We Didn’t Always Cut Line This Way

The Path from 1910 to Today

by Erik Apland, Field Operations Specialist

Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

Most of us are familiar with the enormous fires of 1910, sometimes called the Great Idaho Fire or simply “The Big Blowup.” What we don’t necessarily know as well is the history of traumatic and historic fire seasons that followed 1910. In the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies, uncontrollable fires recurred again and again, in 1919, 1929, 1933 and 1934, just to name a few big seasons. None of these fires matched the scale or human toll of 1910, but it was evident that in the decades that followed The Big Blowup, wildland fire remained an unmastered force of nature.

The McLendon Butte Fire, Nez Perce National Forest (Idaho), in August 1934.

That was the state of things in 1935, when the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, himself, wrote that in terms of line construction techniques: “We are much nearer where we were in 1910 than where we ought to be.” This was the first year of the famous Forest Service “10 AM Policy” which relied on rapid and effective initial attack. The Chief suggested that handline could be constructed as fast as a person can “make a slash with his brush knife every step or so” in heavy brush.

As we recently dug into the archives for the Summer 2023 issue of Two More Chains, one particular rabbit hole led to this unexpected find. The first issue of the U.S. Forest Service’s quarterly newsletter, Fire Control Notes, published in December 1936, describes a “new” way to construct fireline. The article, written by Kenneth P. McReynolds of the Rogue River National Forest in Oregon, informs: “Everybody deplores the slow speed at which fire line is usually constructed and recognizes that many fires get away because of inefficiency in converting available energy into held line.”

A fire crew constructing handline in Oregon in 1926.

The One Lick Method

The progressive line construction technique, first conceived of as the “One Lick Method,” has now been universally adopted. But in the mid-1930s, it was being tested against the existing “Sector” system, in which each firefighter was responsible to complete a chunk of line from start to finish, cutting trees and brush, scraping litter, and digging to mineral soil.

In testing on a real wildfire on the Rogue River National Forest, these two techniques were tried head-to-head, with a crew each taking a flank of the fire and constructing One Lick vs. Sector line. In this real-world experiment, the One Lick Method was shown to produce line three times faster!

As with most major changes in established work practices, it appears the new method wasn’t adopted across wildland fire response organizations overnight. By October 1940, the National Park Service’s short lived publication The Region III Quarterly printed a piece that still served as kind of introduction to this method. Written by ranger Clair Cooke of Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico), the piece “Progressive Fire-Fighting” lays out some of the advantages of the new system, as well as discussing some refinements since the mid-1930s.

Cooke starts by clarifying that despite the name, it was often necessary for people to take more than one “lick” with a tool before they moved on. The piece goes on to explain that whereas with the Sector method, where each firefighter needed to use every tool from axe to McLeod, this new system allowed for firefighters to become experts at one or two particular tools they would always use. As Cooke writes: “Even the least experienced man can do some good with a shovel or McLeod tool, while the inexperienced axemen may do practically no good.”

Anyone who fought fire with me early in my career can attest to the wisdom of this statement.

Above are two suggested crew organizations from the 1940 Fireman’s Guide published by the Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service. Note that before chainsaws were adopted, the axes were in front and the crosscut saws were in the back of the line. The smokejumper sawyers on the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949 benefitted from this arrangement; when the line reversed to escape the fire, they were suddenly in the front.

More Than a Curiosity

The firefighting workforce in the Great Depression was not at all what it looks like today. Initial attack might be accomplished by a single smokechaser, a trail crew, loggers, local ranchers, or all of the above. Large fires in that era were often staffed with scores or hundreds of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers based at the literally thousands of camps throughout the nation. One early test of the One Lick method involved a single hand crew comprised of 200 CCC crewmembers.

The 1930s were a period of intense focus on wildland fire management and innovation, involving experiments in every part of wildland fire, down to how we dug line. Adopting the 10 AM Policy in 1935 stretched the existing system to find ever greater efficiency, pools of labor, infrastructure improvement, and technological breakthroughs. Many of these only came after the Second World War, which propelled advances in parachute personnel delivery, airplane and helicopter design, and field radios. Programs that had been in “experimental” status on the eve of the war were, by the 1950s, essentially recognizable to us today.

A fire crew in the Northeastern United States in 1937.

I find it useful to learn how thoroughly everything we do had to be theorized, experimented with, before they were adopted — down to the way we dig fireline. To me there is freedom knowing that everything we do is a choice, that we can experiment to do it better, down to these core fundamentals. Assignment length? Prescribed fire risk tolerance? PPE technology? Fire crew size? Nothing is set in stone.

7 thoughts on “We Didn’t Always Cut Line This Way

  1. It’s rare to see it mentioned that the Mann Gulch survivors made it out (in part at least) cuz they were saws, and therefore in the back of the line. Strong work.

  2. We are in complete agreement on the “One Lick Method” being inefficient. And there was definitely some improvement with the “Progressive Line” method, however, we even found that to be inefficient as well. Here’s why. The lead diggers always took too much and the last few diggers were either digging up old line or standing there like a few geese. Only “perfect practice makes perfect” and we never could achieve the perfection required to flow smoothly.

    After many years on Hand Crews, mostly Hot Shot Crews, we developed a new “progressive” method using a saw team *sawyer & swamper” and two hand tools. And they would complete their respective section of line and bump the module ahead of them.

    The bumping distance was based on fuels and fire behavior. If the fuels got heavier or more dense, then the diggers would help swamp. We called it “Payson Progressive” and it was very efficient and fairly quick and very safe. Give it a go, your mileage may vary, You’ll like it.

    Now to address this confusing one.

