Summer Camp – Using Wildland Fire Assignments to Escape from “Real Life”


By Aaren Nellen, Engine Captain

Currently Detailed as Fire Management Officer

Pine Ridge Ranger District,

Nebraska National Forest and Grasslands

In emergency management services, stress is a known operational constraint for which we train to manage and/or mitigate. We strive to twist and harness it to our advantage. Sometimes we bury it in a deep dark hole in the back of our minds and choose to kick the can down the road.

Risk and its related stress are inherently intertwined throughout our careers. Actions and interactions range from tailgate safety sessions, risk management analysis, programs such as “take 10 at 2”, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), Facilitated Learning Analyses (FLA), You Will Not Stand Alone (YWNSA), and even the application of the Incident Command System (ICS) in the field. These are all intended to—in some way—identify, dissect, mitigate, manage, provide support for and/or teach from stressors related to hazards, values, and consequences that we are subjected to in what has become our normal operating environment.


Aaren Nellen.

I Need a “Nice Relaxing Fire”

I have found that this operational stress derived from risk has become so normalized in my life that I actually find myself needing to engage in “a nice relaxing fire” as a mitigation for the stress found in the administrative component of my job as well as in my personal life. Operational engagement can be an addictive coping mechanism in its own convoluted way.

We, as a culture, are very good at making quality and educated decisions on a short timeline and consequentially receiving feedback in the form of either success or failure in an equally timely fashion.

We are Horrible at Managing Administrative Stress

In my process of soul searching, as well as through my interactions with coworkers across the fire service, I have come to find that we (emergency managers) are collectively horrible at managing long term or administrative stress. I don’t know if we consciously realize that these stressors are still tied to risk and values. Sometimes I think that we just pretend to understand consequences over time.

All too often there are few if any “slide-shows” to draw from. There are no answers or decisions that will generate timely feedback as to success or failure. There are seldom checklists, complexity analysis, or support mechanisms in place to manage long-term stress due to things like administrative challenges, programmatic change, career evolvement, budgetary pendulums, interpersonal conflict, or relationship problems outside of work that are all too prevalent in our culture.

It almost seems as though our skillsets in decision making “on the line” become counter-productive to our skills in managing “off the line” risk and stress. I find it ironic, in this sense, that we must first acquire significant fireline skills before we even have the opportunity for exposure to administrative duties in the fire service—because many of us consider “FMO” as an end state in our careers. Where are the administrative skills training curriculum? Considering the training that is available, are they applied at the appropriate time?

Important Questions

Because I am mission focused, I am always driving toward a solution to whatever problem has been presented to me. What is it that can be done to mitigate this problem and lead to a reduction of this risk and stress that I feel “off the line”—and can it be done in a timely manner?

Is this where decisions pertaining to alcohol consumption, drug use, divorce, or suicide come into play?

Are these decisions not just an “easy out” but rather a simple and pointed solution to a complicated situation that garners immediate reward by either temporarily or permanently removing the risk or stressor from our operating picture? That’s what we’re trained to do. Right?

So the key questions are: How can we prepare ourselves and those coming up to develop tools and practices that will help us navigate all the kinds of stress that we will encounter outside of the incident management world? What coping skills or tools can we develop and normalize to make ourselves more at ease to tackle stresses when we are not operationally engaged?

I don’t have the answers. But maybe if we start talking about it we can discover some together.

[Aaren Nellen’s various duties include: Forest Training Officer, Dispatch Zone Training Committee Chair, Zone (three Districts) ATV Instructor, active instructor for various locally hosted and academy hosted 1-200 level courses, active instructor for Rocky Mountain Training Center hosted RX301/341.]

7 thoughts on “Summer Camp – Using Wildland Fire Assignments to Escape from “Real Life”

  1. I’ve always said, “I fight fire for free”, they have to pay me for all of the admin stuff I have to do.

  2. Check out the work being done by Mission Critical Teams Institute ( There is a concept they refer to as “residue” that fits with this story. I’ve also been digging into this same discussion. There is a need for us to be able to tell our story and process experiences, memories, stress, and trauma.

    • I’ll echo, Jeremy, this work on residue is powerful, thought provoking, and really gets at how to deal with tough stuff with a growth mindset. It’s helped me greatly. Their Mission Critical Team Cast is wonderful as well and really pertinent to our work in wildland fire.

  3. Agree, fire assignments are a great vacation from all the day to day crap that builds up. Sometimes that change of pace is what it takes to make things bearable, especially if you have a bad supervisor or work environment. You bring up a good point about training FMOs too. I don’t think that most of us look at FMO as an end state of our career (I think a large part see lower level positions like engine captain or fuels tech as that end state) but the FMOs are all drawn from the operational ranks (IFPM requirements) to do … administrative, not operational, work. I think there is a disconnect in the agencies (FS at least), and a big gap in training the people we want to do those jobs to do them well. That requires a lot of computer and administrative skills that I see firefighters struggle to attain, and I have known more than one FMO who struggles to pull off more than the most basic administrative tasks. When they outsource all that to the younger people on staff who can do them, it makes one wonder just what the FMO is doing. I think having an academy to develop those admin skills for prospective or newly minted FMOs would do a lot to decrease frustration and increase overall competence and efficiency, not to mention the quality of what products we put out across the board.

  4. I think it is important for FMO types to get out on fires, and burns and not just when they are an ICT3, or RXB2, as it gives them a break from the very mundane and never ending work of management and it’s necessary bureaucracy. This work provides a re-set physically and mentally, while it also keeps us DO’s or occasional IC’s head in the game, and therefore well versed at our most basic jobs; supporting the field. At the same time, puling our Captains, and Tech’s into Duty Officer work, or into the mix of spreading out the administrative work is excellent for building up those folks to be more ready when they become an AFMO. They have an assistant, let that person run the show sometimes in the name of developing your next generation of leadership to help you with the work you need relief in. It’s not taking advantage, it is mixing up the workload in appropriate ways to keep it fresh for everyone.

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