Fire Boss


Carlson, Fire Boss

Every fire has one Fire Boss responsible for the overall fire suppression effort. The Fire Boss is usually the highest ranking fire-fighter on-site. When the fire is just a tree or two, there is nothing formal about assigning the Fire Boss - the small group of people on this type of fire generally know who is in charge.

However, when a fire grows beyond a few trees, a Fire Boss is assigned. In our National Forest, the Fire Boss was normally assigned by Zone Dispatch. Quite often, my supervisor, our Helitack foreman, was assigned Fire Boss. He had lots of experience in all types of fires - a good choice. Obviously, with Dale flying the front seat to all fires, there was seldom a chance for others to be Fire Boss
(except for the small fires).

We maintained a “jump list” which detailed who was on the helicopter on each day. Dale was always on the list; he was the leader of our crew. The rest of us rotated into the list. For whatever reason, on this Sunday, Dale decided that I should ride the front seat and lead the crew.

I immediately thought: A training mission today? My main concern is always determining the location of any fire, ie the Township/Range/Section, etc. It is important to get the exact location, quickly to Zone Dispatch. This was my main hangup. I figured any training today would probably just consist of getting a
quick location and flying back.

It was a typical Sunday - quiet. Then, early in the afternoon we received a dispatch from Zone Dispatch. It still sounded like “training” to me when the message was received, but we responded like it was a real fire.

The fire was located just north of Fort Klamath. We flew to the site and quickly discovered four separate fires, all still small. We landed and headed for the flame located in the trees. Two of the fires were small and not going anywhere, but the other two fires were starting to spread. It was obviously arson, but fire suppression was our main concern.

I sent the two people on my crew off to fight the two spreading fires. I met the other ground crews that had just arrived. Zone Dispatch was radioing every ten seconds asking for a location. I didn’t have a precise location determined yet. All I saw was spreading fire - if we fought the flames hard with the available manpower we could maybe stop this fire quick. But, Zone was hounding me for
a location.

I met the other ground crews and we worked on the location. The other crews consisted of a large pumper truck and a full-time fire suppression staff person from the Klamath District. I assumed he would quickly be assigned Fire Boss and I could let him deal with the location - he had worked in this district for many years and probably knew the exact legal description already.

Moments later, Zone Dispatch radioed and asked who should be Fire Boss. My vote for Fire Boss answered back, “the senior Helitack crew member”. That would be me! Suddenly, I was in charge of this fire. I felt young. I already knew that at 21 I was probably the youngest assistant Helitack foreman in the region (Oregon/Washington). I was in shock for several moments.

Another call from Zone Dispatch woke me up. They wanted the legal
description. We laid out the maps on the truck hood and tried to figure out where we were. I’ve replayed this scene many times: I should have assigned the location to someone else and concentrated on the fire rather than spend time myself trying to figure out where we were. I wasted my time working on something another person could have been assigned.

The fire continued to burn. I sent a pumper truck into the heart of the fire. It was starting to grow. We were not winning the battle. We had one pumper truck and a half dozen ground personnel. Our helitack ground crew was enroute to the fire. They were bringing additional staff and the water bucket. I contacted the helicopter and asked for the water bucket to be attached if a nearby water source could be found.

The fire continued to burn. The helicopter had returned to base to pickup the bucket and additional staff. On their return, they could see that the fire was starting to “go”. Dale radioed to let me know that heavy fuel (dense forest) was just ahead of the fire.

If the fire spread to this heavy fuel there might be no stopping the fire, it could spread well within Crater Lake National Park. I was not excited about being the person responsible for burning down Crater Lake National Park. I radioed Zone Dispatch and asked for Air Tankers. In 1980, each air tanker drop cost $3,000. That was a lot of money in those days.

The air tankers (2) arrived in about twenty minutes. They came from nearby Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls. The fire continued to spread. An additional pumper crew arrived. The pumpers continued to work in the heart of the fire. All radio messages to me were prefixed with “Fire Boss”. It was indeed my fire.

The air tankers dropped their red, slimy loads on the fire. It was very effective. With the additional pumper trucks and staff we were making progress on suppressing the fire. Fortunately, the wind was relatively calm making suppression efforts much easier.

State fire suppression crews soon arrived on-site. The fire was actually on State of Oregon protected lands; they were ultimately responsible for the fire. Soon, Zone Dispatch (they dispatch for both the State and Forest Service) announced that the State was taking over control of the fire.

Okay by me; the excitement was over. The fire was all but controlled. It had burned about twenty acres. I was the Fire Boss during the exciting, initial attack stages. I often wonder what would have happened if I would have quickly passed the “location” task off to others and concentrated on fire suppression. Perhaps the Air Tankers would not have been necessary. But, Air Tankers are very exciting - it was fun to have them on “my” fire.

This was my first large fire where I was Fire Boss. I can only recall one other fire where I would serve in this function, and it would only be for a short period of time. Nonetheless, I will never forget this fire - I was the Fire Boss!