Tuesday, September 4, 2018

NYS Wildfire Response Speaks To Ranger Staffing Crisis

Rangers next to their Engines in 1934 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.”

Rangers on NYS first western fire assignment in 1979 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.

Map of Eastern area courtesy Eastern Area Coordination CenterCrews 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.

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Scott van Laer has been a forest ranger for 21 years and is currently a delegate for PBA of NYS, the union which represents forest rangers.

23 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Saw the haze in the air from some of the western fires in the Adirondacks a few weeks ago. Wild. Lived in Denver for years I hated it when it “rained” ash on us in the city!

    “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.”

    Scott, aren’t you part of the DEC? You are not deflecting with talking points? You seem to be speaking your mind in a very open way about what your part of the DEC thinks about the situation. In a sense we are getting mixed messages.

    • scottvanlaer says:

      The PBA of NYS has been advocating for an increase in ranger staffing for many years now. That has taken form in lobbying, introducing legislation, having lower levels of government, (towns and counties) issue resolutions of support for increased staffing and editorials like this one.

      In support of our argument for a larger staff we have listed numerous statistics like the increase in S@R incidents, and the increase in acreage we patrol. We have made analogies to other parks systems and pointed out there are 10 fewer rangers in the Adirondacks now then there was in 1971, at the onset of the DEC. We have also included anecdotal evidence from our work experience.

      A google search will find much more on the subject of Forest Ranger staffing in the way of both editorials and reporting.

      Scott van Laer for the PBA of NYS

      • Paul says:

        Have they tried to advocate for some alternative funding sources for this? It seemed odd to me that when the state added about 800,000 acres of conservation easements that the DEC was tasked with patrolling all that territory. Rangers are basically patrolling (when they can) hundreds of thousands of acres of private land and doing it on taxpayer funds. These easements should not be open to the public if they cannot be properly managed. Shut that down and it would save you almost a million acres of land to deal with. I watched the rangers come in to patrol some of that land when the champion easements opened up. The rangers there were basically doing stuff like trying to see if they could catch hunters baiting etc. – a job really for the encon officers not the rangers.

  2. Boreas says:

    Thanks Scott for keeping this issue from falling below the radar. The lack of response from Albany is deafening. This needs to be an issue front and center during the gubernatorial race, but I’ll be surprised if it gets any serious discussion because of the relative lack of voters in our area.

  3. ChapelPondGirl says:

    Forest Ranger should be capitalized.

    • John Jongen says:

      Let’s be honest, the reason ADK residents have no political clout is that they continue to vote conservative against their own interest. As in “less government, more private land, fewer legal restrictions, less public services, etc.” I have seen the preponderance of Trump signs during the 2016 presidential election season. Hope they are prepared for drilling and mining in the park. And most would probably agree with Trump’s assertion that “Man-made Climate Change (ACD) is a hoax perpetrated by China”. Let’s see if the next fire catastrophe in the ADP park will change some minds.

      • Boreas says:

        I can’t disagree, but if voters can get behind land purchases, they need to get behind protecting those lands after purchase. This understaffing has been going on for some time now because spending for maintenence is never as sexy as buying new toys. My gut says it is a bipartisan failure. If NYC or Albany needed Rangers, it would be a different story.

    • John Warren says:

      Thank you. I should have caught that.

  4. ADKresident says:

    Just political mismanagement.
    NYS sent millions of dollars and personnel to rebuild Puerto Rico electric service
    so he can cement the vote in NYC.
    There was a fire in July in the western Adirondacks, local fire departments responded
    but were not allowed to do anything w/o a ranger. Local civilians responded with their personal pumps and put the fire out.

  5. Donald Sage says:

    The NY Forest preserve will go the same way as California and others. Cuomo, APA, DEC, and others refuse to allow management. They close all roads, ban all access. No way to fight a fire once it starts. No management of the forests provide unlimited fuel so the fires can burn Millions of acres. This is Cuomo’s legacy. Total destruction of the Adirondacks, its people and its culture.

