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Go/no-go in the wild: Incident command decision-making on wildland and WUI fires

Informed decision-making must occur before, during and after the incident


Firefighters watch as a wildfire burns Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Laguna Beach, Calif. A wildfire fanned by gusty Santa Ana winds erupted in hills on the Southern California coast early Thursday but firefighters kept flames from damaging homes and after several hours officials were optimistic the blaze could be stopped.

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

You’re the first company officer at scene of a fast-moving 20-acre grass fire. Do you help with attack or go into command mode?

Same fire, but now it’s racing toward a house with a car parked out front. Does this change your decision?

Same fire, no car, little defensible space, and other structures in the fire’s path. What now?

There’s no definitive answer based on the information I’ve given you. A decision to pass command could be just as valid as assuming command. A no-go on tackling a less-defendable structure could be just as valid as deploying all you’ve got and letting incoming resources leapfrog to the next one. The real question is whether you used available facts to make a decision you can live with.

With this in mind, the following are some techniques to guide your decision-making for go/no-go situations in wildland and wildland-urban interface (WUI) firefighting.

Before the go/no-go decision

As wildfire keeps raising the stakes, we need to double-down on taking action before the fire starts. This includes preplanning, rigorous training and at-the-ready command checklists.

Be aggressive with preplanning efforts: Just like with structural firefighting, preplans are crucial. But instead of having floorplans and knowing where the FDCs and best refuge areas are located, engine companies must be familiar with rural water sources, structure locations, fuel models, expected weather conditions, the area’s fire history, offroad access points, infrastructure (like powerline substations), aircraft response times, and similar details.

And command personnel need to lean into an undeniably effective wildfire planning measure: pre-treatment in hazardous areas, specifically mechanical fuel modification and prescribed burning. However ironic, the way to prevent go/no-go incidents rests in creating the penultimate decision on whether to place intentional fire on the ground. It’s no coincidence that the actual prescribed burning form in the state with the most interface land in the nation is called the Live Fire Go/No-Go Checklist. [Download CAL FIRE’s Prescribed Fire Guidebook; see p. 18.]

Train the mind even more than the body: For training, yes, hands-on fireground drills are vital. But when it comes to honing skills for commanding go/no-go incidents, the training needs to include scenarios that exercise the mind, which is where these decisions are made.

One of the most important ways I prepared myself to fight and command fires in the WUI was to play the “what if” game. From the firehouse dining table, we could see mountain ranges outside the large picture windows, and we’d throw questions at each other almost every single meal.

“What if that ridge catches fire? Fourth of July weekend – teenagers setting off fireworks near Deadman Gulch. Sixty acres and in the canyon before the first engine arrives. Go.”

Whoever asked the question would point to someone to answer. Once that person took action (including no-go action), they could grow the incident or start a new one:

  • “What if it’s an off-the-grid meth lab explosion that starts the fire?”
  • “What if there’s no way to catch the fire before it crests the ridge and rips down the other side toward the school?”
  • “What if it’s a ridge just like this, but it’s in Southern California and the Santa Ana winds are blowing?”
  • “What if …? What if …? What if …?”

By the time I started commanding incidents in the WUI, I’d run thousands of scenarios through my mind.

Utilize command checklists: At-the-ready checklists and tactical worksheets are critical so you don’t skip over something in the heat of the moment, much like pilots who use a checklist every time before takeoff (a critical piece of crew resource management) and peace officers who read suspects Miranda rights from a printed pocket card to avoid inadvertent constitutional violations.

There are several excellent resources on this topic, starting with FIRESCOPE’s Field Operations Guide and the Wildland Urban Interface Operating Principles handbook. These resources provide checklists for everything from initial attack considerations to structure triage to levels of engagement and many other topics. Many are specifically designed for stay-or-leave situations.

Don’t be afraid to use these or others your department has adopted as models from which to create your own go/no-go checklists – ones that incorporate the way your mind works as a commander, your local knowledge, your crew’s experience, etc.

It’s go/no-go time

You’ve done your preplanning and training, and you have your checklists with you. It’s decision time, except now you’re not at a firehouse table looking out the window with no actual stakes. Fire is on the move. It’s up to you to limit its destruction.

As with any incident, decision-making in the wildland begins with a size-up, an assessment of what the fire is doing, where it’s heading, the conditions in its favor and the risks at stake.

Evaluate the stakes: There’s so much to take in as the incident commander (IC) on an evolving incident. The more often you do it, the more natural it will become to use all your senses to collect and evaluate facts that will inform your decisions.

As a chief, the most common error I noticed in my ICs was a failure to use other people’s observations for information. Everyone has blind spots in these rapidly escalating events. Make it a point to identify those blind spots and reach out to eyes, ears, noses and minds available to you. I’m not talking about holding a democratic caucus; I’m talking about your duty to get as much priority information as time allows before making a high-stakes go/no-go decision.

