Wildland Fire Modules represent a major paradigm shift in how the fire community views the role of fire in our wildlands. Ever since the famous Big Burn of 1910 torched Idaho, Montana, and eastern Washington, agencies like the US Forest Service have gone to war every summer with fire. Fire was something to be controlled at all costs. Hence the rise of fire suppression forces like smokejumpers and hotshot crews. The primary purpose of these forces was initial attack. It was their mission to “take the fight to the enemy” even if that meant parachuting deep into a remote wilderness to contain a lightning-started fire. There was no good fire. And for decades that was the prevailing attitude.
Fire = Bad
Then, in 1988, Yellowstone National Park damn near burns down. By the time the snows came in November, nearly 800,000 acres were impacted. For purposes of comparison, the entire state of Rhode Island is about 988,160 acres. While some have said the media sensationalized the coverage, the fact still remains that almost a state-sized area of forest in one of America’s most beloved national parks was charred, or otherwise impacted.
This event sparked (pun intended) some serious soul-searching and reflecting within the fire community. People began to question the prevailing wisdom, and asked questions like “Have decades of aggressive fire suppression harmed our forests?” “What is the natural role of fire in our environment?”
Officials with the National Forests and National Parks suspended, reviewed, and updated their fire management policies. By 1992, Yellowstone National Park, along with many others, set in place a set of rules by which natural fires would be permitted to burn. https://www.pbs.org/edens/yellowstone/shaped.html
But they wouldn’t be allowed to burn without supervision. So the question then became, what resources do we have available to oversee these fires? Who can monitor them, track them, and keep them in check, and if they become threatening, would be capable of going hard against them on initial attack?
When they looked around, they didn’t see any resources like that. So in 1995, the National Park Service introduced Fire Use Modules (FUM) in 5 parks.
- Bandelier FUM on the Bandelier National Monument (New Mexico)
- Saguaro FUM on the Saguaro National Park (Arizona)
- Whiskeytown FUM on the Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area (California)
- Yellowstone FUM* on Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, Idaho) (*name unknown)
- Zion FUM on the Zion National Park (Utah)
Four years later, the NPS expanded the program and added four additional modules:
- Black Hills FUM on the Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota)
- Cumberland Gap FUM on the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (Tennessee)
- Great Smoky FUM on the Great Smoky National Park (Tennessee)
- Buffalo River FUM on the Buffalo National River (Arkansas)
The FUMs were comprised of 7-10 firefighters who were assigned the task of managing the use of fire within the park.
The introduction of these nine crews signaled a new era in our approach to managing wildfire. Rather than focusing strictly on fire suppression, fire use modules were created to help with the reintroduction, and proper management of fire, on our public lands. After almost a hundred years of viewing fire as an enemy to be battled and destroyed, the attitude had shifted. Fire's place as a natural ecological process would be restored. And wildland fire modules would be at the vanguard of that effort. These crews would be nimble, versatile, well-equipped, and able to play a variety of different roles.
Over the last twenty years, the number of Wildland Fire Modules has grown dramatically. There are now almost 50 wildland fire modules operating throughout the US. While the NPS pioneered their use, other agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Forest Service (FS), and even the Nature Conservancy(!) have all started their own wildland fire modules.
Wildland Fire Module Structure
|#||Position||Temp or Perm|
|1||Assistant Module Lead||Perm|
|1||Squad Boss or Lead / Senior Fire Fighter||Either|
|4-6||Crewmembers (Also includes Detailers, Trainees, and Apprentices)||Temp|
WFM Mission Statement:
"The primary mission of a WFM is to provide an innovative, safe, highly mobile, logistically
independent, and versatile fire module with a primary commitment to maintain fire’s role as a
natural ecological process for wildland fire management and incident operations." (Interagency Standards for Wildland Fire Modules)
The Saguaro Wildland Fire Module described what they do in the following way on their Facebook page:
"The module specializes in independently managing remote wildfires, but is typically also involved in local IA [initial attack], prescribed fire, as well as large fire management or suppression throughout the Western U.S."
The Buffalo River Wildland Fire Module describes their capabilities as:
[Buffalo River] is capable of providing burn bosses and firing bosses for prescribed fires, and can independently oversee the planning and implementation of burns. The module can independently operate in the field during wildfires, and can provide initial attack, fire
monitoring, GIS and mapping support, structure protection, risk assessments, and hazard fuels reduction. The module can also provide overhead at the task force level and beyond.
Additionally, when the National Preparedness Level rises to a Level 4 or 5, Wildland Fire Modules go on the boards as a fire suppression resource.
What Types of Assignments Do Wildland Fire Modules Get?
Here's some selected highlights from the Unaweep Wildland Fire Module's 2014 Season:
- Fill key roles (single resources) in incident command structure on fires (e.g. IC, FEMO, SOPL, DIVS)
- Provided fire reconnaissance for ICT by hiking the fireline with GPS, digitally mapping the fire's perimeter, and giving fire managers valuable intelligence on structures, water sources, and how the fire was being managed
- Performed burnout operations to protect wildlife habitat during an active wildfire
- Photographed a prescribed burn to give documentation to the team to determine the fire's overall impact
- Performed structure assessments and provided structure protection
- Wrote burn plans, and physically established vegetation plots, photo plots, and fuel transects in preparation of the burn
- Picked up drip torches and burned out during multiple prescribed fires
- Served as fire effects monitors
- Assisted Tera-Torch firing operations
Honestly, for sheer diversity of assignments, you can't beat a Wildland Fire Module.
