What’s in a Name?

Wildland ‘Firefighter’ Might Be a Misnomer

By Megan Martinez, Zone Fuels AFMO, Custer Gallatin National Forest

Say the word “firefighter” and courage, hard work, and clarity of purpose come to mind. The men and women of the federal wildland fire management agencies who believe they deserve explicit recognition as “firefighters” fit this description to a T.

Yet there’s one drawback to defining our main task as fire suppression: In our Western forests, our extensive reliance on firefighting isn’t working.

I used to think it was.

The summer after my freshman year in college, I got a job on a 20-person fire crew in Region 5. For more than a decade, I happily worked my ass off as a “firefighter.” Enduring discomfort was a badge of honor, and I didn’t wonder if my actions had any long-term negative consequences to our natural resources, my health, or the safety of our personnel or the public.

I’m now a Fuels AFMO for the U.S. Forest Service. In the two decades since I started working in fire, I’ve gotten a lot of instruction on operations and risk management, but my training has rarely addressed the “big picture.”

Of course it’s important to work hard, communicate effectively, be good at tactics, and lead decisively. Long term though—not at the end of each fire, not at the end of each fire season, but in a decade or a generation or a century—what are we trying to accomplish?

Have you heard the term “fire paradox”? Here’s a definition from “Systems Thinking and Wildland Fire Management”:

“… a legacy of fire exclusion in fire-prone forests has led to hazardous accumulations of flammable vegetation such that future fires burn with higher intensity and are more resistant to control; today’s “success” begets tomorrow’s failure.”

Two Concepts You Should Know

To work toward tomorrow’s success, I’m convinced there are two big picture concepts every wildland fire professional should know. The first is the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. It has three components: Safe and Effective Fire Response, Resilient Landscapes, and Fire-Adapted Communities. The second is what management options we have on unplanned wildfires.

What's in a Name_Cohesive Strategy Image

The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy’s web page.

Before I explain these concepts, I’ll dispel a couple of myths. First, an understanding of this information is not someone else’s job. If you work in wildland fire, even as a first-year seasonal, how you act and how you communicate about our work matters. Second, although targeted fuels treatments are important, they’re not a silver bullet. There will still be wildfires.

Don’t stop reading. I’m not suggesting we stop suppressing fire.

At times wildfires burn too hot or too frequently, kindled by human starts, invasive weeds, changing climates, or ever-increasing fuel loads. There are tremendous political issues and safety risks that decision-makers must weigh before any decision other than the popular, comparatively easy course of action that has long remained the U.S. Forest Service default: trying to catch fires small. This decision makes perfect sense to me where fire poses an imminent threat to life, property, or highly vulnerable natural resources.

That said, we’re not doing ourselves or anyone else any favors by acting and communicating as though this default course of action has no limits. We’re in the business of taking care of public land, natural resources, our personnel, and the public into perpetuity. Relying on firefighting alone won’t achieve that.

National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy

I mentioned the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. How many of you ground-pounders have heard of it previously? I ran across it on my own a few years ago. Its first component we’re remarkably good at: Safe and Effective Fire Response. The other two components are Resilient Landscapes and Fire-Adapted Communities. We will only succeed at long-term fire management if we promote all three.

Ever heard someone say: “All I need to know about fuels is whether they’ll burn or won’t burn?” That logic is outdated. The best wildfire professionals I’ve worked with plan their actions based on fire control when and where necessary and what’s best for ecosystems in the long term. If you want to brush-up on how to promote resilient landscapes, here’s a good resource: the Fire Effects Information System.

As for fire-adapted communities, can you describe to every landowner you encounter how structures burn in wildfires? If you can’t, check out this video by retired U.S. Forest Service researcher Dr. Jack Cohen. We want communities to be fire-adapted prior to trial by fire, but where’s the incentive for private landowners to prepare for fire if they believe our fire suppression and fuels treatments are all that’s necessary?

Fire Response Options

Now that you know about the Cohesive Strategy, it’s time to clarify our fire response options. My first season in fire was 1998. At that time, our training emphasized fighting fire. In my second season, I learned about Wildland Fire Use for Resource Benefit. Apparently we’d just switched from calling it Prescribed Natural Fire. In 2003, I started filling-in with a Fire Use Module. In 2009, we got rid of the term “fire use,” and started calling all types of wildland fire either planned (prescribed) or unplanned (wildfires). The longer you’ve been around, the more likely it is you find all this very confusing.

