How WFU Decisions Are Made: Steve Ellis

Decker fire photo courtesy freelance photographer Joe Randall. (This is not one of Steve Ellis’s fires but it was a managed fire and I could find the photo easily.) I think the town in the foreground is Salida, CO.




One of my favorite things to do is to build bridges of understanding between practitioners and academics.  Building on Phil Higuera’s comments here, I realized I didn’t really understand how WFU decisions are made, and by whom, with what kind of criteria.  To my mind, understanding how that works could build trust with the public.  So I asked Steve Ellis, the incoming Chair of NAFSR who shared these insights based on his experience.  In Wilderness, he considered…


  1. How far is ignition from wilderness boundary.

  2. What are ERC’s (energy release component) running.

  3. What month are we in. Snuff in July, start taking greater risk in late August and especially September.

  4. Given current conditions, where will the fire likely be in 2 weeks, in 4 weeks, in six weeks if we take no action (FBAN input). (FBAN is a fire behavior analyst with required training and experience).

  5. What is regional and National preparedness level.

  6. What is ours’ and neighboring IA resource status.

  7. Situational awareness, keep your head up…what else is going on in the area. Goal is to not have too much going on at the same time.

  8. What suppression resources and IMTs  (Interagency Management Teams) are available if you had to switch to a full suppression mode?

  9. Suppression resources drawdown situation.

  10. Touch base with State, in this case ODF (Oregon Department of Forestry).

  11. When will the season ending weather event likely occur.

  12. Fuel type and where are other fire scars on the landscape. More recent scars reduces risk.


“What kinds of calls you will likely be getting when a smoke column becomes visible if you weren’t proactive and called them first…which is my suggested move.”

– Calls from Congressional delegation (political reality).
– Calls from Wilderness Society and other NGOs.
– Calls from County Commissioners and Community leaders.
– Calls from ODF who were getting calls from landowners.
– Media calls


Here are two of Steve’s experiences, one where things might have gone wrong…

I once replaced a WFU team with a type II incident management team. The fire was growing in complexity but also in my opinion, the WFU team’s operations officer was not fully focused on our incident. He was from an area where a hurricane was closing in on his personal residence and I, and others noticed he spent considerable time on a computer tracking that storm while my “go” decision was approaching the Wilderness boundary.  I would not have known this but for the fact I traveled a few hours to the small community where the IMT was based to be closer and better engage with them. The lesson here is that line officers must maintain situational awareness and be fully and actively engaged in managed, and other fire incidents. It is the line officer (in this instance the Forest Supervisor) who is ultimately accountable. IMTs report to and work for the line officer.

And one where they did

When I was on the WWNF one early August day, my fire staff officer told me the Forest Supervisor on another Forest had made a go decision on a wilderness lightning fire in a small, postage stamp sized wilderness. I call this a small sandbox for managed fire. My response was “Oh boy, not sure how they got to that call.” We have extreme ERCs, the go decision is in lodgepole pine and there is a very good chance that fire is going to come roaring out onto private land….which is exactly what it did! The Forest Service ended up paying for private timber and ODF suppression costs. Fortunately no structures were lost. So….if the authority for managed fire is delegated to the local line officers, it’s important they have the necessary experience to make such calls. That’s the agency’s responsibility. Regrettably, I saw fewer Forest Service line officers with actual hands-on fire experience later in my career.

Steve adds

“To their credit, by the time I left the agency the Forest Service was developing and implementing a training and certification program for line officers who would be engaged in fire as agency administrators. A Line Officer Team (LOT) of fire- seasoned agency administrators helped pull this together.  Line officers seasoned in fire would help those who weren’t. Shadow assignments for those less experienced would become part of this. Hopefully this program has thrived and contributed to filling the gap for those with little actual wildfire experience.”

Here’s a link to a piece that Steve wrote for the Journal of Forestry. Here’s a link to a news story about how the Decker Fire (see image above) was managed.

I wonder how well that effort is working currently, and what happens when there is a line officer who isn’t trained and certified, or who is acting in a line officer position, has a potential WFU on their District/Forest.  I hope that person isn’t reduced to reading the body language of the FMO (if they’re not on another fire assignment) or the FBAN.  As a person who reviewed hundreds of ranger selections, and sent many folks out on acting assignments, it would be interesting to know how that situation is handled, and whether it’s consistent across the Regions.

