Promoting a Prescribed Fire Workforce

[This article originally appeared as the “One of Our Own” feature on Jeremy Bailey in the Spring 2016 Issue of Two More Chains.]

Jeremy Bailey

By Alex Viktora and Paul Keller

Jeremy Bailey acknowledges that in past decades and generations of fire managers we have been very successful in sharing the responsibility of both prescribed fire and fire suppression.

“But,” he emphasizes, “that’s not working for us anymore.”

Jeremy supports a new course of action for addressing this dilemma.

“I think that moving forward, we’re going to have to change the way we think about who leads our prescribed fires and who is responsible for implementing those burns. And I personally think it needs to be a dedicated prescribed fire workforce.”

Jeremy’s Bio Info

Jeremy Bailey studied philosophy and psychology at Cornell College in Iowa.

His past experience includes working for the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service on hotshot, engine, and helitack crews. In addition, Jeremy led a fire use module.

Based in Salt Lake City, he now works for The Nature Conservancy as the Associate Director for Training and Capacity Building with the North America Fire Learning Network. The Fire Learning Network is supported by “Promoting Ecosystem Resilience and Fire Adapted Communities Together: Collaborative Engagement, Collective Action and Co-Ownership of Fire”, a cooperative agreement between The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service, and the agencies of the Department of the Interior.

Jeremy is also the Chairperson for the National Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils.

A Fire-Lighting Workforce

“In the past,” Jeremy continues, “we have been successful using our firefighting workforce to also be our fire-lighting workforce. However, it’s clear that our firefighters are spending more and more time away from their home units, engaged in difficult and extended fire assignments, and have very little time to also be responsible for implementing the needed prescribed fires back home.”

Therefore, Jeremy believes we need fire crews and management teams with the sole priority to accomplish the prescribed burning. “Our fire management researchers and scientists have been calling on us for more than two decades to get more ‘good’ fire back into our forests and grasslands,” he says. “Our response has been believable reasons why we can’t.”

“And that’s not like us,” Jeremy contends. “We can.”

Jeremy points out that right now in various areas around the country—East and West, North, South, and Central—when managers dedicate a work team to plan, lead, and implement prescribed burning, then it gets done.

“Every reason for not burning can be overcome when you have a workforce who is dedicated to getting it accomplished. This isn’t magic. It’s how all work gets done. You make it the priority duty for that work team or group of employees.”

Jeremy’s Job

A Burn Boss Who Helps Communities
Become Familiar and Skilled
in Living Safely with Fire

As the Associate Director of Training and Capacity Building for The Nature Conservancy’s Fire Learning Network, Jeremy Bailey explains that he works with teams of people around the country to help develop their capacity to use more fire to achieve their local management objectives.

“If I need to say it in a word,” Jeremy explains, “I’m a Burn Boss.”

This unique Burn Boss says his main duty is helping communities “learn to become more familiar and skilled in the ways of living safely with fire.”

Jeremy points out how these communities are organizing around Fire-Adapted Community principles. “And they’re learning that, in many instances, you have to bring fire back into the places that pose the greatest threat to their safety.”

Jeremy continues, “these communities are recognizing that it’s not the responsibility of one agency or department or organization—but, rather, it is the responsibility of all of us.”

Jeremy says that as a federal firefighter he had more access to equipment and staff.

“But as a not-for-profit, non-governmental fire practitioner, I have more flexibility to recruit and mobilize the work teams from neighboring agencies and organizations. I help write more MOUs and Agreements than burn plans.”

Jeremy Bailey says his main duty is helping hundreds of communities learn to become more familiar and skilled in the ways of living safely with fire.

Can-Do Attitude

Jeremy asserts that our fire management Can-Do attitude is very strong—and can be applied to achieving our prescribed fire goals and objectives.

“We can coordinate with air quality regulators. We can mitigate the liability of putting fire on the ground and implementing planned burns. We can have enough NEPA-approved treatment acres ready. And when we have a dedicated workforce focused on implementing prescribed fire, we can find good weather windows.”

What’s more, this fire practitioner knows that “we are able to burn across property lines. We are able to have interagency agreements and have inter-organizational burn teams. We can support each other in achieving more prescribed fire.”

“But,” Jeremy acknowledges, “when the workforce has other duties that are the priority, then, of course, they don’t get our prescribed fire work accomplished.”

The Successful Use of Good Fire

Jeremy explains that we need this dedicated prescribed fire workforce to help us scale-up the successful use of good fire. “We need Type 3 Incident Management Teams and fire crews that are fully dedicated to implementing prescribed fire,” he says.

An Honest Look at Our Initial Attack Success Rate and Funding

Jeremy has insights on why our focus on increased funding and effort for initial attack doesn’t make sense.

“I think we have to take an honest look at how successful we already are at achieving a nearly perfect initial attack success rate,” he says.

