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America's National Park Service: The Critical Documents
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The Early Years,

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America's National Park System:
The Critical Documents
Chapter 2:
Defining the System 1919-1932
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Fire Prevention Plan for the National Parks, 1928



MR. HALL: We have with us today another former member of the Forest Service who is now District Fire Inspector under the Clarke McNary Act. At this time I will introduce Mr. Jay H. Price, who will speak on fire prevention.


MR. PRICE read the following paper on "Fire Plans":

"In considering the subject of fire plans, the first question that naturally arises is, what is a fire plan? In formulating a definition the first thing to remember is that a fire plan is a means to an end. In this discussion we shall assume that the desired end is adequate fire control, although, of course, fire control itself is but a means to an end. The ultimate goal is the conservation of all forest resources for the benefit of man. Now unless a fire plan, however elaborately prepared, serves this end, it is absolutely worthless unless, perchance, your filing cabinets are in need of ballast. A plan that rests securely and continually in the files is, by that very fact, branded as worthless.

"Going further, we may define a fire plan as:

(1) A clear portrayal of the fire control problem, based upon the best data available.

(2) A plan of action designed to solve the problem; and

(3) Detailed instructions governing the execution of the plan of action, in which responsibility for each duty is clearly defined.

"To get a clear picture of the fire control problem on an administrative unit, we must study all the factors that govern the origin and spread of fires. For the sake of clarity I'll refer to these factors under four main headings, namely, risks, hazards, weather and topography. As a start, let us consider those factors that govern the likelihood of fire starting. First, there are the risks, which may be defined as those agencies capable of starting fires. Lightning is the most important natural risk; man and his engines supply the artificial risks. The latter, for the sake of study, are often divided into many and varied classifications, such as smokers, brush burners, locomotives, incinerators, etc. Second, there are the hazards. I am here using this term to designate the material and substance on the ground that can be ignited and burned. Common forest hazards are dry grass, rotten wood, brush, slash, duff, etc. Third, there is weath which governs the start of fires through its influence on both risks and hazards. For example, the presence of a strong wind may cause a living spark from a flue to travel a much greater distance that it would do otherwise. Thus the risk is influenced by the weather. Ground cover and forest litter respond very quickly to atmospheric changes. For example, a hazard such as dry grass reacts much more surely to the discarded burning pipe heel during periods of low humidity.

"Before a fire can start, it is plain that both a risk and hazard must be present. A thousand burning cigarette butts tossed on a paved avenue will cause no fires simply because there is no inflammable material on the pavement. Likewise a field of ripe grain is quite safe when all igniting agencies are absent. Obviously the prevention problem is either to do away with the hazard or to remove or sterilize the risk.

"The spread of fires, as distinguished from the origin, is governed by the following factors:

(1) Hazard, that is, the amount and nature of the material on the ground.

(2) Weather, directly by wind conditions, and indirectly through its influence on the inflammability of the cover; and

(3) Topographic conditions. For example, other conditions being equal, a fire will spread much more rapidly up a steep slope than across a plain. Also topographic features often have a marked effect on local wind directions and velocities.

"Perhaps we can learn more readily what a fire plan should contain by attempting to build one for a typical area. Let us consider, as an example, a relatively small watershed traversed by a mountain road. There are at least two tasks before us; one is the intelligent study of the fire history of the area, and the other is a careful survey of the conditions on the ground. Suppose that the fire history of the area shows that there have been no fires of record before July 1 and after September 30, but that fires are frequent between these dates; that all of the fires have started along the highway and that they have been traced with a fair degree of certainty to burning tobacco and unextinguished camp fires. Furthermore, we find that several of them have attained large size and have done much damage before control was possible. From these considerations our fire problem is already beginning to take shape. We make our field survey and find that the road is located on a grassy bench, sparsely wooded with oak trees and flanked on the upper side by a steep slope covered with dense brush. This brush slope rises to a rolling plateau covered with a fine stand of pine trees of all ages. We find that the general exposure is toward the south, and as a result the grass and brush are very by early July. We find that travel on the road is very heavy during the summer and that on account of the low embankments many tourists draw to one side for picnic lunches or for over-night camps.

"With the foregoing picture of the conditions on the ground we can well understand the fire history of the unit. Our portrayal of the fire problem, part one of our fire plan, is reasonably complete.

"Our next job is to construct part two of our fire plan; that is, to develop a plan of action.

"To prevent the fires, which is certainly the most desirable form of attack, we have seen that we must remove or render innocuous either the risks or the hazards. As a matter of safety we may well work on both factors. For the risks on this particular area there are several courses of action to consider, among which are:

(1) We may forbid all travel during the dangerous part of the season.

(2) We may forbid smoking and camp fires, either completely or everywhere except at designated safe places, such as prepared campgrounds.

(3) Or we may impose no restrictions but concentrate our prevention effort in educating the travelers to be careful with matches, burning tobacco and camp fires.

"The first plan is often impossible and is always undesirable; the last is generally the best if it can be made effective. Our survey has shown that the dry grass is the hazard responsible for the origin of the fires. This danger may be removed or reduced in various ways, such as by roadside burning or plowing. From all of these plans we must select those that appear most practical. Our selection will necessarily be influenced by outside considerations, such as the use policy for the area, the disfigurement that may result from hazard reduction, etc. Whatever the plan selected, probably some prevention patrol will be necessary.