Please feel free to share your own experiences with WFU in the comments below.

13 thoughts on “How WFU Decisions Are Made: Steve Ellis”

  1. When I retired in 2017, I was an Agency Administrator for complex wildfires and WFU. It started as a journey in 2003, taking required training in “Wildfire Management for Line Officers”, along with some other prerequisite stuff I can’t remember.

    Steve’s experience was “old school” in the decision rationale. I was brought up in that old school system myself, mainly due to the managers at the time being more conservative – in my opinion. After the training, it took three assignments, on increasing complexities, to attain the “advanced” level (that was not a given).

    Part of being an advanced Agency Administrator (AA) was to serve as a mentor to those coming up. In the later years, it became more of a “task book” exercise, and not so much experience on the ground. I remember having a gaggle of upcoming AA’s following me around on one particular fire, and they stayed a half day and then left! They got their check mark, I reckon, and graduated….

    The AA, for whatever level, was delegated by name, from the RF yearly. Every year was a refresher in protocol, and planning scenarios on technical aspects of wildfire and WFU.

    I don’t recall all the training, since I was also a burn boss and practitioner of WFIP and WFSUA for wildire and predictive modeling for WFU. At the time, if you were delegated that authority, you carried the burden of “not screwing it up”…..

  2. “Please feel free to share your own experiences with WFU in the comments below.”

    In 1979, freshly-minted forestry degree in hand, I was a GS-5 timber crew chief on Colorado’s White River national forest. Lightning struck a spruce snag in the Eagles Nest wilderness north of Dillon. I and the assistant district ranger had the pleasure of hiking in to confirm the ignition was “natural,” and not of human origin. Using new authority provided by some obscure plan or policy (maybe just the Wilderness Act itself), we let it burn. It did so until the snow flew, consuming one acre of subalpine shrubbery.

    • It sounds like you were lucky, Andy! How many snags were within the same acre as the spruce snag? Looking at the snag patterns along the western Cascades now, it is easy to see how major conflagrations keep taking place after lightning strikes a single tree and sets it on fire. Look at how many major fires have erupted from Wilderness areas — sometimes repeatedly (“Kalmiopsis”) — since 1987. The fact that these mostly take place and spread from government lands in the the past 30 years, with a few exceptions, says a lot about the “let it burn” policy since it was implemented.

      • it is easy to see how major conflagrations keep taking place after lightning strikes a single tree and sets it on fire.

        ALL fires start from a single, small ignition, e.g., spark from a tool, lightning strike. Thus, it is unremarkable that “major conflagrations” start from single tree ignitions. How else would they start?

        Half of Oregon is “government land.” Thus, if lightning strikes are randomly distributed (which they are not), half of lightning ignitions would start on government land. But, lightning is not randomly distributed. Eastern Oregon has higher “flash density” than does western Oregon, with the Blue Mountains (named after the ubiquitous lightning-caused and anthropogenic fire smoke white settlers observed upon their arrival) enjoying the highest density. Note that eastern Oregon also has a higher proportion of government land than does the state as a whole.

        As to my “luck,” I was fortunate to be on the ground during the White River’s first ever “let burn” ignition. But, its fate was all but a foregone conclusion according to the laws of physics. There was little to burn and it was damp with rain and snow forecast on the horizon.

  3. Steve’s checklist is very thorough and similar to mine with one exception. The first question I always ask is: “Can we reasonably mitigate the risks of putting firefighters on the ground?”

    • Thanks, Bill! I’m wondering though… is firefighter safety a tactical decision subordinate to the primary decision about whether to manage for resource use or not?

      As you know I am totally not a fire person, but just trying to understand.

      Decision 1 :We want to suppress but can’t use people and equipment and/or in air due to current conditions for safety.
      Decision 2. :We want to do fire use based on other factors, but if we do, where we might have to change tactics to suppression may occur such that there would be too much risk for firefighters?

      To me safety would be involved whichever (WFU vs. full suppression) choice is made.

