Military Strategy Applied To Wildland Suppression

By Bill Sager

Wildland fire is dynamic. Of all the kinds of emergency activities firefighters engage in, it is the most dynamic. Even high-rise fires are generally confined to a building. Only urban conflagrations come close to a wildland fire’s dynamic elements of moving through space and time. It is the most warfare-like of all firefighting activities.

Military people have studied wildland firefighting to learn what they could about rapid mobilization and dynamic decision making. Let’s see what we can learn from the military.

From the war with Iraq, we have seen thrilling military moves across the vast Iraqi desert by soldiers and marines in their pursuit of the prize, Baghdad. Wildland firefighters could not help but be moved by the alacrity of these maneuvers and be struck with awe at their boldness. Many of us also wondered how we could apply these concepts to wildland firefighting with the resulting efficiencies and reduction in destruction.

Since the late 1980s, American military doctrine has revolved around three new concepts: speed, fluidity, and leverage. This is a departure from older doctrine and has shaped the way that the military uses force. I believe there is something we could learn from this doctrine and apply to wildland firefighting. The strategies we currently employ that most closely follow this doctrine are hot-spotting and coyote tactics. Hot-spotting uses mobile attack fire engines to engage the fire on portions of the fire edge that are burning intensely while allowing the less intense fire to go unchecked until additional forces arrive. Coyote tactics describe the strategy of putting fire crews into remote locations with minimal logistic support. Both of these strategies are limited to unique situations. However, there may be other applications of this doctrine to wildland firefighting. Before we get to them, let’s define the three concepts for the wildland firefighting environment.

Speed. Time is always the enemy in firefighting operations, and everything possible is done to speed up actions. Fire apparatus equipped with red lights and sirens, supplemental detection systems employed to reduce reaction time, and firefighting forces strategically prepositioned to speed up response are just some examples of the methods used to introduce speed into the strategic equation. Much more can be done with speed to move beyond the typical initial attack scenario in larger fire situations. It will demand a reexamination of the entire strategy of larger fire situations. Faster and thinner logistical support systems, preconfiguration of strike teams and task forces, much greater reliance on individual commanders and less on command teams, and complete elimination of jurisdictional boundaries are all ideas that immediately come to mind. More can and must be done to speed up things. To quote Admiral Arleigh Burke from World War II, “Leave before anticipated, travel faster than expected, and arrive before you are due.”

Fluidity. Fluidity is a less familiar concept and requires a second look at the incident command system (ICS). One of the great strengths of the ICS is that it is widely understood. Likewise, one of the great weaknesses of the ICS is that it is not understood very well. Consequently, incident commanders do not use the flexibility inherent in the ICS to full advantage and miss opportunities to make combat progress. Many commanders look on the ICS as a “connect the dots” organization that will not function without all the “key players” in place.

When the ICS was developed, it was never intended to be a mirror of the large fire organizations it supplanted. It is a fundamentally different approach to emergency organizational theory. In addition to common communications, terminology, and organization, the expectations of the positions in the organization are different. A striking example is the limited use of the branch director position and the opportunities presented with the proper use of that position. The branch director, by definition, is a qualified operations section chief who has the capability of modifying the incident action plan on his branch. The branch director can respond, without further authority, to a combat opportunity as soon as it presents itself.

Another example where fluidity is limited is the division concept. The division is an assigned static section of control line. This runs counter to a dynamic moving tactical force. This then leads to static action and static planning. Eventually, this results in poor utilization of critical attack resources such as type 1 fire crews, type 3 engines, bulldozers, and helicopters. Consider the potential of a moving section of line like the “tip of the spear.” The “tip of the spear” could be attack groups, a concept already in the ICS, but the group is now generally limited in use to “structure protection group” or “dozer group.” Attack groups would be made up of a combination of ground and air resources that would move along quickly to hook the head of the fire followed up by “static” divisions that would hold the fire using less critical resources such as type 2 fire crews and type 4 or 5 engines.

A third example is the use of the field observer position. Organi-zationally, the field observer is far down on the food chain and works within the situation unit. In military parlance, the field observer would be within intelligence and probably a highly trained person from Special Forces. By comparison, the field observer in wildland firefighting is frequently inexperienced and poorly trained. In addition, the observations of the field observer are often discounted by others higher in the command structure, leading to further poor use of limited resources.

Leverage. This is probably the toughest of these concepts to understand in its application to wildland firefighting. Leverage is achieved by taking advantage of opportunities as they occur. The opposite of leverage is slippage. Shift changes are probably the greatest impediment to leverage in wildland firefighting. Frequently, critical burning operations are hampered or delayed by shift change. Likewise, just as afternoon conditions start to allow firefighters to move in for the kill, it’s shift change time. Leverage can be gained by making shift changes more flexible in those areas where combat advantage could be made by doing so. This decision should be left up to the local attack group supervisors and branch directors as the situation presents itself. Granted, there are pay issues that come to play in these scenarios, but the combat operations should dictate the shift change.

Many other opportunities to use leverage exist in wildland firefighting. New ways to provide logistical support to the line need to be developed. This will allow attack resources to stay in combat for 48 or even 72 hours without returning to incident base. Operational plans that use strategic control points or cover more than a 12-hour operational period will create advantage on the ground.

The Iraqi war showed that a limited number of critical resources, properly applied, can more than make up for numbers. For the wildland firefighter, leverage offers the opportunity to more effectively use limited critical resources. For leverage to be applied, firefighters must be able to pursue every advantage that the enemy “fire” pre-sents. After the “Thirty-Mile Fire” inquiry (the fire occurred July 10, 2001, in the Okanogan National Forest in.Washington state; four firefighters died), the federal wildland fire agencies were mandated to follow a two-to-one required work/rest cycle. This requirement can interrupt forward momentum with arbitrary stops for rest. This actually reduces the opportunity to apply leverage.

