one point that career fires are happening every single year, right now.”

A friend reminded me of an old saying that still applies, “Fire provides the test before the lesson.” For any of us out there, all of this comes down to a fundamental question: how do I fight fire aggressively while providing for safety first today?  So that we all come home.  

Head on a swivel is good. Getting your head around how the gameboard has changed and will continue to change—even better.



Leadership Trickles Down

Your team, your style.

We spend a lot of time on leadership skills by working in and leading teams. Have you ever walked into a new team and sensed a personality or common energy? Maybe you walked into a group and felt welcomed right away. Another was quiet or focused. Others have some kind of tension or awkwardness about them. Sometimes you walk into a room that is full of laughter.

The character you sense in a team can be a direct reflection of the leader’s personality. Understanding that is one way to frame how to adjust your style – model behavior you want to see – to improve the performance of your team.

Observations from the Field

Here’s an example. Early in my career, I supervised a 20-person crew. They came to thin vegetation along the boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a gated subdivision. This type of area is what we often refer to as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). When we manage the forest through thinning and prescribed burns, it helps reduce the risk of a wildfire coming into the park from the adjacent houses or vice versa. The intent behind this type of work is described through the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.

The crew was divided into two modules, each with a captain. We’ll call them A-mod and B-mod in this story. As they worked, I started to notice patterns in their performance. For example, A-mod was always the first to brag about how many acres they had thinned on a given day. In comparison, B-mod devoted a saw team to going back through and fine-tuning their work before moving on to the next area. When they were thinning, A-mod was having more difficulty with falling their trees than B-mod. It became clear that this was due to rushing – because they framed success by quantity where it became clear that B-mod’s metric was quality.

This crew was visiting for a month to work at the Smokies and part way through they took some days off. The first night, five of them were arrested for a variety of issues – from public drunkenness to felony assault. And wouldn’t you know it, the majority were from A-mod.

This brought me to reflect, as something of this magnitude might bring you to do. I recognized how the different module captains interacted, spoke, worked with their crews and generally looked at their work. The captain from B-mod had been through a serious accident that set him back physically – he had to relearn to walk – and yet here he was, leading a group in the field again. He was very self-aware, patient and easy to supervise. The captain from A-mod was very competitive, intense – fun to be around but when he disagreed, he was difficult to supervise.

How do you affect your groups?

The modules – their rhythms, their definitions of success – very much reflected their captains. Even after the crew had gone home and our local workforce burned the piles later that year, we noticed the difference. The extra time and attention that B-mod put into their piles made them burn easily that winter. The piles A-mod made took more energy and time to burn.

I’ve come to describe what that experience taught me as leadership trickling down. Christopher Thomas’s post, 6 Lessons from a Successful Entrepreneur, provides a number of examples of inspiring leaders in business settings and how their character is reflected in their companies.

Becoming conscious of this pattern has helped me better understand team dynamics. It’s also helped me adjust them through my own behaviors. For example, I had a team that had a number of personality conflicts. I was friends with one of the individuals and had been sharing freely when we caught up in private.

While the content of those discussions stayed private, it very much affected the way she interacted with team members. I pivoted – reigning in what I shared, facilitating discussions from venting to constructive sensing. It worked.

In emergency management, we have established teams that respond to natural disasters. It is an efficient way to ensure that these complex missions are well supported. We call these incident management teams, and they are typically groups that function together for periods of time on a regular basis. These teams can be very large, upwards of 80 people. Even in groups of that size, the team dynamics reflect their team leader or Incident Commander or IC.

When I notice that the team works well together and is fun to be a part of, I make a point to acknowledge that to the IC. When they are struggling, I look for opportunities to coach and lead up.

Understanding this pattern and adjusting your style is a small component of emotional intelligence. Becoming conscious of these patterns and reframing how you approach teams can have a profound impact on process, products and — most importantly — people.

This article was originally posted to Govloop in December 2017.

The Fezziwig Approach to Management

This originally appeared in 12/2017 on the site Govloop.

Fezziwig…Fezziwig….where do we know that from?

Tis the season for holiday staples — decorations, music and ye old favorite stories. Dickens’ Christmas Carol is one piece of what rounds out so much of our holiday weltanschauung, or world view, with themes as universal as any.

But do you remember who Fezziwig is and where you first met?

The Archetype of the Benevolent Overlord

On Ebenezer Scrooge’s tour with the Ghost of Christmas past, they pay a visit to where he was apprenticed as a youth. It took them to Fezziwig’s Ball, the quintessential office holiday party. Scrooge is uncharacteristically happy at the memory, prompting the Ghost to ask why – He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” 

Scrooge bristles at the question and replies: “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. And say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.

A thoughtful nod by Scrooge at the profound impact Fezziwig’s bearing had on his staff. Is it Scrooge’s joy that makes this memorable or that you can hear Fezziwig’s laughter echoing in your mind? Like Scrooge, do you admire this style and feel yourself inspired by this manager – imagining the fun at the party along with the family and friends of the company?

As the story goes on, Ebenezer reaches a fork in the road and becomes a far different kind of manager than this first mentor.  For this discussion, let’s stop right here and focus on this happier example.

The Tenets of Fezziwig’s Leadership

The quality hammered home above all else in this part of  A Christmas Carol is Fezziwig’s generosity. Sharing his and his family’s happiness with his employees and their loved ones is an act of appreciation. It also sets a tone of respect and support that we can imagine lasts throughout the work year on a number of levels.