“We do need to maintain our nimble, responsive, trained and effective initial attack firefighters and capabilities. But adding more money or effort trying to increase our initial attack success rate by just a percentage point or two does not make sense. It’s a diminishing return on our investment.”

Jeremy continues, “we would be much better served by using those funds to help support a parallel workforce whose priority is implementing prescribed fire.”

Deferring Risk onto Our Future Firefighters

Furthermore, Jeremy believes that striving to maintain that 98 percent success rate on initial attack defers all of that risk onto our future firefighters.

“I can’t believe that we continue to brag about our initial attack’s success. And I know managers all over the country who brag about it.”

Jeremy says it would make better sense if we called it “initial action”. “We’re getting on every fire right away and making smart decisions about how we will respond to each individual fire.”

Jeremy (shown here in center of photo) is advocating for a prescribed fire workforce “that isn’t going to get sucked away during PL 4 or 5”.

He shares his vision for what this could actually look like.

“There’s a lot of times during the year that we could be growing our fires. We could be moving them around. And we could be keeping them in check—while still meeting ecological and community-based values and maintaining firefighter safety, and not deferring risk down the road to our future workforce.”

Jeremy cites author Stephen Pyne’s paradoxical observation that: “We know that our current business model is selecting for the largest and most destructive fires, yet we can’t seem to do it any other way.”

Jeremy assures that he’s not going to advocate for changing the way we do initial attack.

“What I am going to advocate for is a workforce that’s dedicated to implementing prescribed fires. A workforce that isn’t going to get sucked away during a PL 4 or 5. This workforce is going to stay dedicated to its home unit and continue to do the work that needs to be done. In that way, we can start to reduce the risk to our future workforce.”

Promotes an ‘All Lands’ Approach

This future workforce, Jeremy also points out, needs to have an “All Lands” approach. “There are already numerous inter-organizational and interagency crews who burn and work between public and private lands,” he explains.

“Such an ‘All Lands’ approach is clearly in alignment with what our scientists and researchers have been telling us for decades about getting more prescribed fire on the ground,” Jeremy adds. “I believe that this is the change that we need to see.”

Jeremy’s past experience includes working on a helitack crew.

The Truth about Training

Jeremy also believes that we should be focusing more of our training of young firefighters on implementing prescribed fire.

“University students in fire management programs should be spending their spring breaks and summer vacations working on prescribed fire crews. Basic 32, S130, and S190 should all have prescribed fire field days.”

He acknowledges that some programs are already doing this.

“It’s not as farfetched as you might initially think,” Jeremy says. “I know of municipal departments, universities, contractors, federal and state firefighting organizations that all train their firefighters on prescribed fires first. Firefighters learn by doing. Classroom time is great; field time working with live fire is even better.”

Jeremy continues, “when we spend so much time in the classroom and not enough time with our hands on the fire and working with fire, then we end up learning textbook answers that we try to apply in the field without any real field experience.

“I think it’s a real clear indicator of our failure to recognize how our workforce learns and trains when we have firefighters that have years of experience and have never been on a prescribed fire. We’re assuming that we can teach them everything in the classroom. Then we take them out into a hazardous environment, supervise them closely, and expect they’ll learn what they need to learn without getting hurt.”

Jeremy says that there’s no reason why all of our fire workers can’t spend days, weeks, and even months on controlled burns before they’re deployed on actual wildfires. “I believe this ‘hands on’ training idea is valid,” he assures. “There’s a lot of opportunities to do more work and training with live fire.”

Jeremy (on left) says if we really want to succeed, we need to have dedicated employees who can work at overcoming the challenges of implementing prescribed fire.

‘Illusion of Control’ and Prescribed Fire

This prescribed fire advocate has insights on how the “illusion of control” can apply to prescribed fire.

“You’ve seen it. We’ve all seen it,” Jeremy says. “When the firing boss or the leader who’s supervising a firing operation uses terms to describe what they think is happening like ‘it’s pulling together’ or they say: ‘We’re going to add a little bit more fire over here and we’re going to pull it’. There’s an illusion of control that’s happening.”

Jeremy continues, “I think it’s rather natural to think that when things are going your way, it’s because of the things you’re doing. And that might not necessarily be the case.

“When we’re operating under mild and moderate conditions, we do have a lot more control,” Jeremy explains. “But increasingly, we’re being tasked with operating in environmental conditions that we’re not familiar with, that our models aren’t designed around, that we don’t have experience in. And yet we’re still trying to use tactics and strategies and training based on a different set of environmental conditions. 

“So when we get tasked to work on wildfires in the 97th percentile that are blowing and going, we don’t have the same level of control that we have under less severe conditions. But we’re still trying to achieve the same kinds of success that we’ve had in the past.”

To help to avoid succumbing to the ‘illusion of control’ trap, Jeremy believes that “fundamentally you just have to have very robust skills development and training programs where people learn.”

