Finding the Right Medicine

December 2009

Overall, prescribed fires and other means of treating overgrown vegetation are tremendously beneficial for maintaining healthy natural areas and reducing risk of wildfire to homes. In most cases, prescriptions written and implemented by fire teams are just the right medicine.

But like doctors prescribing medication, risks are inherent to any treatment. Unwanted side effects can occur and sometimes human error accounts for too high or low of dosage.

A recent example occurred last month at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge in southern Nevada. Firefighters from several agencies partnered at the request of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to conduct a prescribed fire. During the 100-acre project, radiant heat caused minor damage to a bunkhouse on the refuge, requiring the replacement of four windows, three doors, and a flood light.  
Shortly after the incident, the five-person team that supervised the burn met to discuss communications and decisions that led up to the damage. Their goal was to determine what went wrong and what could be learned from the mistakes. The review included such factors as weather, topography, firefighters and equipment used, planning, and various steps in deployment of the operation.

“The bottom line is that the damage was 100% avoidable,” concluded Glenn Gibson, FWS Nevada Zone Fire Management Officer (FMO) and burn boss on the fire. The report has been widely shared to help others avoid the same mistakes.

“The level of commitment to learning from the incident is very commendable,” added Jessica Wade, Assistant Regional FMO for the Pacific Southwest Region, who was not involved with the burn.

Reviews and investigations are common in the wildland fire management community, especially after large fires, accidents, and any situations where other serious problems or “near-misses” occur. To read the report and for more information, see

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Last Updated: 03/18/2010