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Fire Origins
Remember. Learn. Share.

On Protection of Towns from Fire — Benjamin Franklin, 1735

On Making Official History Honest — Kent Robert Greenfield, 1954

LCES—a Key to Safety in the Wildland Fire Environment — Paul Gleason, 1991

Attitude Check — Bill Fish, 1995

TriData Phase IV, “Developing a Cooperative Approach to Wildfire Protection” — Charles Perrow, 1998

Lessons From Thirtymile: Transition Fires And Fire Orders — Jerry Williams, 2001

Loop Fire Disaster Brief — November, 1966

1967 Task Force Report

2005 Fire Prevention and Safety grant application


The following article appeared in Volume 62, Number 3, Summer 2002 (the Thirtymile Fire issue, .pdf file, 1.1 mb) of Fire Management Today. Jerry Williams is the former Director of Fire and Aviation Management, USDA Forest Service, Washington Office, Washington, DC.

Lessons From Thirtymile: Transition Fires And Fire Orders[1]

written by Jerry Williams

On November 2001, I was flying over Helena, MT, when I looked out the window and saw Mann Gulch. As a wildland firefighter, you cannot see Mann Gulch without being deeply moved.[2] More than most places, Mann Gulch speaks to our past and our future. The story of Mann Gulch reminds us of how far we have come and what challenges we still face in improving fireline safety.

Mann Gulch reminds us of other fires in other places as well, fires with names like Dude, South Canyon, Island Fork, and now Thirtymile.[3] Like Mann Gulch, these were all tragedy fires—fires where lives were lost. They invite us to see a connection to Mann Gulch. Especially after the Thirtymile Fire, they call on us to act on that connection.

With few exceptions, transition fires are our tragedy fires, the fires where most of our entrapments and deployments occur.

Transition to Tragedy

These fires were all transition incidents—fires in transition from small to large (see sidebar). They became tragedy fires as they grew from something we thought was under control into something that suddenly overwhelmed us. Sometimes, such as at Mann Gulch, transition fires involve blowup conditions; at other times, such as at Thirtymile, they do not. In most cases, we did not recognize the full gravity of the situation until it was too late and there was nowhere to escape.


On average, the USDA Forest Service suppresses about 10,000 wildfires per year on the national forests and grasslands. Of these, about 92 to 93 percent are controlled quickly, at little cost, with relatively little effort, and with scant loss or damage.

At the other end of the spectrum, about 2 to 3 percent of our fires are large almost from the outset. Factors such as volatile fuels, drought, and wind combine to produce a fire that quickly leads to a dispatch call for a type 1 incident command team. Though rare, such fires account for nearly 70 percent of our total suppression expenditures.

The remaining 5 percent of our fires—about 500 per year—are between rapid, successful initial attack and quickly recognized, almost immediate large-fire mobilizations. They are fires in transition from small to large.

For most of the fires we manage, our policy is sound. We have strong strategies for initial attack through our preparedness planning—our National Fire Management Analysis System for deriving the most efficient level of resources. We also have flexible options for managing large fires through our Wildland Fire Situation Analysis.

However, we remain vulnerable in managing the fires in between. Transition fires are relatively few, but their small number belies their significance. Probably because they occur so infrequently, we are sometimes unprepared for their potential consequences. We get into trouble when we continue offensive tactics in a situation that puts us on the defensive. People sometimes get hurt or even killed. With few exceptions, our tragedy fires—the fires where most of our entrapments and deployments occur—are transition fires.

It is time to develop and adopt a more formal approach to transition fires, one that makes us less vulnerable.

Special Challenges

Transition fires raise special questions:

  • What is our strategy for dealing with a fire specifically while it is in transition?

  • What predictive models do we use to see a transition coming, and how do we use them?

  • Operationally, how do we adjust to mitigate the risks of a rapidly expanding incident?

  • In terms of management oversight, supervisory control, and crew leadership, what do we do differently on transition fires? How do we obtain the astute situational assessments and fluid operational control required under rapidly changing conditions?

I believe that we do not have a coherent strategy for what are arguably the most important fires we face. We find ourselves doing the best we can with that we have, hoping that it will suffice. Usually, it does suffice; faced with a transition fire, experienced leaders will disengage and regroup. But as long as good judgment during transition fires is more a matter of chance than design, another tragedy seems inevitable sooner or later.