In many ways, this is practicing Authentic Leadership.

Bill George, in an article on authentic leaders, offers these core principles:

  • Authentic leadership is built on your character. From inspiring and empowering others to making unpopular decisions – this flexibility comes from the heart. As Warren Bennis said, “It has to do with who we are as human beings and the forces that shaped us.”
  • Authentic leaders are real and genuine.
  • Authentic leaders are constantly growing. Inherent in this style of leadership is being a constant student of your peers, subordinates and your experience. Openness to new approaches is foundational to empowered environments. Growth comes from a love of life and all it has to teach us.
  • Authentic leaders match their behavior to their context. This is another demonstration of emotional intelligence — patience and listening to nimbly adapt communication to be most effective with an audience.

Why This Resonates: The Path to Peak Performance

It’s simple and neatly comes back to the work of humanist, Abraham Maslow. In humanistic psychology, we look at individuals as a whole person with an eye towards helping them fulfill their potential. Maslow details this in his Hierarchy of Needs  – often shown as a pyramid – starting with meeting people’s basic needs of safety and security. Once this foundation is set, we have the freedom for growth that builds to feeling like we are part of something bigger than ourselves, thus realizing our full potential.

Yo ho there!  Now we see it! One hundred years before Maslow defined it scientifically, Dickens gave us the perfect example.  Scrooge barely provides for the bottom portions of Maslow’s pyramid for himself and his employees and reckons with this on his journey. An excellent illustration.

On the flip side, Fezziwig is providing care for his employees as whole people. Even when they are responding to his simple request to close the shop, they do it with joy. What a lovely reminder that one person can do so much, but an inspired team can do so much more. Empowering and inspiring your people brings an upward energy trend. We make change together and we are excited to do it.

I break the Fezziwig example down even more simply – to always strive to be someone I would want to work for. And who wouldn’t want to work for Mr. Fezziwig? You can’t even think the name Fezziwig without smiling because it’s a fun combination of sounds and it brings up fond images.

Tis the season, and it can last as long as you wish. Cheers!


Don’t Eat Before Your Crew: Exploring Servant Leadership

This post originally appeared in Govloop in December 2017.

You may say you respect and appreciate your employees (your team) but are you showing it through your actions?

The leaders I have always responded well to are the ones who care for the people they are responsible for and model noble behavior. They show that leadership is more than being in front and certainly more than about themselves.

A simple way to put this is to lead is to serve. A basic tenet of this value set that we often practice in wildland fire is this — you don’t eat before your crew.

In the Field

Here’s how that plays out. As you grow and take on leadership roles, you are taking on more responsibility for others. By ensuring that their needs are met first and foremost, you exhibit a number of characteristics — empathy, awareness, foresight, commitment to their growth — that speak volumes in terms of support. You are showing them that you can and will provide them with the tools they need to get the job done.

When we say don’t eat before your crew, in part we’re speaking literally. In a crew of 20, the leaders will bring up the rear in the chow line. Practically it can be because if they run short on food, we are ensuring that the folks who work for us are getting fed. Often times, they are the ones who need the calories most. A recent article explores this concept from the Marine Corps experience.

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”- Max De Pree

In more complex operations – overseeing a group of engineers or a much larger group of folks and equipment working across sections of a fire –  I often have people who are experts in focused areas. Strategists, tacticians, equipment operators — people who know what they and their team can do and are highly skilled at doing it.

As I move up, I provide intent — define reality as Max De Pree said. I spend the rest of my time listening, guiding and then figuring out to make sure other needs are met. I build a community beyond our operational group to ensure that we don’t just meet today’s mission, but so my people are able to continue tomorrow and the next day.

Off the fire line, this happens by empowering and supporting others now and for the future.

Servant Leadership

“The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.” —Robert K. Greenleaf

Servant leadership is typically one component of an overall leadership style, and it centers on responsibilities and relationships.  Do an online search for servant leadership and you will find a wide range of material.

Retired AT&T executive, Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) coined the phrase in 1970 in his essay “The Servant as Leader.”  His pioneering work culminated in the creation of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. This work has inspired military and corporate training, thoughtful articlesother institutes and further research in the decades since.

In a later work, Greenleaf frames servant-leadership this way:

It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? 

This describes a path that isn’t how many of us step into our leadership roles. It is, however, a path towards maturing our styles and a metric for assessing the success of that transition.

Lead by Exemplifying Character

In wildland fire, like a lot of other specialized fields, we can be tribal. We tend not to trust you if you haven’t done x, y or z in your career.

The fact is, you will never have a career long enough to check everyone’s different boxes for x, y or z.

So when we say lead by example, does this mean that you must always be doing or have done what you ask your team to do? No, that would be impossible.  It can even teeter you into micromanagement, one of the seven deadly sins of poor management.

Leading by example isn’t limited to a particular task, it’s more to do with your character and compassion. Supporting your team through servant leadership ultimately comes from displaying a part of your character.

In supporting your team, you are empowering them to get more done than any one of you could by yourselves. Developing servant leadership as part of your style is a natural evolution — if you are open and aware. It leads to a more holistic approach that outlasts any individual’s charisma and provides for your organization well into the future.