    You stated: regarding the “1940 Fireman’s Guide published by the Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service. Note that before chainsaws were adopted, the axes were in front and the crosscut saws were in the back of the line. The smokejumper sawyers on the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949 benefitted (sic) from this arrangement; when the line reversed to escape the fire, they were suddenly in the front.”

    From all accounts that I’ve read and talked to Dr. Ted Putnam regarding his extensive research on that fire, these men were scattered and running for their lives! There was no tool order to reverse.

    Would you be so kind as to provide your source(s) for this conclusion. How and where did you come to this conclusion?

    Thank you for your article and the opportunity to reply.

    Best regards, Fred Schoeffler (Payson HS)

  3. Hi Mr. Schoeffler, this is the post author, Erik.
    I think the first part of your reply speaks for itself and I appreciate your example from Payson IHC showing that indeed the way we do our business is an evolving practice built on trial and error, adapting lessons and improving.

    As far as the detail about Mann Gulch, I took that from a National Public Radio interview with one of the smokejumper sawyers, Bob Sallee. A transcript of the interview is available here: https://www.nwcg.gov/sites/default/files/wfldp/docs/sr-mg-bob-sallee-npr-the-story-transcript.pdf

    Sallee talks about the actions of himself and his fellow sawyer, Walter Rumsey: “Now, while Rumsey and I were both carrying crosscut saws, everybody else had a fire pack, they had a backpack with a shovel and a Pulaski. . . and the rules are, that the people carrying the saws, walk at the back of the line. Because they don’t want you to make any quick turn or something and hitting somebody alongside the head with your crosscut. . . When [Foreman Wag Dodge] got to Rumsey and I, he said, ‘you guys throw those things down before you hurt somebody. . . ’ So Rumsey and I fell in line, more or less behind him. So we went from being in the back of the line, to being almost in the front of the line.”
    I appreciate your interest and comment on the post.

  4. I should add for complete clarity that Sallee doesn’t attribute his survival solely to his place in line. He states also that he was lucky because by grabbing the crosscut saw he didn’t carry any other tool or a backpack, and that the saws are so unwieldy and potentially dangerous to other people, they dropped them first. I mentioned it in the post only as a point of connection and interest.

  5. Good afternoon Erik, I appreciate the quick response and your clarification with your source. It made a difference. So then, I stand corrected.

    Dr. Putnam’s research indicates that this was likely a “Friendly Fire” incident from the drainage below from Ranger Jansen based on interviews with SJ Sallee, SJ Rumsey, and a USFS Recreation Guard (Harrison); debunking the spot fire theory.

    Drawing from USFS Fire Behavior Research Scientist Rothermel’s “Mann Gulch fire: A race that couldn’t be won” (https://doi.org/10.2737/INT-GTR-299) Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-299 (1993).

    “On August 29, 1985, 73 firefighters were forced into cleared safety zones while fighting the Butte fire on the Salmon National Forest near Salmon, ID. They took refuge in their individual fire shelters for 1 to 2 h while a very severe crown fire burned around them.”

    Rothermel also included a section on the 1985 Butte Fire, albeit only partially correct. Payson, Flagstaff, and Mormon Lake Hot Shots were also on the fire and sought refuge in separate Safety Zones (SZ) along with a Humboldt Toiyabe NF Engine Strike Team, a bulldozer and water tender with operators that never uses fire shelters (these two operators had to be chased down and convinced to stay put). The Jemez Crew Boss and a Strike Team Leader did, in fact, deploy shelters and their respective interviews noted that this was the “fourth time” and “second time” respectively for the two.

    In addition, the Tin Cup Hill dozer-constructed SZ would have been a “true” SZ without the need for fire shelters because the wooden sign, tool handles, and grass never burned. Acting Flagstaff HS Crew Boss Roy Hall, since 1985, has correctly stated that the fire shelter deployments nullified them being call SZs because of the fact that fire shelters wee deployed.

    A few days after the deployments, I was in the Communications Trailer after the incident, I overheard one of the “Investigators” telling whomever he was talking to: “There were a lot of f**k ups on this fire but we’re going to make sure the report says the overhead did a good job and the fire shelters saved lives.”

    We’ve always said that this Butte Fire Shelter video started what we call “the fire shelter movement” because they were designed for light fuels and short duration. The earlier July 4, 1985 Lake Mountain Fire on the same Forest had several fire shelters deployed by Overhead Crews, and Equipment Operators. And yet this prior one on the same Forest is virtually unheard of. ( https://lessons.wildfire.gov/incident/lake-mountain-fire-entrapment-1985 ).

  6. This is another statement needing clarification: “Nothing is set in stone.”

    That’s a pretty bold, all-inclusive statement. So then, to this one I state that the bulk of tried-and-trued Rules of Engagement (e.g. Fire Orders and LCES) are set in stone. However, there was quite a battle getting NWCG and whomever to the keep the original Ten Standard Fire Orders in their original order instead of making them supposedly easier to memorize. It was mainly the Hot Shots, Smokejumpers, and interested others that ensured they were returned to normal. And the 18 Watch Out Situations used to be only 13. Now the five they added are all contradictions to the Fire Orders when you analyze them.

    The June 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire and GMHS SAIT-SAIR changed all that with bogus conclusion that the SAIT found that “the judgments and decisions of the incident management organizations managing this fire were reasonable,” and uncovered “no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations or policy or protocol.”

    How is is possible to do everything right, and yet kill 19 PFD GMHS in one fell swoop?

    The Rules of Engagement and established Entrapment Avoidance protocols work every time you use them. Every time!

  7. Erik – thank you for your replies clarifying the Mann Gulch Fire issues. I had a much longer response but it disappeared into cyber space when I replied.

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