The last few years have brought a dramatic shift in fire behavior in the Western United States. Fires are more intense, more common in the wildland-urban interface, and the burning seasons are longer. Most fire professionals no longer even recognize “fire seasons” in parts of the country, but rather “fire years.” All of this is occurring while there is shrinking pool of human resources to fight fires.
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), is the country’s support center for wildland firefighting. Its policy states that “Wildland fire recognizes no ownership or jurisdictional boundaries on the landscape; nor do the complex issues of fire management. As a result, perhaps nowhere is the practice of interagency and interdepartmental cooperation more prevalent and effective as in the nation’s wildland fire community.”
Handling the difficult function of suppressing larger wildland fires in this country is a complex undertaking and key to that mission is the NIFC’s Coordination Center (NICC) which helps the appropriate resources make it to where they are most needed. The nation is divided into 10 geographic areas, each with their own coordination center. When one geographic area has a shortage of resources, other areas provide resources to fill those gaps.
Wherever a wildland fire starts in any region, the initial response makes use of local resources. In the Adirondacks, that generally means a call out to the local fire department for suppression, augmented by Forest Rangers if requested or if the fire occurs on state land or in a particularly remote area. If fire suppression continues, forest rangers usually relieve the volunteer fire services as Adirondack fires, because of our deep organic soils, can take weeks to finally go out.
If a fire’s complexity exceeds local or state resources a second option becomes available. The local agency can request support within its geographic coordination area. New York is fortunate to have an additional option called the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Commission. This a mutual aid agreement between the New England states, New York and several Canadian provinces. New York utilized this option here in the Adirondacks in 1999 for the Noonmark fire and in 2015 in the Catskills during the Roosa Gap fire. When a fire grows larger than can be handled by those resources, a request for additional help can be made through the NICC. In 1995, New York benefited from a federal overhead crew for wildfires on Long Island.
In the past, New York has made its fire resources, primarily its forest ranger personnel, available for service to other states. While fulfilling a general mutual aid commitment, this arrangement has also been a tremendous benefit to New York and its forest rangers. The assignments are generally two weeks long and give invaluable experience not only on fire suppression but also on use of the Incident Command System (ICS), which forest rangers implement on search and rescue missions. I have been on three out-of-state fire crews during my career and gained more practical experience in that time than in all of my in-state firefighting experience combined. All of this experience comes at no cost to the NYS tax payer. When assigned out of state, all expenses including salaries, transportation, lodging, and food for the crew are paid through a mutual aid agreement with the U.S. Forest Service.
Crews from other Northeast states have poured out west this year to answer the mutual aid call. When a crew from Massachusetts went west, Governor Charlie Baker stated in a press release, “Massachusetts has a long, proud history of national and international cooperation in battling wildfire and on behalf of the entire Commonwealth, our thoughts and prayers are with those who are impacted by these fires…”
New York has an equally long and proud history. You may have noticed how many of our remaining, although inactive fire towers celebrated centennials this year. New York first sent a crew of Forest Rangers west in 1979 during a time when our staffing levels in the state were higher. The fact remains, however, that with the addition of more public lands in this state and no additional Rangers to compensate for the subsequent workload, we are less equipped to handle wildfire in this state or to provide mutual aid elsewhere than ever before. The Forest Rangers actually have fewer engines now than we did in 1934.
While the DEC continues to deflect with talking points when questioned about the appropriateness of the current number of Forest Rangers, New York State’s failure to provide aid to our Western States beleaguered by fire speaks volumes. Throughout the summer there were usually more than 20,000 personnel on dozens of large fires, as six million acres have burned. Resources came from as far away as New Zealand and Australia, yet New York remained idle. New York’s failure to aid other states during an unparalleled fire year says something the DEC refuses to admit. It is a silent admission that we don’t have enough Forest Rangers in New York.
Photos, from above: Rangers next to their Engines in 1934 courtesy NYS archives, Rangers on NYS first western fire assignment in 1979 courtesy nysforestrangers.com, and Map of Eastern area courtesy Eastern Area Coordination Center.