If you are first in and your crew is engaged in tactical operations, one option to maximize your own observations is to toggle your focus. Look at the macro picture, then zoom in on details, then toggle back to macro. You’ll see more than if you just use one lens.

The second most common mistake I’ve seen in high-stakes environments is ICs not being honest with themselves about their resource capabilities. In the world of psychology, it’s known as confirmation bias, the tendency to favor information that confirms an already held belief. “We’ve got this. No need to call for more resources. No need to back off.”

This might well have been a contributing factor in the 2013 Granite Mountain Hotshots tragedy that cost the lives of 19 firefighters. The crew decided to pit their will to cross a canyon against the will of a fire that caught up to them, then trapped and killed them. The no-go decision would have been for the crew to stay in the black at the top of a ridge. This lookback obviously has the benefit of hindsight. But I guarantee the Granite Mountain Hotshots want you to have that benefit as you go forward in your career. They were likely crossing the canyon to get to a town where they could have helped with little but defensible space clearance and maybe evacuations. Could they have saved 19 lives with their efforts? Not to sound clinical, but that only would have made it a wash. Take high risks for high gains, not high risks for low gains.

Use the time you have to actively make a decision: We’ve all worked for that person who gets analysis paralysis. It’s excruciating to watch as you scream in your head, “Land the damn plane, we’re running out of runway!” Remember, making no decision is actually making a decision; it’s just a passive way to do it. If this sounds like you, IC roles are not your place. Steer clear. Every decision should be as intentional as you can make it based on the facts and risk analysis you had time for. In the after-action review, you want to be able to say, “I made this decision for this reason.” Passive decision-making is much harder to defend.

Monitor and course correct when needed: With WUI incidents, there’s usually an ability to assess the effectiveness of your go/no-go decision and make a course correction. I’ll give you two examples, one where the decision-maker made a course correction, the other where the decision-maker did not.

  1. In a near burnover incident early in my career, I was on a type 3 engine strike team fighting a wildfire a few miles from where California and Oregon meet. Our strike team leader made a bold “go” call where we took a stand to try to keep the fire from spilling over a ridge. When it became clear that the fire had more force than we did, our leader called for an immediate about face. We shut off discharge valves, cut the hoses, loaded and drove out as fire blistered the paint on the last three engines in line. Sometimes you go because that’s the job. But always remember, a go decision is not irrevocable. Neither is a no-go decision.
  2. In 2021, lightning sparked a small fire in a wilderness area, miles from the nearest towns. Surrounded by rugged, inaccessible granite rockfaces and a wet creek, decision-makers decided to let the fire skunk around, thinking the natural barriers would contain and eventually extinguish the low-threat fire. But it was July, the humidities were dropping, and the winds were picking up. After two weeks of skunking around in its crib, the fire busted out and raced toward town, eventually scorching 63,637 acres and 23 structures. At what point during that two-week period would a reversal of the initial decision been warranted? After a week of the fire still spitting up thick smoke? When forecasts warned of gusty winds? When the fire made its first move outside the natural barriers? Don’t dig in for the sake of digging in. Course-correct when the conditions tell you to.

After go/no-go time

We’ve all had moments in our lives where we wished someone had captured our awesomeness on video – or where we wished we had an undo button. Revisiting your actions when fire literally isn’t breathing down your neck is invaluable.

Learn from after-action reviews: Hindsight can always teach us. A close look at what you did right and could have done better, knowing what you know now, will improve your future performance. Examine your decision path. Is there some decision you could have made along the way that might have resulted in more saved homes, acres, natural resources, etc. What preplanning, training or checklists that you didn’t have could have helped you go down that decision path? Fix it for next time.

Study your track record to understand your decision-making tendencies: As a child, I learned that “Go” was good and “No-go” was bad. It started with the board game Monopoly, where Go meant $200 and no-go meant being hauled off to jail. My obsession with youth basketball rooted the Go mindset even further. “You can’t score if you don’t take the shot,” my coach would yell like a mantra. And during my fire academy, I was that one who always put her hand up when an instructor asked, “Who wants to go first?” So for me, the trick in commanding was to let my inner voice remind me that no-go had to be a viable option too.

What does your inner voice have to tell you?

Hone your IC skills

The WUI’s growing presence requires that ICs be ready to make appropriate go/no-go calls on these fast-moving, complex incidents. Nobody has a perfect track record. But embracing preparedness, making intentional decisions based on available facts, being willing to adjust to evolving circumstances, and engaging in self-critique are the ways to grow your command skills in managing WUI incidents.

Clare Frank served in the fire service for 30 years, rising to the rank of fire chief at the Milpitas (California) Fire Department, then to CAL FIRE’s chief of fire protection. She also served as a lawyer and peace officer. Now retired, she writes and speaks about her life with firefighters, lawyers and cops. Frank is the author of “Burnt: A Memoir of Fighting Fire.”