"Having determined our plan of action as far as prevention is concerned, and realizing that few such plans prove to be 100 per cent effective, we must organize for the occasional fire that will start in spite of our preventive efforts. Both the fire history and the field survey have shown that rapid spread is inevitable. This calls for immediate detection and short elapsed time between discovery and attack. It may be that our prevention patrolman can handle the problem. If not, we must provide a detection system that will have the area under observation at all times. We must also provide a fireman and station him so that a minimum of time will be consumed by travel.

"Even with this suppression plan built up, we know there is a chance of a fire getting away during days of bad fire weather or during periods of extremely heavy travel, such as week-end holidays. We determine that in such periods two men, or even more, rather than one, should be held ready for instant dispatch. Perhaps there is a possibility of smoke pouring over the area due to fires burning outside the administrative unit. The result may be interference with the visibility of our lookout, and we must plan to supplement our detection service with ground or air patrol.

"So far we have planned either to prevent the fires or to suppress them before they become large. But we know from experience that plans sometimes fail, no matter how carefully made and executed. There is always the possibility of a fire getting away and becoming large, due perhaps to unforeseen weather conditions or to a failure on the part of the protection force. We know that such a fire in this area will spread rapidly and by nightfall may reach several hundred acres. From our study on the ground, taking into consideration cover, slope, and the natural barriers if any, we know that a large crew will be necessary to control the fire during the night and early morning. We know also that employment of such a crew demands a certain amount of qualified overhead, sufficient supplies of food and camp gear, a supply of tools suited to the work at hand, special transportation, and perhaps an emergency communication system.

"Despite all of these suppression efforts, a fire may evade control even after an all night fight, and the winds of [the] next day may develop it into a major conflagration. If such an event is at all possible we must have an emergency plan that will cover the procuring of great numbers of firefighters, and vast quantities of supplies and equipment from the large purchasing and labor centers, qualified overhead and special equipment from neighboring units, and such specialized services as for example, airplane scouting.

"Thus we have attempted to build up a plan of action for the particular area under consideration. Similarly we must construct a plan for all areas in the administrative unit, taking into consideration the nature of the factors affecting the fire control problem. When this is done there remains the job of correlating the whole and evolving a final plan of action for the entire unit. Here the attempt must be to fill each need but at the same time avoid unnecessary duplication. And, of course, we must keep in mind the financial limitations under which we are working.

"We have now pictured our fire problem and have built up a comprehensive plan of action aimed to solve it. The third and very important task is to work out the detailed arrangements and instructions, and to definitely fix responsibility for action. I cannot attempt to go into this task completely but I do wish to mention a few of the main considerations.

"The protective organization must have an executive head. Preferably this executive head should be free to cover the field at all times even during large fires. In general, the best brains should be on the fire line during suppression emergencies. This means that a dispatching system must be arranged so that all the fire boss will have to do is press the button and the sinews of war will be at his command. To make this possible, detailed arrangements must be made in advance for supplies, equipment, man power, etc., and transportation for the same. In short, all materials that may be needed must be listed by location, amounts and ownership, and the means of communication and transportation between the supply points and the forest areas must be arranged for in advance and described in the written plan.

"The fire plan should show the opening dates for lookouts, patrols, and firemen, and their stations or patrol routes. Written instructions must be provided for each man, covering his specific duties. The reinforcements of the regular protective force during periods of emergency must be arranged for in advance and recorded in the written plan.

"In considering our sample area, we have seen that we shall need a large crew of men to handle the occasional fire that gets away. It is not enough to know that a certain road crew will be available, and that a certain number of firefighters may be recruited in a near-by town. We must make definite arrangements with the foreman of the crew and with a labor agent in the town, and record them in the fire plan, or else there will be misunderstandings and delays in getting the men when we want them.

"No protection plan would be complete without provision for training. Such training should cover both prevention and suppression activities. Even with training, man is prone to error, so fire control work must be given frequent and constructive inspection. In big suppression emergencies inspection is particularly important. We must plan to send two men to do one man's job.

"Roads and trails have an important place in the fire plan, both in determining the plan of action and in carrying it out.

"Before closing I want to refer once more to the subject of fire data. We have seen that a study of the fire history of an area is very helpful in constructing a plan of action. It follows that the more nearly complete the record is, the more serviceable it will be. The individual fire report is the only means yet developed of getting fire history onto paper, of building up a reservoir of basic data.

"We have seen that there is nothing mysterious about constructing a fire plan. It merely calls for an intelligent analysis of the fire problem and a carefully thought-out plan aimed to solve it. It should be as simple as possible but should not omit essential detail. It must be subject to modification whenever conditions on the ground change, and whenever we learn something new and better to apply in meeting the fire problem. There is much still to learn, therefore the best of present fire plans are far from perfect."

Following Mr. Price's talk, which ended at about 5.00 P.M., the fire alarm sounded and all present left the building to witness an outdoor demonstration of recently developed fire-fighting equipment, tools, fire pumps, etc., under the supervision of the U.S. Forest Service.

Minutes of the Tenth National Park Conference, 131-136. National Park Service Archives, Harpers Ferry, Box A40.

NEXT>National Park Service Predator Policy, 1931


Last Modified: October 25, 2000 10:00:00 am PST

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