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Firefighters in Oregon, 1959.

Firefighting:  Then and Now

By NIFC Staff

In the 1960s, perspectives on fire and its place on the land were evolving, and fire operations were changing, at times in major ways.  During the decades that followed, the growth of aerial operations, increased agency cooperation, implementation of the Incident Command System (ICS), and development of standardized training significantly affected the way fires were managed and formed the basis for fire operations today.

“Fire used to be primarily a ground operation,” said Roy Percival, whose career in fire management began in the mid-1950s and spanned 35 years.  “In the earlier times, everything had to do with hiking and trucks.”  As time passed, aerial operations became an integral part of fire management, from smokejumpers to helicopter crews to single-engine air tankers and heavy air tankers, with capacities sometimes exceeding 3,000 gallons of retardant or water.  By 2010, very large air tankers—or VLATs—with capacities of 12,000–20,000 gallons were being used on fires.

Firefighters walking up a hill
A crew setting up a hoselay during the Raft River fire in Idaho.
In the early 1960s, the BLM and the Forest Service (FS) shared a coordination center near downtown Boise, Idaho.  By 1965, the BLM had established the Great Basin Fire Center in vacant buildings near the Boise airport, the FS was looking to establish an air center for fire suppression operations, and both agencies began working with the National Weather Service (NWS) to develop fire weather forecasting capabilities.  By 1968, the BLM had acquired land adjacent to the Boise airport and started construction of what was to become the Boise Interagency Fire Center (BIFC).  In the spring of 1969, the BLM, FS, and NWS moved into the new administration building; a mess hall, barracks, and a smokejumper loft were completed that same year.  The three agencies were later joined by the Department of the Interior’s new Office of Aircraft Services and the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).  A new era of cooperation and coordination evolved within the fire community, and that spirit of cooperation continues today at what is now called the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).  The BLM still owns the buildings and continues to serve as the host agency and the largest employer at NIFC.

In the early 1980s, NIFC adopted the Incident Command System (ICS), an organizational model that would change the way wildfire response was managed.  Previously, a lack of communication and coordination, particularly during fires that crossed jurisdictional lines and involved multiple agencies, led to confusion.  The ICS was based on a quasi-military organization and established a clear line of command across agencies from an incident commander to general staff and branch chiefs for aviation, operations, planning, logistics, finance, safety, transportation, and other functions.

The ICS not only brought much needed organization to wildland fire response, it also was easily scalable to the size and complexity of any incident.  The system would later be adopted by all federal, state, and local emergency responders, not just for wildfire but also for all types of natural and human-caused disasters, from hurricanes to terrorist attacks.

The success of  interagency fire response, and later, the ICS, was dependent upon common and consistent training.  During the early 1970s, on a float trip down the Colorado River, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz and Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton engaged in several campfire discussions about how their departments could work more closely together.  In 1972, during a subsequent meeting of wildland fire training officers, it was discovered that eight separate and distinct units were developing similar courses in fire safety.  These events pointed to a need for standardized training and led to the creation of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), composed of representatives from the FS; four Department of the Interior agencies (BLM, FWS, NPS, and BIA); state fire organizations through the National Association of State Foresters; and local departments through the U.S. Fire Administration, an organization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

With standardized training, all firefighters would be trained according to the same principles, and functional firefighter and incident management roles could be filled in times of need across jurisdictions, agencies, and geographical areas.  Since its inception, the NWCG has developed and established standards and guidelines covering the full spectrum of wildland fire management, from training, equipment, and aviation to business practices, risk management, communication, and numerous functions in between. 

According to Mike Campbell, the BLM pioneered much of the early effort in the fire community to standardize training.  Campbell was one of a half-dozen employees hired in 1974 to help put together the new training program.  New ideas regarding training, what was needed, and how it was presented and implemented in BLM’s fire community were welcomed and given every opportunity to succeed.  “If you had some spunk, some imagination, and creativity, you could sell your idea to management and they would let you try it,” recalled Campbell, who spent more than 28 years in the BLM fire program.  “You were allowed to experiment and prove the worth of your idea.”

As the ICS was established and training and other elements of the fire program gelled, the seeds of a more professional firefighting and fire management workforce were beginning to sprout.  “We went from an organization of temporary employees to more permanent employees,” Campbell said.  “People got hooked on fire and the change gave them a career ladder.  We went from a cadre of folks to a team of professionals.”  And that team of professionals is now better prepared to face the challenges of fighting wildland fires that are yet to come.