As far as I can tell, a clear explanation of our current options hasn’t made it into our training. Yet we need every one of our personnel to understand it. Here it is: The initial response to human-caused fires is required to be suppression. Beyond that, unplanned fires can have a full range of strategies and tactics. We no longer choose whether a fire is “suppression” or “fire use.” One flank might have direct line built, while another has monitoring with infrastructure prep and a plan to fire out if necessary.

We will always need a workforce proficient at safe and effective fire response. But we owe it to the smart, badass group of Forestry Technicians* engaged in important, high-risk tasks on the fireline to direct their hard work with a clear view toward long-term success (for them and for wildlands).

There are some fire programs and personnel that already do this admirably well. I’ve seen great examples at many National Park Service units, as well as National Forests like the Kaibab and the Flathead. Overall though, the men and women of our federal land management agencies making field-level fire decisions need better information to make that happen. Please share this post—and your long-term successes!

*Go ahead and identify as a “firefighter” if you want to. Just consider what’s in a name.

18 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Well written and on-point. My only criticism – delivered hopefully in a constructive way – is the author’s focus on those in the “federal wildland fire management agencies” in her opeing statement. Those who operate in the wildland environment and believe/espouse the wisdom and need of both the NCS and various response options can be found at all levels – federal, tribal, state, and local government, as well as private industry. We are wear green (or tan) and yellow, and the public cannot tell us apart, nor should they be able to do so. Our work is a team sport, and we need to talk and act like we beleive that.

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  2. Important post, thank you for taking the time to share Megan. I agree with Paul’s comment regarding the importance to recognize the breadth of Fire Practitioners and would add non-profit, volunteers and international partners. I believe in addition to our highly coordinated network of firefighters with response priority we need an additional workforce dedicated to Prescribed Fire. There is more than enough work to go around. Thanks again for sharing your important thoughts and observations.

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  3. When I attended Forestry School in the upper Midwest 30 some years ago, I understood the word “Firefighter” as a word meaning “other duties as assigned.” I was under NO illusion about what the words Forest Technician (0462), Range Technician (055), Range Con, etc meant. One could read between the line that the only “assignment” Firefighter was to many Government Agencies were the one with ALS / BLS / HAZMAT, Airbase ARFF types, etc etc, and I was under NO illusion that OPM was going to change the titling anytime soon….and they still haven’t. I can see why the authors focus was on the Fed side. They (the Fed wildland fire agencies) are the LEAD agencies for this and spilling down to the States…..Everybody is supposedly following the NWCG guidelines all the way down to the State and VFD’s id they are to maintain their ability to get the Fed issued Nomex? Most of us know the funding streams and how this works

    To the new crop of “firefighters” coming up through Forestry schools in the US: Do not think that FIRE is the only thing in the wildland fire world. Waiting for a permanent spot in the system might just break your heart, if you don’t break some bones first to gain the title “firefighter.” Terminology such as “suppression” or “fire use”, “planned vs unplanned fire, tanker vs tender has been through iterations of wordsmithing forever.

    Fire was a great time, the team work was GREAT but the wait for positions forces folks to look elsewhere and and when you get to be 57-60 yrs old, you BEST have a plan for life after FIRE…errr…Life after being a Forester, Forest Technician, Range Technician, etc…because OPM like many Forestry issues haven’t got past the 1903 mark when Gifford Pinchot had a dream.

    He probably just did not think that some Forestry “titling operations” for was going to get this convoluted or complex in the myriad of OPM job titles

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  4. Great job Megan. Unless we all realize the importance of community fire adaptation/mitigation and we all put our money where our mouth is nothing will change. The opportunity to truly manage wildfire comes with mitigation before a fire starts. Once it starts it becomes response, not management. To say and act otherwise is simply ignoring reality. Change comes from the field, let’s keep it going. We are all in this together and no one has more to lose than communities.

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    • Let’s move beyond sharing to doing …… doing things differently on the ground, getting the risk reduction accomplished, making a difference in actions.

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  5. It’s important to point out that the response to unplanned ignitions is based on the goals/objectives specified in the L/RMP and/or FMP…developed using strategic wildfire risk analysis and compliance with NEPA and related laws. The decision is not arbitrary. Further, resource objectives from those plans should be used to inform incident objectives, and per Guidance for Implementation of Federal Wildland Fire Policy, beneficial accomplishments will be measured through specific quantified objectives. In other words, it all starts with good planning, coordinated across boundaries to manage risk, and operationally relevant decision support. Is your plan up-to-date?

