june 2014

In Colorado we’ve lived four years of wildfire headlines:

  • “A large fire burning in Black Forest that started Tuesday afternoon has destroyed 379 homes as of Thursday morning, according to fire officials. The fire is estimated at 11,000 to 12,000 acres as of Wednesday night, with zero percent containment.” (9News, December 20, 2013.)
  • “A massive wildfire burning northeast of Pagosa Springs forced the evacuation of South Fork and kept Wolf Creek Pass closed for a second day Friday. The West Fork Fire was more than 30,000 acres.” (Durango Herald, December 20, 2013.)

You can change the names and locations but we have all read these headlines. Across the western United States, and especially in Colorado, wildfires have been destroying homes and land at an alarming rate over the last decade and especially within the last four years. In mid-April 2014, more than 61% of Colorado is listed in drought conditions, so there does not appear to be any relief from future disastrous fire seasons.

After dealing with these fires both directly and indirectly I took a look at the wildland fire situation in Colorado and asked, what critical factors are we not addressing? I have over 15 seasons of experience with wildland fire, most of it here, and as the Chief of a Fire Protection District I have given a lot of thought about how to protect and prepare my fire district for a wildland fire event. Because make no mistake. it will happen here. Statistics since the year 2000 show that fires have consumed 1769 homes, killed 8 residents and 12 firefighters (The Fireline, Wildfire in Colorado, the Denver Post.) The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) reports a 250% increase in wildfire acres burned in Colorado since the 1960s.

We’ve had many conversations with fellow fire officers, emergency managers, and state/federal fire management officers, who also ask what are we missing or not doing here in Colorado to confront the wildfire problem. Looking for answers, I drifted back to my first Executive Fire Officer (EFO) class at the National Fire Academy in Emmittsburg, Maryland. The class had an assigned reading titled Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, who discuss the many roles and challenges a leader faces daily and how to manage those challenges. But on page 13 of the first chapter the authors break down problems faced by leaders and the communities they serve into two categories; Technical problems and Adaptive challenges.

Technical problems are defined as those everyday events where “people have problems for which they do in fact have the necessary know-how and procedures. We call these technical problems.”An adaptive challenge, on the other hand, presents “a whole host of problems that are not amendable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization and community,” (Heifetz, 2002). I began thinking about these definitions and I asked myself, “Are we approaching the wildfire problem in Colorado and the Western United States as more of a technical problem or as an adaptive challenge?”

Despite the dramatic increase in fires and the damage they have caused we seem to have the issue down about responding to wildfires to include sending resources (engines, crews, air support, and IMT’s) to handle them. One can always argue that we don’t have enough resources to deploy to large fires and I certainly could not easily dispute that fact. However what I would like you to think about is, are we approaching wildfires here in Colorado, and for that matter the Western United States, as a technical problem when we should be approaching them as adaptive challenge. Let’s look at another major 2013 wildland fire and how we responded with technical solutions. The Rim Fire in California started on August 13, consumed over 257,000 acres and destroyed 11 residences. At the height of the fire on August 29, over 4900 personnel worked the fire on 95 crews, 540 engines, and 23 helicopters. The day before the fire grew over 6,700 acres and the cost to fight the fire was estimated at $46.9 million dollars. (Sit Report August 30, 2013.)

These facts are in no way pointing out that the fire management officers, firefighters, law enforcement, and other first responders didn’t do things correctly or should have done things differently. Rather, I wish to point out the ways and places where we are trying to solve our wildfire problem technically. Certainly once the fire starts we need to take these actions but we should also address the fire problem and respond to the fire before it becomes technical.

Adaptive challenges require us to use “experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community” (Heifetz, 2002) to find solutions to a problem or challenge. Continuing with that train of thought I attended the Colorado Fire Chiefs Association Fire Leadership Challenge in early December of 2013. One of the keynote presenters, Dr. Tony Kern, spoke about fire aviation in Colorado and offered an observation: in a state that hosts the Unites States Air Force Academy (USAFA) – training pilots and teaching aeronautical engineering – why can’t this resource be tapped to assist Colorado with our fire aviation problem.

What could the USAFA do to assist Colorado? For that matter, what resources are there in your community that could assist with the wildfire problem so many communities face? I won’t attempt to list all the adaptive challenges and possibilities for approaching wildfire here, but I suggest you attempt to approach wildfire in your community, fire district, State, and forest as an Adaptive challenge. Start by engaging leaders (elected and appointed), organizations, educational institutions, and businesses to develop methods to deal with wildfires in your area. Get out of your comfort zone, change the way you have always done things.

Over the last 10 years in our Fire District we have worked with the County Building officials, other County Staff, and fire districts to develop a wildland fire code that works in our county. It addresses the access to the property from the roadway, taking into consideration slope and distance, building construction, property mitigation, and water supply requirements. It’s not the International Code but it works for our county.

We continue to partner with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, the Colorado State Forest Service, and Douglas County to work towards mitigation efforts both countywide scale and with the individual homeowner. When a wildland fire is reported we partnered with all of our Douglas County agencies including fire district and the Sheriff’s Office to create a joint inter-agency hand crew to provide that critical resource during the initial attack phase of the fire.

Additionally we provided training and the county supplied funding to equip heavy equipment operators from the County Road and Bridge department to deploy graders and dozers to the fire when requested. During the most recent Black Forest Fire we responded in the first hour to a mutual aid request from El Paso County with a strike team leader and five type 6 engines to assist with initial attack. This was possible because two years ago we prepared by forming strike teams with our county fire districts and other Denver metro area fire departments.

Finding solutions to adaptive challenges requires us to change our view from technical to adaptive, to try new approaches and experiments. We may need to try a new computer modeling program developed by a college software engineering school, or partner with the military to utilize satellites for detection of fires in remote areas. It’s not always about what your agency or district can afford but what partnerships you can create to accomplish more together.

We cannot expect different results from one fire season to another without making adaptive changes in how we deal with wildfires.

About the author

Jimmy Bumgarner Jr. currently serves as Fire Chief of the Larkspur Fire Protection District in southern Douglas County, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program and a Chief Fire Officer Designee With over 28 years of fire service experience.