We were on the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, which at 230,000 acres (or something), is the largest fire in New Mexico history. The fire was in the middle of the Gila Wilderness, and wasn't "burning out of control" or anything too special, it was just big. The fire mostly burned at a low intensity, through areas well-adapted to fire, largely as a result of extremely progressive fire management by the Gila National Forest. Well, I guess that's if you consider letting nature take it's course "progressive."
The Gila is an excellent role model for adaptive fire management. You could describe their management strategy as working with wildfire, and not against it, and it was very evident on the fireline. We had been burning for 10 days straight, reintroducing fire onto the landscape like a long-lost friend. I was admittedly very pleased at the general direction that management was heading with the Whitewater-Baldy fire, right up until the news broke that it was the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.
The next day, we were told that along with 3 other hotshot crews, we would be hiking into the Gila River Canyon- if you've never been, bring a satellite phone and all the climbing/rappelling gear you can find. As if the hairs on my neck hadn't yet stood fully upright, our Division leader proceeded to inform us that the only support we would have was from a Black Hawk helicopter stationed at a nearby National Guard Station, presumably flown by a pilot with no experience flying wildfire operations. However, we were told the helicopter WAS equipped with night vision. So there's that.
When pressed for a reason, the man who was sending us into the canyon could give none. We would only find out later that the reason we were being sent into this unbelievably dangerous situation was because the chief of the Forest Service decided to come out for a day trip. And apparently, Incident Management Teams get really uncomfortable when the Chief is in town, and the biggest fire in state history is all over the news, and it looks like they're just sitting on their hands.
This assignment was the type of "risk vs. gain" situation that every single person who has ever taken the most introductory wildfire course would think was a trick question. No one ever signed up to go dig hand line through a sparsely vegetated but extremely rugged and precipitous canyon in order to prevent an ecologically beneficial wildfire from crossing an imaginary line that someone in a tent 50 miles away drew in order to try and make their boss happy. No one. And no one should ever be subject to that kind of reckless endangerment again. It's criminal.
Instead, not only one hotshot crew superintendent accepted the assignment. All four did. As if that wasn't enough, they then tried to outbid each other about who could get it done fastest. The scene was right out of a schoolyard dare. One tough guy decided his crew could do it in 3 days, the next guy said his crew would only need 2, and so on. They finally bargained each other down to a day and a half. And we did it. No one got hurt, by miraculous stroke of luck, which really is a testament to the physical capacities of the young men and women on the fireline. However, because no one got hurt, no one ever talked about how ridiculous the assignment was, and no lesson was ever learned.
Maybe this seems like an isolated incident, but I got stories like this for days and days.
Let's talk about Southern California. I could devote an entire book series to all the bullshit I've seen in SoCal. However, there is one particular incident that stands out to me.
We were on some fire by Goleta that had already burned up a few million dollar houses hidden out in the brushy hills of Santa Barbara County. When that happens, you can pretty much expect that every single proper tenet of firefighting has been tossed out the window in favor of a media-friendly, public relations strategy. Which is how we found ourselves 3 miles from Alan Parsons' house at the bottom of an oven-like canyon whose walls were 70-degree inclined, in the thickest, nastiest chapparral jungle I have ever seen. Did I mention we were only 3 miles from one of Alan Parsons' houses? You know, Alan Parsons of the Alan Parsons Project?
Five hotshot crews (100 people) were flown up by helicopter near Condor Peak, in order to cut line through chaparral forest 30-40 feet tall. We were told to secure the fire's edge, which had stopped progressing and had instead been smoldering in the oak litter for a few days, curing out the underbrush and waiting for a good wind event to come alive again. Anyone who knows anything about smoldering oak brush, wind events, and steep-ass canyons knows where I'm heading with this is, and it's bad news, jack.
We went into that canyon every morning and out every night, and I let anyone who would listen know my exact feelings on the situation. Everyone did. It just never made it past a shoulder shrug and "Yea, I know. We all know." As the day heated up on the last day of our tour, a Santa Ana wind blew down from the golden hills to the east. That evening we sat on Alan Parson's lawn and watched the canyon we were in only two hours before explode and burn into the night.