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  6. Great article Megan. A couple things to add….the Cohesive Strategy has been out for a decade now I think. I did not hear it mentioned/discussed (Im a FS employee) until about 5 years ago, and it wasn’t mentioned at any cooperator meeting I have attended until last spring. So I can do a much better job of helping communicate what the strategy is and how we can work towards it. I think the POD (Probable Operational Delineation) concept that some Forests are moving towards (some are using already) combined with the CS are great tools to use with our cooperators/partners/public to help with planning, hopefully change the narrative and then the actions regarding fire management. Lastly the wildland fire service can do a much better job of training entry level forestry technicians in resource management (I think TNC and the USFWS do pretty darn good here). As FS employees the first ecology/fire effects training that is required is RX310 Intro to Fire Effects which is needed for Burn Boss. Most people are 10-15 years into a career before working on that qual. I think fire management looks quite differently if our 18-20 year olds lugging drip torches know a little bit more of the “why” specific to the resource (forestry technician) as opposed to just putting the fire out (fire fighter).

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  7. I have no problem being a “firefighter” when I believe fighting the fire is the best course of action. It’s a tool we will always need and we need it to be sharp. That being said, I agree with you Megan that we could all do a better job recognizing where and when fighting fire is necessary and where and when a less traditional response is prudent. There is a lot of uncertainty here and little, if any, comfort for those tasked with making the call. Those decisions can be made much less complex when the planning, preparation and coordination have already taken place. Until then, the easy button will always carry the least political and social risk ensuring we maintain our current position, whether tenable or not. As a member of the wildland fire community, I often ask myself what my role in shifting the future of wildland fire management is. Change is slow but it is happening. Keep leading from where you’re at.
    Thanks for sparking another good dialogue Megan.

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  8. So my question is to the title of firefighter, structure firefighters do more than fight house fires, they are EMTs, rescue techs, they extricate people from cars, and so much more, but we don’t change their title because they do other things other than fight fire? No.
    I think you’re taking the name of firefighter to literally.
    Personally I would like the name change one for the pay status that comes with it. (It would be nice)
    And two because I’m the damn go to guy for everything at my place of work…”we need something done…oh let’s get the fire crew they have a bunch of skills and manpower, let’s (ask) make them do it. Also the community and the local municipal fire departments don’t really know what to call us. Firefighter is an easy way of explaining what we do.
    Just because we fight fire doesn’t mean we don’t use fire.
    In cities around the USA, Fire departments are not fighting the fires of vacant structure, they are letting them burn (once they know no one is inside.) That’s fire use, is it not?

    Humans are afraid of fire, if you tell John doe you manage fire as your job title then go on and say you set fires on purpose as part of your job, you’re going to scare the public.

    There is a time and place for managing fires and letting the fire do what it’s going to do.
    There is also a time to (#10) fight fire aggressively having provided for safety first.
    You can say what you want about the WUI and where people build. But no matter what we are going to do our best to protect those (structures) that we can. And more importantly protect those people as that’s in our oath. Which mean FIREFIGHTING.

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    • Excellent points made. I am a Firefighter. Well actually I am (mostly) a Lieutenant at a municipal Fire Dept. as well as an EMT, wildland firefighter since 1997. I specialize in auto extrication. I do pre-fire planning on buildings. We go to service calls of all kinds. Water removal from broken pipes- yup done that many times!!! If you all wish to quit calling yourselves firefighters go ahead, but I personally feel it’ll do you no good, confuse the public, and lessen your reach. For example if you want to gain someones attention to the WUI problem, I’d say “I’m a firefighter, here’s the issue…”

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  9. Since this blog post seemed to be directed primarily to the federal wildland fire organization, I’ll keep my comments limited to a similar scope.

    Firstly, this is a great article and I absolutely agree with the general point that the federal wildland fire organization needs to do a lot better at training and educating young wildland firefighters in the topics of fire ecology, fire policy, and fire response options early in their careers so that they know why they are doing what they are asked to do.

