I had an unusual childhood by anyone’s standard, I suppose. My father was a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry (CDF), a wildfire organization. He had a very large battalion and was responsible for more than one million acres. He worked five days consecutively, coming home at night, so I spent most of my summers riding with him and going to fires from the time I was five until I went to work for CDF at 16-1959 through 1971.

He spent an inordinate amount of time on the road touring his area during the summer, checking things out. One of the games we would play was “What if?” “What if a fire started in this canyon or along this road?” As I got older, I would engage him in the conversations and develop my own strategies and tactics; he would quiz me as to why I would do something I had suggested. On occasion, we would end up on a fire at a location we had talked about previously; he probably had a handle on where his fires would be, and we would see just how well our plans worked out. Funny thing, he seemed better prepared when the fire actually occurred.

I learned a ton of stuff from the old man those summers riding the dusty roads of central California-some by osmosis, some by doing, and some out of complete and total fear. I learned that you can dive into a wet creek to avoid a grass fire that changes direction. More than once, I remember lying on the front seat of his pickup truck with my coat around my face, thinking I was going to die as the fire raced by. I would look up at his profile with the ever-present cigar, and he would look at me and say, “Don’t tell your mother about this.”

As I look back at this old firefighter, I have sometimes found myself doing this business just as he did-in some ways good and in some ways bad. For example, I am fair at running a fire, but I do it in my head, not on paper. Of course, my staff had better use the paper or else! Nevertheless, he left me a couple of pearls that I have used to this day. Simple but true, they make a difference but seem to be lost on new firefighters.


Regardless of the size of your department in density or geography, as an officer you should know your area inside and out. Frequently taking a driveabout (a tour of your district) is one good way to do this. My fire department protects 67 square miles but responds to more than 300 square miles that includes a fairly diverse community and substantial wildland. I spend a lot of time driving around my district and surrounding response areas, including all the roads in the urban area and each and every road in the wildland, no matter how small.

It may seem unnecessary because we have map books that, in theory, tell us where to go. But maps don’t show you everything you need to see. On occasion, I find that I am one of the few who know where to send an engine to a remote lightning strike, where the last house might be at the end of a street that ends at a stream and continues again on the other side, and, in some cases, where the house is located on a remote road while on an early morning call. No map book can give you this information, which is constantly changing.

The driveabout also offers me the opportunity to assess the forest fuels’ condition, snow-removal effectiveness, conditions of alleys and streets in industrial areas, and new construction that may not fall under the review of the fire department. I find broken hydrants, washed-out roads, limbs in power lines, and dumpsters in garages and answer questions when folks flag me down. We used to call it response area familiarization when I was on an engine, but that has become a luxury we can’t afford. I call it throttle therapy.

Now, we can only ask our staff to work between 8 and 5 and respond to emergencies only after that. We have to stay fit, eat, train, eat, test hose, eat, do inspections, eat, and respond to calls in that short period of time. Not much time for a driveabout anymore. Another reason to go on a driveabout is the chance to fight a fire before it happens.


As I mentioned above, my father and I would fight imaginary fires at certain locations. I do this now. I have some structures in my district with multiple floors that were built early in the 20th century. I have fought fire in all of them while I was driving around, in my office, and in bed at night at least a hundred times.

As I drive around my district, I imagine a fire starting on a particularly dry slope under homes on a summer day (photo 1). In all scenarios, I assume the fire has started and give myself some inputs to set the stage based on what I know. One of my favorites is the Truckee Hotel (photo 2) with fire showing out two windows on the fourth floor. Tom Brennan has surfaced in my mind at all these fires, whispering about fire escapes; horizontal ventilation to maintain the hallway; and hoselines above, below, and on the fire floor. I mentally arrive and give myself a mental picture of the fire and give dispatch a size-up. I order equipment, direct tactics, and respond to imaginary feedback. I do a tabletop exercise in my mind. I receive incredulous stares when I’m in my car, talking myself silly fighting this imaginary fire. In these imaginary scenarios, each and every time I make the right call, and the fire goes out. If you can’t win them all for real, you might as well win when you are calling the shots, right?

Some of you in big, busy fire departments think I am nuts. I may be, but you must understand that neither my troops nor I fight fires all the time. We beat on our fair share, but not enough to stay on top of it. We certainly don’t fight structure fires in our high-risk, low-frequency occupancies (such as the Truckee Hotel) all the time. In defense of my mythical fire wars, I have actually fought one of my imaginary fires for real more than once, and it has helped me immensely. If you can handle the sense of déjà vu, then you will find this practice effective.

Drills are one way to share this concept with your staff. One day, instead of having them perform manipulative skills, take your firefighters through a target hazard and then step outside. Figuratively, set the place on fire, describe what they will be seeing, and have them talk through the event. It is fascinating to watch them develop a strategy and ensuing tactics from a simple conversation. They will carry the firefight well into the night; soon enough, they’ll be doing it again in other areas. Although it’s much less sophisticated than a simulator, it’s a lot cheaper. A simulator with pictures of target hazards is also excellent for training and should be used, but the method described above is fun, effective, and easy.


Most of us in the fire service are in it because we like to go to fires. Yes, we desire to help also, but I don’t know of many firefighters who will pass up a chance to go to a fire. We may wish we were not there after it happens, but firefighters have short memories, so we continue to keep coming back. Consistent with that theme is a desire to be recognized as a “good” firefighter by our peers. My father has been retired since 1982; just yesterday a fellow from his past came up to me and in short said he was one of the best. This is a recurring theme about my Dad. I often wonder how this guy could have been so good that everyone he worked with between 1949 and 1982 thinks he was a hell of a firefighter. That is the ultimate compliment that we strive to receive; not too many make the grade, myself included.

How did he do it? He was prepared to do his job. Preparation is another subject that could take pages, but a part of that is what I am writing about. Know your area of responsibility, and know how to fight fire in it. Drive around and learn the area you are responsible for-your chief’s vehicle is not just for driving home at night. Look around some.

Fight some fires in your target hazards in your mind. It’s fun and easy-if it goes bad, you can fix it, and you don’t lose property and sales tax. It’s enlightening when you find yourself stumped. Finally, you always win, and firefighters really should be winners.

MICHAEL S. TERWILLIGER is chief of the Truckee (CA) Fire District. He began his career in 1972 with the California Department of Forestry, where he served for 24 years in the following assignments: division chief of operations (South) in the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Ranger Unit and operation section chief and planning section chief on a Type I team from 1988 to 1996. He is a certified fire behavior analyst. Terwilliger was incident commander for Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators Team, which operates along the eastern California/Nevada border. He also instructs operations section chiefs, division group supervisors, and strike team leaders.

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