    • Boreas says:

      A managed forest is not a wild forest. Forest fires are usually caused by nature. I am all for reducing fire risk near private habitation, but feel wild forests should be “managed” as little as possible for fire.

      Keep in mind roads and fire breaks are vectors that often speed the spread of invasive species and diseases. We are likely to lose more trees from emerald ash borer and hemlock wooly adelgid alone over the next 20 years than from forest fires. Rangers and Foresters will be needed to help slow those infestations and their spread.

      • Paul says:

        According to the NPS 90% of wild land fires are caused by humans not by “nature”:


        • Boreas says:

          The link starts out by saying, “As many as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by humans.”
          ‘As many as’ is the qualifier here. I could weigh ‘as much as’ 600 pounds, but I don’t.
          A lot of variables – depends what type of forest you are talking about, conditions, land usage, and concentration of stupid humans. I can’t dispute their findings, but the 90% figure is certainly soft statistics. Scott would be able to give us a better figure for the ADKS.

          • Paul says:

            Yes – I would be interested to know what fires are caused by lightning (major natural cause) in a place like the Adirondacks. I know that the main fires that have burned in the Adirondacks in the past have been human caused. The two major fires caused by the rail roads in logged areas (1903 and 1906 I think).

            Please send us you link with the facts that most wild land fires are caused by natural causes I am open to those facts.

            • Boreas says:


              I have no such data – I was just going by my recent knowledge of the Park. The reason I said “usually” is that unless there are mitigating natural causes in the Adirondacks such as drought or excessive fuel, we no longer seem to have a lot of big fires here. In the past, absolutely! I guess the point I was trying to make was that in any WILD forest, unless you have a high visitor concentration with a lot of fire ignition opportunities or exacerbating conditions, fires will “usually” occur naturally.

              But you are likely correct that the majority of documented fires, even in the Park, are started by humans, either accidentally, incidentally, or intentionally. Lightning strikes are certainly common in the Park. However, data that no one knows are how many fires are started – either naturally or by humans – and go out on their own WITHOUT being observed. These would likely not be included in any wildfire statistics. Again, a Ranger or Forester would certainly have a better idea about these things within the Park than myself.

    • john says:

      Ban all access? Wait? Is this new? I am planning a trip with my family later this month, but I had not heard about the ban. Is this only some regions? Are the lakes still open?

      • John Warren says:

        Don is our resident curmudgeon and wilderness hater – please pay him no mind. The Adirondack Park is open to all.

  6. David Gibson says:

    Thank you, Forest Ranger Scott Van Laer and fellow rangers all over for what you do day in and out. There needs to be more of you to reflect today’s environment, not yesterday’s. Natural resource including wildlife professionals throughout DEC should be restored, including new job titles to reflect the challenges in both Adk and Catskill parks and beyond. Since George Pataki’s extreme cuts to DEC natural resources, subsequent governors have simply accepted those job cuts, down 20-50%, as permanent and OK. They aren’t OK. Boreas is right: stewardship of our Adk and Catskill Parks, the envy of the world, should be debated by the candidates for governor.

  7. james Racquet says:

    Its forever wild Let the forest burn it is natures way for regeneration.

    • Paul says:

      Too many houses in the Adirondack park same thing as out west.

      Wild fires are really not a big issues here now.

      • Boreas says:

        I have always been a fan of prescribed burning and/or vegetation thinning near habitation. But it is usually an expensive, political hot potato, so the fire risk inevitably rises every year as more wood accumulates. We are often our own worst enemy.

  8. Bret says:

    Funding is an issue in getting more Rangers and DEC personnel, that’s quite obvious. That cost could be offset by enacting a Land Use permit system, just our Hunting, Fishing, Trapping licensing system. For a nominal fee, equal to the cost of a fishing license ($25.00@ year for an adult) people could buy a permit to use State Lands. Seems pretty simple to me. That would fund all the Rangers and infrastructure needed.

  9. Robert D says:

    Its all do to Earth Changes, z
    Just like trees are migrating and the alignment of runways at airports.
    Everything is changing including the intensity of the sun and its trajectory from the ongoing pole shift..