    At the same time, I am among the many “Forestry Technicians” who would prefer to be recognized as a Wildland Firefighter. As a member of a Wildland Fire Module, I probably get more exposure to prescribed fire and managing fire for resource benefit (or what ever the heck we are calling it now that the succinct, easily-articulated term “fire use” is antiquated by policy change) than most of my peers. I am still perfectly happy to be called a wildland firefighter. Fire is fire. Sometimes we fight it, sometimes we light it, sometimes we light it in order to fight it, and sometimes we even have to fight it because we lit it. In reality, there is no one job title that perfectly describes everything that we do in the course of an average fire season. That being the case, I find it much easier to explain to a family member or a member of the public that I am a wildland firefighter, and that the job entails numerous duties including suppressing fires, lighting prescribed fire, monitoring managed fires, and conducting fuels treatments, rather than trying to introduce and explain some other vague, meaningless, ambiguous, made-up job title (e.g. fire practitioner, fire responder) as well as all that goes with it. The general public is way smarter than we tend to give them credit for, and I’ve never talked to a member of the public who wasn’t able to understand that the job of a wildland firefighter extends beyond just suppression. In short, I think that trying to come up with a new term to replace “wildland firefighter” is just looking for a solution for a problem that doesn’t really exist.

    Great article Megan and great discussion everyone!

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  10. Ask anyone that has the title Firefighter, Structure or wildland, and they will tell you that the title means more than ‘one who fights fire’. It is a way of describing our job to the public that avoids confusion and gives them a starting point on my roles and responsibilities. If they are interested, we can expand on what we do. Like many structure firefighters, we are not rushing to a fire all the time, often we have many other tasks such as training, project work, and administration. Officially we are ‘Forestry Technicians’ a title that means nothing, is ambiguous and its purpose is to keep OPM from paying us more if we were actually called firefighters. As an organization we are fighting mistakes made over the past 100 years. Through observation and science we now know these were bad choices and have to face those consequences. We are fighting a Congress that does not want to fund programs and projects, and then demands to know why we cannot prevent large fires from happening. We are fighting climate change, changes in policy, budget cuts, public opinion, an increase in the wildland/urban interface, a decrease in timber harvesting, and a workforce that is tasked to do more with less every year. ‘Our extensive reliance on firefighting…’ is the direct result of these issues and concerns. I don’t believe that it was ever our primary mission and I don’t believe that we have ever relied on firefighting as our only tool. If anything, we are utilizing more tools than ever before. Fires are getting larger, moving faster and burning hotter than ever before. Thus, with limited resources, budget and personnel, we are forced to be seen as strictly a fire fighting organization. The reality of course is that our fire program does a lot more that no one sees or understands; prescribed fire, fuels modifications and treatments, and letting naturally caused fires where appropriate do their thing. You did however bring up a big point that I would reiterate; ‘As far as I can tell, a clear explanation of our current options hasn’t made it into our training. Yet we need every one of our personnel to understand it.’ You are absolutely correct when you state that many do not know the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Our training in and outside the fire community is not preparing our firefighters, managers, policy makers or the public. Our inhouse training for firefighters is 10 to 15 years out of date and many of our courses have no timeline for updating or replacement. You bring up many good points and I hope this generates more discussion, energy and enthusiasm for change. But for the time being, I will keep the title ‘Firefighter’.

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  11. Thanks Megan for the blog and everyone for the discussion.

    Ecology, policy and history are part of the world we work in. They are part of the situation. Without knowing something about them, how good is your SA? How are the decision space and discussion space different when those factors are part of it? The Cohesive Strategy and response options (see https://www.nifc.gov/policies/policies_documents/GIFWFMP.pdf) are definitely part of the big picture.

    I have always been at least slightly uncomfortable with the term firefighter, for most of the reasons Megan states. In addition, I have found it problematic because it seems exclusive. Thinking about this blog and the comments has made me realize that I reserve the term firefighter for people in full-time primary/field fire positions. This make up only a part of the fire community, which includes the managers, planners, dispatchers and various other people that have roles in our relationship with fire on the landscape. As, for example, a resource advisor, fire effects monitor, crew leader overseeing fuels treatments on sensitive sites, or drip-torch carrier on prescribed burns, I didn’t feel I could call myself a firefighter. It left me with a persistent gap in how to talk about myself and others whose work relates to fire, who work on fire incidents, but aren’t what I consider firefighters. I seem to have settled on “fire people” as the term I use most often. It is not a job title, or even something I necessarily recommend others use. It is simply a solution I made for myself that is more inclusive of both people and the relationships with fire.

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