New Mexico

New Mexico

Refuge Fire Manager a Leading Interagency Trainer

November 2008

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service firefighter Chris Wilcox has become a strong force in interagency wildland fire training. Wilcox serves as the Service’s representative and co-chair of the Wildland Fire Leadership Committee, a national group chartered under the National Wildfire Coordinating Group to develop and manage the leadership curriculum for the interagency wildland fire community.  The use of experiential learning tools are an important part of the  curriculum  To learn from the successes and failures of the past, in particular events which were of national significance to fire policy, and often included firefighter fatalities, the group sponsors “staff rides,”  modeled after a military training technique utilized to review past battles. 

Wilcox, Fire Management Officer at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, has been involved in the development of multiple staff rides. He and his counterparts from other agencies choose well documented incidents which allow other firefighters to walk in the foot steps of decision makers and gain an in depth understanding of what led to the ultimate outcome.

During a staff ride, participants conduct a preliminary study of an incident, visit the actual site to gain a perspective of the situation that occurred, and then integrate the lessons learned into current operations. When possible, fire managers who worked on the actual incident are present to share the information they had and thinking process at the time that led to specific decisions. Staff rides have been developed and conducted for such well-known fires as Mann Gulch (Montana, 1949), South Canyon (Colorado, 1994), and Cerro Grande (New Mexico, 2000). The integration phase encourages participants to reflect upon those lessons which can be applied to ensure mistakes on these incidents are not made again.

Recently, Wilcox, along with five other FWS fire personnel from the Southwest Region, and a U.S. Forest Service firefighter and a firefighter from Sedona Fire Department led two groups through a staff ride of the Dude Fire (Arizona, 1990), which killed six firefighters. Participants included Bureau of Indian Affairs employees from the Western Region and the U.S. Forest Service Risk Management Council.

“Chris and his group did an excellent job facilitating the staff ride,” said Forest Service Risk Management Specialist Larry Sutton. “Even though I had read the reports of the fire and been to the site before, retracing the steps of the crew and studying the details gave me a deeper understanding of what actually happened that day.”

More information about wildland fire leadership tools can be found by visiting

Chris Wilcox addresses staff
Chris Wilcox addresses staff ride participants at the site of the Dude Fire fatalities as the group begins the Integration Phase of the experience.


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