      Otherwise it seems like it might muddle the rationale.. “not safe to go in” vs. “this is a good idea for resource use.” Now it may be that that all is a gray area (if it’s not safe, why not produce whatever fire benefits are likely to occur) but I would like to understand more.

      • Hi Sharon!

        First, let me say that we haven’t and wouldn’t contemplate “WFU” fires this year due to the drought and commitment of resources. That said, public and firefighter safety are always our highest priority. So safety always influences how we manage a fire.

        In my experience, we manage every fire with a suppression strategy – even WFU fires, which I prefer to call “managing for resource benefit with a contain and confine strategy.” If not suppressed within 24 hours, all fires, even “resource benefit” fires, including single tree, lightning starts in the middle of nowhere require a WFDSS decision, which identifies a fire planning area, management action points, and contain and confine actions, should the fire reach these trigger points.

        For example, on a recent wilderness fire here, we decided that we wanted to suppress the fire but given unacceptable risks to firefighters, other higher priority fires threatening communities, and lack of resources, we established a planning area with a management action point (MAP) where the terrain would allow for safer engagement – and fire spread beyond this point could have unintended consequences. When the fire reached that MAP, we engaged. We used a containment strategy on 85% of that fire and a confinement strategy on 15% of the steep, rocky perimeter due to firefighter safety, natural barriers and low risk of spread.

        Steve’s checklist is excellent and I’ve used something similar to manage several large “resource benefit” fires in my career. All weighed multiple values at risk with firefighter and public safety as the highest priority. All had suppression strategies clearly identified, should the fire exceed the desired resource benefit and threaten other values.

  4. And it has to be consistent with the forest plan. Seems like that should be top-of-list. Odd that there was no mention of it, but maybe that’s because it appears that on this forest the plan only authorizes WFU in wilderness areas.

    • I hold the heretical view that fire fighting does not have to be consistent with forest plans. For a refresher, here is NFMA’s consistency requirement: “(i) Resource plans and permits, contracts, and other instruments for the use and occupancy of National Forest System lands shall be consistent with the land management plans.” Fire fighting does not involve permitting and need not require contracting, i.e., fires can be suppressed with “force account” employees. Nor does any law require the Forest Service write a plan for fire fighting. [See my long-ago K.I.S.S. posts for the minimum NFMA requires of forest plans — the law says nothing about fire].

      That this is so does not mean I agree that it’s right, proper, or wise. But, I’m not surprised that Congress has eschewed instructing the Forest Service how to fight wildfires. Congress doesn’t tell the military how to fight wars, why should it tell the Forest Service how to fight our nation’s war against fire?

      Corollary: Only when the Forest Service stops viewing fire through the lens of war will it entertain fire planning. The National Park Service has made that transition. The Forest Service remains as far from doing so as at anytime in its history.

      • It seems like this would be an argument for a push for fire amendments to plans as we discussed earlier.
        And some forests do have fire amendments. Like the GMUG in 2007. Which was for fire use only (and was an EA!) but conceivably include a variety of other fire-related things.
        Does that mean the GMUG is off by itself in “not viewing fire through the lens of war”?

        In fact, I’m not sure anyone knows how many forests have fire use amendments? Maybe someone in the WO has a comprehensive amendment spreadsheet?

      • I get your point, but don’t agree. I don’t think NFMA was intended to exempt projects that are conducted by agency employees (“resource plans?”). Moreover, it is possible to include forest plan components that apply to firefighting practices. In fact the INFISH aquatic strategy that is found in many northwest forest plans includes a section on “Fire/Fuels Management” that includes three requirements for fire suppression activities. Also, if a forest plan were to say that lands outside of wilderness are not suitable for WFU, I don’t think that would be an option there.

        However, it may be mostly an academic debate. Given the nature of fire events, there is no real “project” decision-point that is readily accessible to the public to oversee or disagree with. Which is why (along with how it affects everything else) I think it the overall fire management strategy should be given a high profile in forest planning. (Maybe even Sharon agrees!)

        • I agree that the FS should make a decision with public input about this.. that it’s an opportunity to work with surrounding communities and so on to jointly figure out what is best to do. Under current regulatory conditions, it makes sense that it’s a plan amendment. Otherwise I remain with Andy’s KISS approach for revisions…


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