It is time to develop and adopt a more formal approach to transition fires, one that makes us less vulnerable. Many of the items in the Thirtymile Fire Prevention Action Plan are specifically designed to improve our approach to managing transition fires (see the action plan items beginning on page 14). At the fall 2001 meeting of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, the interagency leadership committed itself to such an approach. Support is needed from the entire interagency wildland fire community.

“Can-Do” Attitude

Beginning with Mann Gulch, transition fires have shocked the wildland fire community and precipitated safety reforms. A key reform was the introduction of the Ten Standard Firefighting Orders.[4] The Fire Orders and other safety measures complement our fundamental beliefs, behaviors, and values as wildland firefighters. They are a vital counterweight to a remarkable strength in our culture that, if left unattenuated, can jeopardize our safety on the fireline: our “can-do” attitude.

Our “can-do” attitude is written across the face of every firefighter on every incident. The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, produced some remarkable examples. One photograph shows people in a stairwell streaming downstairs past a New York City fireman on his way up. His expression is typically “can-do”: bright-eyed, eager, and ready for a firefight.

That look, that attitude, and that spirit define the firefighter. I see that look during every fire season. The shine comes off a little as the season wears on, but it is always there. It projects our “can-do” strength of character. But it is a strength that can defeat us; if untempered by sound judgment, “can-do” can devolve into “make-do,” which can lead to tragedy. The role of management supervisors and crew leaders is to instill the sense that the biggest part of our job is doing the job right. Doing the job right by following the rules is what keeps “can-do” from slipping toward tragedy.

Our rules of engagement are the Ten Standard Firefighting Orders. Though simple, they are sometimes overlooked or ignored. Our “can-do” orientation can impel us to put operations ahead of safety. The Fire Orders remind us that there is a right way to do things before we engage, while on the fireline, and in our after-action reviews. The Fire Orders are not an obstacle to getting the job done; instead, they are the way to get the job done right.

Discipline Needed

We especially need to follow the Fire Orders at times when we might be tempted not to:

  • When the challenge is great because the consequence greatly matters;

  • When we are tired, fooled by a deceptive fire, preoccupied, or complacent; or

  • When managers and supervisors show that they are human by missing or forgetting something that they should have noticed or remembered.
The Ten Standard Fire Orders are not an obstacle to getting the job done; instead, they are the way to get the job done right.

The Fire Orders have less value in a controlled environment than in an environment that is uncertain:

  • when equipment fails,

  • when the weather changes,

  • when we get tired and our thoughts drift, or

  • when somebody lets us down.

Such things happen in the world of firefighters, though infrequently. When they do happen, especially during a transition fire, their consequences can be fatal. When the unexpected happens, the Fire Orders assume their real value. And because the unexpected does happen, we must be disciplined in observing the Fire Orders day in, day out.

In our business, especially on transition fires, the unexpected can happen without warning. That’s why:

  • Safety comes first on every fire, every time.

  • The Ten Standard Firefighting Orders are firm. We don’t break them, and we don’t bend them.

  • We don’t just do the job; we do it right.

The Thirtymile Fire, like other tragedy fires, reminds us that we are accountable at all times for our performance as fire managers, crew supervisors, and firefighters. The Ten Standard Firefighting Orders are the measure against which our performance as professionals should be judged. It is time we used the Fire Orders not only as guidelines for safe firefighting, but also as criteria for measuring our firefighting performance.


1 Based on remarks made by the author on November 6, 2001, at a meeting of wildland fire safety managers in Missoula, MT.

2 On August 5, 1949, 13 firefighters lost their lives on the Mann Gulch Fire on the Helena National Forest, MT (see Richard C. Rothermal and Hutch Brown, “A Race That Couldn’t Be Won,” Fire Management Today 60(2): 8–10). The accident shocked the wildland fire community, precipitating safety reforms that laid the basis for today’s methods of wildland firefighting.

3 On June 26, 1990, six firefighters were killed on the Dude Fire on the Tonto National Forest, AZ; on July 6, 1994, 14 firefighters died on the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, CO; and on April 6, 1999, two firefighters perished on the Island Fork Fire near Cranston, KY.

4 For more on the Ten Standard Fire Orders, see Karl Brauneis, “Fire Orders: Do You Know Their Original Intent?”, Fire Management Today 62(2): 27–29. Volume 62 • No. 3 • Summer 2002


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