The old saying in wildland firefighting, “Don’t initial attack it to death,” needs to be reexamined in light of these concepts. Perhaps when fire commanders are faced with an escaped fire situation that portends to get larger than the typical initial attack incident, they immediately shift to a “project fire” mentality that precludes a more aggressive and audacious strategy.


What are some of the parallels and lessons that we can adopt to make wildland firefighting more effective and efficient? Strategic aerial bombing has not been generally effective; neither has pretreating with air tankers. Conversely, close in-air support of ground troops was critical to their success. The current shortage of air tankers and the dictum requiring the exclusive use for initial attack are actually a blessing. It will require that aircraft be used effectively and not just for effect.

Networking, communications, and intelligence allowed small groups of resources to be highly effective, whereas the long logistics tail proved to be the point of greatest vulnerability. Get rid of the tail. Require regular units, engines, fire crews, and bulldozers to be self-supporting for at least 72 hours.

Bring logistics to the troops. Consider the amount of time wasted moving resources from incident base to line assignment and back again. Infrequently coyote tactics are used by some type 1 fire crews, but only as a last resort even though many times these same crews request that type of logistical support. This type of support is generally limited to hot can meals and replacement tools. Consider the potential time savings if fire crews, dozers, and engine companies were all to receive fuel, occasional hot food, and other support directly on the line and took their rest breaks in a safety zone as necessary.

Push additional resources into the fray as they arrive and are capable of moving into position. This avoids the problem of having resources hang around incident base waiting for the next operational period. It puts them to work during aggressive forward movement; it allows them to tie in with resources with fire history; and it puts the maximum combat power to work earlier in the fire’s life, increasing the odds that the operation will be concluded faster.

Depending on the weather conditions, the fuel, and the fire activity, resources need to be rotated back to a rear base for rest, rehabilitation, and repair after 48 to 72 hours. If field commanders are diligent about monitoring the work/rest cycles of two to one, troops in the field are likely to receive more quality rest by staying on the line for extended periods than if they drive to and from incident base every 12 hours. In isolated situations, with adequate logistical support, such as a camp, troops can stay in the field for even longer periods without adverse effects.


Fours steps are required to shift the paradigm from the current initial attack/project fire strategy: grouping, branching, coordinating, and supporting. Once these four elements are thoroughly staffed out, models can be developed from training and experience. If it works even half as well as the military’s doctrine shift has, the result should be smaller fires with less risk at lower costs.

Group it. For this doctrine to work, a new mindset is required. Changing the lead forces from divisions to groups sends a strong message that this incident is going to be handled differently. Attack groups “Alpha” and “Zulu” are moving dynamic forces that have no particular boundary. They create it from their respective anchor points forward. Subsequent, or behind them, are divisions “Bravo” and “Yankee” holding static pieces of territory. The same forces stay in the groups. They are the initial attack forces; they are most likely familiar with the fuels and topography. They have witnessed the fire history. It is only logical that they continue in this role.

Branch it. If the groups each get so large that span of control becomes an issue and additional group supervisors have to be added, it is probably time to designate the “head” of the fire a branch. This doesn’t mean that the rest of the fire also needs to be a branch. The branch has the advantage over the group that it can engage in on-the-ground planning and shuffling of resources without extensive rewrite of the incident action plan. A branch director can also ensure that there is adequate logistical support for all the groups.

Coordinate it. Other than an update on available resources and the adding of divisions, little would need to be done on a daily basis to the incident action plan. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of planning occurring during the firefight. The incident action plan simply forms the basis for the actions and establishes the ground rules, objectives, and reporting relationships between the elements that are engaged and supporting the incident. With this concept, it is a given that the group supervisors will coordinate closely with each other and with supporting aircraft. Aircraft that are fully coordinated with the ground and making tactically appropriate drops that can be readily followed up on are essential to the success of this highly mobile and agile approach. If branch is established, the branch director would be fully engaged in this coordination activity as well.

Support it. Key to the success beyond the first 24 hours is logistical support. In some cases, this will require agency support equipment; in other cases, private vendors that have the appropriate resources will be used. Like other aspects of this concept, it’s not something that can be sprung on a vendor the afternoon a fire starts. It will require careful planning and preparation to pull together all the key logistical components in a fashion that will adequately support firefighting units strung out in mountainous terrain.

Try it. Eventually, some brave incident commander is going to have to try this concept. In many respects, it runs counter to a lot of the current thinking in the wildland fire service. And some further in-depth consideration and discussion will be required before this article is turned into an operational plan. By the same token, this article should act as a springboard for those discussions and the planning that will be necessary to turn this idea into a reality.

It would be the kiss of death for someone to try to do this without adequately preparing the initial attack forces through extensive training and practice. Potential supplemental extended attack forces would need at least a thorough briefing and probably awareness training before they could be expected to perform adequately as part of this concept. Once preparation and training have occurred, then it is a simple step to test the concept on a fairly straightforward initial attack fire situation. After each attempt, that operation should be thoroughly analyzed and the results of that analysis broadly disseminated to increase awareness and reduce apprehensions about the risks involved.

Ultimately one or more successful models are likely to emerge, and a new strategy will be available in the wildland fire commander’s arsenal.

Bill Sager is retired from a 32-year career with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF). He was a CDF team incident commander, the Butte unit chief, and the Butte County fire chief. He is a designated CFO, state certified fire chief, and graduate of the National Fire Academy (NFA) Executive Fire Officer Program. He has taught for the NFA, the National Interagency Fire Center, the U.S. Coast Guard, the CDF Academy, and community colleges in California.

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