Have Prescriptions for Firing Operations

Jeremy points out that in prescribed fire operations, you have a set of environmental factors that you don’t exceed. “So you get to define your boundaries. But when you’re responding to an unplanned wildfire—then you get what you get. The environmental conditions dictate the conditions you’re working under.”

Jeremy shares the good idea he recently heard from a fire management officer about firing operations on wildfires.

“He said that if we’re going to do large firing operations, then it’s potentially appropriate to have a prescription that outlines the goals and objectives and the right environmental factors for that burnout operation, just like you would have for a controlled burn. I mean, you’re not going to do a firing operation on a controlled burn when it’s 95 degrees and relative humidity is 3 percent and wind is at 15. You wouldn’t do that on a prescribed burn. But when you go out on a wildfire and you do large burnout operations under similar conditions you are voluntarily taking on lots of additional risks. And, potentially, the effects of the fire may or may not be desirable or meet your objectives.”

Time for a Cultural Change

Jeremy summarizes his insights on how the wildland fire service needs to undergo a cultural change.

“We’re failing to adapt. We’re failing to change the way we do business. In the past, our workforce had the ability to both fight fire and light fire. But in today’s context—an increasingly challenging, difficult and dangerous work environment—our firefighters are tasked with a fulltime job. And yet we’re still under the illusion that we can ask that workforce to implement our control burn objectives. And sometimes they can get away with it on the edges—just before they get laid off, or just as they’re getting hired on.

“But if we really want to succeed, then we need to have dedicated employees who can work at overcoming the challenges of implementing prescribed fire. There is a large body of work that has to be accomplished when you are implementing planned burns. It takes weeks and months and sometimes years of preparation to get prescribed fire on the ground on the scale that we need it.”

4 thoughts on “Promoting a Prescribed Fire Workforce

  1. Great article on both were we should be heading. The idea of a prescription for adding fire to an already blowing and going one is rock solid.

    • Having a prescription for large burns on wildfires would be great, but will only work if you are way ahead of the curve. Unfortunately most decision makers are not willing to put fire on the ground until they are pushed. Hence burning in the worst possible conditions resulting in slicked off hillsides.

  2. Fire is a tool for managing a resource. If you do not have the training to understand your resource, you should not have the authority to apply fire. Burnouts have done a lot of harm to a lot of private landowners caught between federal lands and communities, and a few fire crews have used burnouts in the most irresponsible fashion, causing millions in damage to landowners as well as forest resources all because a “risk” was determined by a fire modeler without a stake in the community or lands that were burned. Yes, we need trained crews capable of managing and using fire, but those crews also need to understand the resources they are firing and the landowners they may impact. So far the good burnouts equals the bad burnouts I have seen, and that is not a good statistic. Much better coordination between contract fire crews and resource managers and landowners is desperately needed.

  3. Thank you for posting the article “Promoting a Prescribed Fire Workforce”. I have been a proppant of separating suppression crews from RX crews for many years. I honestly believe they should be in different shops, paint their tool handles a different color, even have a different job series.

    Currently the wildland workforce in this country is the best in the world. We can all tell stories about the work ethic of firefighters, about a young firefighter developing into a leader, about a particular instructor or supervisor that really influenced us in a positive way, and on and on. There can’t be enough said about wildland firefighters. We are good at what we do.

    It usually takes about five years to train and qualify a FFT1, maybe ten years for a single resource. Given that, the firefighter at the end of a twenty-year career has had the opportunity to train their replacements. The skill and talent of the workforce is quickly built and maintained. The S- courses are developed by firefighters, taught by firefighters, and firefighters are the students in these classes. Firefighters train firefighters while on the job. The system works.

    Imagine taking that same concept and applying it to prescribed fire. In 10 years, we will have developed a prescribed fire workforce that is second to none and is self-sustainable. Let this new workforce lay out prescribed bun units and determine the best time to implement. Even if a wildfire starts within a planned burn unit, let the suppression crews go full suppression, overwhelming force, attack with everything available to keep it small. By knowing it will be burned under optimal conditions, there is no more gray areas about putting fires out, no more asking firefighters who want a good hard black line, to try and meet resource objectives during a burnout. A prescribed burn crew will be able to prep units ahead of time and be able to stay on a unit long enough after the initial ignition to monitor. These crews should have their own series of training courses and their own qualification system guide. Now is the time to separate suppression from prescribed fire.

    My pride has always been in suppression. These days though, it seems like active suppression means making a fire huge. I have a difficult time believing in this approach. There will always be fires that get away from initial attack, or that are too dangerous to go direct on, but looking at “the big box” as the strategy from the start? And then calling it full suppression? There are two management objectives getting mixed up and the expectation to sort that out is left up to the suppression resources on the ground. It should be separated out from the get-go. I sincerely hope this concept takes off and becomes a reality…before it’s too late.

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