Seasonal / Non-Supervisory Crew Members should be:
- Physically Fit
Even though a crew member on a WFM might spend part of an assignment snapping photos to document a fire's impact, or banging on a keyboard to enter some data, these guys and gals aren't soft pencil-pushing, desk-jockey types. They can cut hotline with the best of them too. And they do when the situation calls for it. Because of that, and because of the overall arduous nature of their jobs, they're expected to arrive at the station at the start of the season in peak physical shape. And during the season, while not engaged on a fire, they're expected to dedicate 1 hour per shift to physical fitness. While not required, it is recommended, per interagency standards, that all WFM personnel be able to meet the following physical standards:
- 1.5 mile run in a time of 11:00 min. or less
- 45 sit-ups in 60 seconds
- 25 pushups in 60 seconds
- 7 pull-ups in 60 seconds
Is the pack test required?
Yes, crew members must complete the work capacity test at the arduous level (3 mile walk with a 45lb pack in 45 minutes or less).
Here's a look at the Southern Rockies Wildland Fire Module's crew qualifications:
What kind of gear do WFM's use?
Here's a breakdown of the gear that the Southern Rockies Wildland Fire Module took into the field a few years ago:
- 1 Iridium satellite phone w/ data transfer capabilities
- 1 wireless internet mobile hotspot
- 8 Garmin 60csx GPS units
- 2 portable printers
- 4 laptop computers
- 6 digital cameras
- 1 video camera
- radio programming cables
- fire behavior software
- fire prediction software
- 11 Bendix King DPH radios
- GIS mapping capabilities
- 4 hobo data loggers
- 1 hobo data logger shuttle
- 9 belt weather kits
- Fire monitoring forms
- 8 IFUM guide books
- 2005 NPS Fire Monitoring Handbook with kit
- 2 fuel sticks (10hr) with scale
- 2 Binoculars
- 3 Kestrel 4500 portable weather stations
Backcountry Camping Equipment. Wildland Fire Modules need to be self-sufficient. So they travel with camping gear.
- 2 camping coolers
- 1-2 camping stoves or,
- A 3-burner camping stove
- Water filtration systems
- Pots, Pans & Utensils
As you can see, WFMs roll around with a lot of gear. In the event of a Zombie-Apocalypse, your first move should be to find a WFM and rally up with them. Food, water, chainsaws and drip torches? If you can’t link up with a SEAL team, these guys are your next best bet.
So, what type of vehicles do WFMs use to transport all this gear? Well, there are a few different configurations. Each crew will have it’s own unique needs (and funding), but the NWCG standards require, at minimum, two vehicles per WFM. This gives a module the ability to divide into two units and perform separate assignments. Here are a few of the different setups we’ve seen:
1 Helitack Vehicle & a 4-door crew cab truck
1 six-pack truck and a type 6 engine
Option #3 (BLM):
2 F350 Trucks
Option #4 (NPS):
2 4-door crew cab trucks + utility trailers
Option #5 (Nature Conservancy):
2 Type 6 Engines and a fleet of crew cab trucks
Bottomline, a WFM will have a minimum of two vehicles, but it is up to the module and their hosting agency to make the decision about what vehicles are best. Also, depending on the vehicle configurations, some WFM's travel with trailers.
As of October 2018, the Wildland Fire Module Unit reports 48 Wildland Fire Modules in operation throughout the US.
19 Type 1 Crews
29 Type 2 Crews
Who are the employers?
Forest Service = 35 modules
Bureau of Land Management = 1 module
National Park Service = 8 modules
Fish & Wildlife = 1 module
BIA = 1 modules
Non-Government = 1 module
Government (non-Federal) = 1 module
Total # of Positions Available: Assuming all crews are fully-staffed, 470 people will be employed on wildland fire modules. If crews were to be staffed minimally, 329 people would be employed on modules.
What's the Difference between a Type 1 and Type 2 Wildland Fire Module?
- Are more experienced (70% of
- Train as a unit (vs. assemble-as-needed)
- Are comprised of leadership with more advanced qualifications / certifications
- Are qualified to do more operations (e.g. backfiring, strategic planning, public information, fire reconnaissance, etc.)
- Diversity of Assignments
- Independence / High Degree of Autonomy
- Small Team
- While you get a lot of different experiences, you don't get to specialize as much as you would on another type of crew
- Small Team dynamics (crew cohesion is very important)
- First, a shout out to whoever created WildlandFireModules.info. I don't believe it is being regularly updated, but the site's creator did his homework, and compiled a lot of good information specific to WFMs.
- Here's a great thread on Reddit about the Pros & Cons of serving on a wildland fire module.
- National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy