Paul Summerfelt Interview

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I'm Jennifer Kern and I'm here at Cline Library at Northern Arizona University, and we are working on a project this summer entitled "Fire on the Colorado Plateau." Paul Summerfelt, the City of Flagstaff Fuel Management Officer, is here with us, and he's going to talk about fire and his department's experiences with fire. The interview is taking place on Thursday, June 14, 2001.

Summerfelt: Thank you for asking me to come.

Kern: First of all, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and provide an outline of your career, and why you began working with fire?

Summerfelt: Well, I'm a graduate of NAU. I graduated from the School of Forestry in 1977, and was here for a couple of years as a young graduate I began to work for the Forest Service as a seasonal employee in 1973 in the Tusayan District of the Kaibab National Forest on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. And I don't remember exactly the first fire that I ever went to. It's one of those things that's probably—I'd been on some real personally and professionally watershed-type fires that were significant events in policy and practice in this country. I don't remember the first fire I was ever on. It was probably one of the more significant fires to me personally, because it was like, "This is what I'd like to do." I remember being on a lot of fires that summer, but I don't remember the first one. It was probably very small, as all of them were that year—probably a single tree; probably a couple of us got there in an hour or two. But it was a significant event for me.

So I came to Flagstaff and went to school, started here in 1974, and worked through the summers, during school, at Tusayan Ranger District. The last summer I worked as a helitac foreman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Window Rock. It was a real interesting experience changing agencies. That's where I learned that you don't, when you're flying a helicopter and you see a fire, there are no doors on the helicopter, you don't stick your arms out the helicopter door, because it gets pushed back very hard against the frame of the helicopter. That was a significant event.

After that, I bounced around a couple of times, a couple of different places in the country, but landed in Colorado and spent twenty years with the Colorado State Forest Service, primarily in fire management. And then about four years ago, when this position was created within the Flagstaff Fire Department, I applied. I had no real interest in the job, I just was interested to see where I fit against other candidates, and was somewhat surprised when I was offered the job. Then I had a big decision to make, whether I was going to take it or not, because I was perfectly happy in Colorado. But this was a good chance for me to change careers, in terms of agencies again, or stay within fire management and do something that I really believed in. And so I've been in Flagstaff since that time.

So in a real nutshell, that's my career.

Kern: And what was it in your jobs in fire management that interested you?

Summerfelt: It wasn't really so much an interest in fire—it was an interest in knowing what I wanted to do was work in some kind of an outdoor field, and really was very lucky to get a job that first year working for the Forest Service on a fire crew. It was primarily… I was hired because at that time I had a relative who knew somebody who knew somebody in the Forest Service, and I was hired. I don't even remember filling out an application—which wouldn't happen today. But for me, that was very fortunate. Everybody I've ever talked to that's worked for the Forest Service — I was the GS-1, which is the lowest pay scale you can be in the federal government —I've never met anybody who ever started in the Forest Service at that level. They've always started above that. But it was a great experience for me.

Kern: So what would you say would be your most exciting or dangerous encounter with fire?

Summerfelt: Well, you know, I've never felt scared by fire—I never have. I've been in some situations where we had extreme reactive fire throughout—I've been on fires throughout the country, throughout my career, and continue to be involved in that. I feel like I know fire well enough that it doesn't scare me, but it causes me to respect it a great deal. About the time you feel like you've learned all you can learn with fire, you go to another fire and you learn something else. And I think as long as you're aware of that… I have never felt scared. I've had to walk out of situations rapidly many times, but I've always been able, through training and experience and being with others who are very confident, been able to recognize situations we're getting into that may not be the place to be, and have always left, sometimes not very far when things have gone bad in that piece of the fire.

But I've been on some very large fires in the country. I've been out of the country on fire assignments. It's just something I really enjoy doing. The most exciting fires I've ever been on: I think they're all exciting. I can't pick out any one fire that has been more exciting than the others. On any large fire, I always feel a sense of awe of what's going on, of just watching nature do what nature does, and being able to be a part of that. As I said, I've been on some really historical and significant fires in this country, in terms of policy and practice changes that have gone on as a result of those. Certainly, probably for me, the first one of those was Yellowstone. I spent most of the summer of 1988 on those fires, and really had gotten to the point in my career that I felt like I had been through some advanced fire behavior training, and was a fire behavior analyst, was qualified fairly high in some other positions, felt like going into Yellowstone—I knew fire. And I was just astounded at what we saw, which was so far beyond what anybody at that time had seen in terms of fire behavior: the severity, the land, the speed at which they burned, the intensity, the acres consumed. And it really gave me a new sense of "I don't know a lot." I know enough now to know that I don't know much.

Kern: Please tell us about the Yellowstone fire.

Summerfelt: Well, the Yellowstone fire was really fourteen fires that burned in Yellowstone that year. Total acreage was close to a million acres, all of those together. I've been on larger fires, single fires. The longest I think I was on in Yellowstone at that time, when I was on one fire, was around 150,000 acres. Certainly it was the largest fire I'd been on at that point. But that, in terms of what occurred in fire practice in this country, and Yellowstone was definitely a watershed fire. It's a kickoff point for a lot of discussion about natural fire, the "let burn" policy as it was termed—various things like that. The finger pointing that went on, the agency scrutiny that went on as a result of that. A sobering part of that fire is also on the fire where we had the only fatality in Yellowstone, and it was right at the end of the season. I think that was one thing that affected me from the perspective of the seriousness, of not wanting to be in positions where I would be responsible [for making a mistake that would cause injury or death]. If I ever achieved a level in fire management of never being in a position where I would put people into that kind of a position. So it had a big impact on I guess my professional career since that point. And Yellowstone was not the largest fire this country has ever had. It was just the most photographed, probably, and the most media scrutiny that went on. As I said, that was one fire.

In 1994, was the Storm King Mountain Fire, outside of [Colorado] Springs, Colorado, where fourteen firefighters were killed. That had a big impact on me, because I was on an adjacent fire. Again, I was filling the role of a fire behavior analyst. We got the forecast, we recognized the seriousness of that situation that was going to occur that day. We took steps to make sure that people were notified, we knew what was going on. I was very concerned about another fire that I knew a bunch of friends on, that was south of the fire I was on. The Storm King Mountain Fire was in between us. There was a difference of maybe a hundred miles between the top three fires, between those fires. The Storm King was in the middle, and at that point it was just a minor fire, nobody was really paying a lot of attention to it. There was concern more about fire further away. I checked with them to make sure they had gotten the notice. They were all okay.

The wind warning for that day was north of I-70, not south. This fire I was most concerned with was just south of I-70. Of course the Storm King Mountain Fire was just north of I-70. And I remember exactly where I was, where we were, when we were notified as to the missing firefighters at that point. It was a real significant event, again, in terms of seriousness of fire, what could happen if things go wrong, what we needed to do to keep things from going wrong. I remember all of us that were involved with that were—I think we all took a vow at that point that this couldn't happen again.

Then in 1996, I got to the point that I was an incident commander on a fire team. Certainly the first fire I was on was very significant to me in that role. And it's the largest that has occurred in the state of Colorado in recorded history. It wasn't that serious. I mean, we dealt with the fire, but from a personal standpoint, again, it was the first time to be in charge of a fire like that.

Since then, of course last summer.... Well, in the summer of 1999 I was in Nevada and we had a very large fire, dealing with some local political situations that only occur in certain counties in Nevada. It was extremely interesting, and a great challenge professionally to deal with that. That primarily has to do with local citizens' view of the federal government and whether they should be there or not, and grazing issues, and all the other issues that really had nothing to do with the fire, that we were caught in the middle of.

Kern: (unclear)

Summerfelt: No, it didn't. But what it did do , is that what we did is we made decisions, I made decisions on that fire that politically were not at all popular in that part of the world, but it was based on my past experience of what had gone on in other fires, and 1994 was fresh in mind—myself and others. We would not put firefighters at risk for any reason, and that what we were being asked to do was unacceptable. And we did what we needed to do. I would do the same thing today. I've fought that fire in my mind many, many times. And it caused a lot of problems, the decisions we made, in terms of the local politics. But it was the right decision to do. And like I said, I would do it again.

And then, of course, last summer, with the severity of the fire season that went on, was another—it convinced me again that what we have going on in the Flagstaff area, in terms of what we're trying to accomplish, is exactly the right thing that we need to do, that we're going about it the right way. And the failure for us, the failure to act, the failure that we chose not to do anything to prevent, or to mitigate the severity of potential fires we have in our area, was setting ourselves up for a Bitterroot Valley, Montana, in the Flagstaff area; or a Los Alamos; or other fires that we were on that summer. And so I think last summer, in terms of the severity of the fire season, was another watershed-type fire. It was a season for them. Los Alamos certainly was a watershed fire in terms of what happens when things go bad. I spent a lot of time there last summer. It just reinforced to me that what we do is serious. And I don't mean to say it's a gloomy kind of seriousness at all—I take a lot of joy and pride in doing it, and working with the people that I work with. But in terms of what we want to do, what are the risks of taking action on fires, and what are the risks if we choose not to try and mitigate the fire before it starts.

Kern: So that connects to our situation in Flagstaff. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Summerfelt: I can. Flagstaff, what's going on around the community and within the community of Flagstaff is really unique in this country, and is something that we need to take a lot of pride in. The fuel management program was in the department, started in 1996. And it started as a result of the serious fire season that was occurring in and around the community that year. And for the first time, I think the community was scared: there was a lot of concern, it was easy to see smoke clouds on the horizon, lots of acres were burned during the day, and people were rightly afraid of what potentially could occur. I think a lot of the credit for that also goes to the fact that we had a new fire chief that arrived in Flagstaff a couple months prior to the beginning of that fire season. He recognized the issue of fuel management as a potential for devastating fire. In fact, one of my favorite stories is when he arrived in town he asked some people in the fire department at that point to please tell him about the fuel management program, what was the fuel management program. And they quickly responded that he didn't need to worry, because they didn't use a lot of diesel in their trucks. They were coming at it from the standpoint of how many gallons of fuel are we pumping a day or a week into our engines in our stations. And that wasn't the issue at all. But it shows you where, even the department, at that point was coming from when they heard the term fuel management.

And so the program began in 1996, right after one of the last fires went out in this part of the country. And it was an acre or so, thinning was done around Fire Station #4 on Butler. And it was a gut-wrenching experience for the community and for the fire department, and for the city, and for a lot of others. This was new, they weren't sure what it was going to be involved with. It took a long time to treat that one acre, and it was thinned, selective trees were cut out. It was burned. But it was necessary. It was one of those things I don't think you can rush. People have to become comfortable with what is the change. They have to see it. And so while we look at it today and say, "One acre, big deal! Why'd it take so long?!" We go out and do an acre now in half a day and nobody even looks at it. But they did at that point. It was very important for the community to see that.

So I came in 1997, with the charge to begin this effort formally—begin this effort and build the program, and have enjoyed doing that since.

Kern: How big is your staff, or crew?

Summerfelt: Well, we've been able to grow over primarily the last couple of years, and we now have five full-time employees in fuel management. We have a seasonal fuel crew, which is composed of about half of that. There's usually nine to ten people. About half of that are NAU students. We oversee also, during the school year, a couple of NAU interns that work with us. And we have a variety of cooperatives and partners that we also work with—certainly the U.S. Forest Service, State Land Department, Department of Corrections inmate crews, Coconino County rural environment crews. The thing is that we're all doing the same work, for the same goal. And that is to minimize or mitigate the risk of severe fire in our area. We will never exclude fire—we can't. Fire is a natural part of the environment, it's been here forever, it will continue to be here forever. In fact, the health of our ponderosa pine forests, to a large extent, requires periodic fire. It eliminates dangerous accumulations of fuels. It thins out young trees that are trying to become established. It reinvigorates grasses. It recycles nutrients. It does a lot of things that are very beneficial to the ecosystem.

The problem is, when we have fires that are too severe and too intense, and we've got human development or other values tied with the site—it may be visual, it may be watershed, it may be emotional or spiritual values. And so we want to create conditions that when we have the fire or fires—they're inevitable—the type fire that burns is one that's very easy to deal with, and it doesn't create long-lasting, damaging environmental impacts.

Kern: And so, when the crew goes out, what specifically are they doing? Or, how do you determine where they're doing it, or how many trees they've cut?

Summerfelt: Well, we know, and our operational motto within the department is "stumps and smoke." And we know if we create stumps and we create smoke, we're doin' good. We don't get a lot of detail past that. And I'm being a little facetious there. We know what we're doing when we go onto a property and create a forest stewardship plan, an inventory of what's on site. We know what direction we want to take that property in terms of reducing tree density, reducing the fire potential. And so we head that direction on sites. We work primarily, wherever we can. We've got a lot of acres to work on within the city and surrounding ownerships outside the city. Our effort is not totally focused within the city, because fire will either come from an adjacent jurisdiction into the city—you know, we'll import fire, or we're going to export it. We're going to have a fire in the city and it's going to go outside of town. So fire doesn't respect any jurisdictional boundaries, and we really try not to either. We work on Forest Service property, we work on state, we work on sites outside of the city. We have those folks come in and help us on projects. And it's just very beneficial for us to do that.

Right now, and what's occurred, is that because the way the program began, the severity of the fire season of 1996. Last year we had some big fires right outside of Flagstaff. We have one burning right now on the San Francisco Peaks, the Leroux Fire. And because of the constant reminder of the threat of fires, there's also the fact that we are being very responsible in the way that we're dealing with it. We've got a lot of projects in the area, it's very easy for people to see what the finished product is. So it's not a foreign idea for people. And so as a result of that we have tremendous public and community support—tremendous. And unlike, I think, most anywhere else in the country. And I think that's a real testimony to not only the program, but in terms of the awareness and the educational level, and the recognition that people in the area have with the forest. People move to Flagstaff, live here, and choose to vacation here and be here because of the forests around it. And they recognize that what we're doing is we're taking care of it, to make sure that we have a sustainable forest. I think that's a real key aspect of our program. So it's not a foreign concept to them. They can see it, the work that's been done. They see it in all stages, from the very initial sites we're working on, to sites like Fire Station 4, that one-acre site that was originally done in 1996, that looks great today. So it's easy for people to understand what we're doing.

I think the other benefit is that—the other aspect of this -has been that it's the fire department that's doing this work. That's a really unusual program for a municipal fire department to be involved with. There's only a couple three others in the country that have this kind of an effort, and we, by far, do the most work. And so there's something about when a message comes from the fire department versus other levels of government or other agencies, that it's supportive belief, although the message may be the same. I think the messenger has a great deal to do with the acceptance by the public. And so we have enjoyed tremendous support.

An example of that is now whenever we do burns, or when we do thinning projects, it's very difficult for us to get even local media coverage, because it's so routine. I don't think that's necessarily bad at all. I mean, I think we've evolved to a point that it's just like us, when we're doing an emergency response down the street, or a softball game in the town, or anything else that's routine—it doesn't generate media interest or coverage to a great extent.

The other part of that is that whenever we do these projects, we are approached continually by the people who live either in the area adjacent to the site, or have driven by, and they want us to do the same work on their property, in their back yard, on their neighbor's side, across the street, across the fence. (tape turned off and on) And as a result of that, we are having tremendous requests to do work. Whenever we burn, we'll generate two or three additional requests to do other sites. And this is not city-owned property necessarily, but it's on private land. And that just shows.... We've got a thousand acres of backlogged burning to do right now, we've got over a thousand acres of cutting to do. So people are very accepting of what's going on, as long as we do it responsibly and we keep people informed of what's going on, they can see it. We've got a lot of work ahead of us, but we've made tremendous progress. We've gone from one acre in 1996, to this past year we did roughly 1,300 acres. And this year we'll probably do 1,500 acres, and may be about the limit of where we're at. We need to look back in five years and think 1,500 was nothing, and now we're up to a higher number, but I suspect around 1,500 acres a year may be about what we can accomplish. But that's a tremendous amount.

Kern: Do you get a lot of requests for information or training from other fire departments?

Summerfelt: Really, it began last year. It began as a result of that Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos. There's an interesting story behind that. I was at Los Alamos on that fire. We came home after the event, and I was at home one morning, watching morning television, and I never do that, but I was not coming to work that day—it was the day after I got home. And Secretary Bruce Babbitt was being interviewed, and he made a comment to the effect that what we needed to do was more the Flagstaff Plan. I can't remember if he said Flagstaff Plan or Flagstaff Model or the Flagstaff Approach—he used one of those terms. And it floored a lot of us, because we had never heard the term before. And we quickly had to huddle and figure out what that was, what was the Flagstaff Model? Because we recognized that with the media scripting that was going on in Los Alamos, with the secretary of Interior saying we needed to do more of what was going on in Flagstaff, we were going to get approached quickly by a lot of media—national media is what it was—and we had to be able to explain. And we had never used the term, or heard the term before, so we had to figure it out. In one respect, he did us a great favor, because he forced us to think about what it was we were doing that was so different. And to this day, depending upon who you talk with that's involved in this general effort in the Flagstaff area, you may get a slight different interpretation. We tend to look at it as really what it is, it's not a prescription, a site-specific approach that this is how many trees per acre you're going to have, this is how far it'll be spaced, this is how large the area will be, but we look at it as more of an approach, more of a collaboration process among partners. And at the output, if we're doing stumps and smoke, that's the important thing that we're doing.

Secretary Babbitt is from Flagstaff and grew up here. Him using that term, I think was, caught us by surprise, but probably was very beneficial. And as a result of that, we were very quickly approached by a lot of media—CNN, BBC, New York Times, ABC "Nightly News," and others, Business Weekly. You know, a call, "What is this? What is this that you're involved with, and explain it to us." And as a result of that, we developed a notebook that had a lot of the information that we use within our area, a lot of history of it, some photographs, some articles, other things like that—it was a three-ring binder—that we could share with others. And since May of 2000, now thirteen months later, we have shipped out over a hundred of those notebooks to various fire departments and communities and agencies throughout the United States that have requested information about the Flagstaff Plan: "Tell us how and what it is, how we might be able to begin an effort like that in our area." So that's been a very gratifying experience to be able to be part of something that is really a national model. The programs that others may set up may be a little different than what we have here, but in terms of community support, what our goals are, how we are accomplishing the work, I think that's a really interesting thing, and something to be really proud of. And the community takes a lot of pride in that too. Communities and agencies, there's not a lot of things that they can be a national model in—so many things that others are doing. Well, this is one that Flagstaff can be very proud of.

Kern: So as a result of disastrous fire season last year—I'm not exactly sure of the date on this, but the government has allotted a huge amount of money to different fire agencies.

Summerfelt: Well, it has, and you're speaking of the National Fire Plan that came out. And that was a plan that was requested by President Clinton and both the secretary of Interior and secretary of Agriculture, last August. Thirty days, I believe, to develop this report and present it to the president and Congress. And the charge was, "How do we get through this fire season, how do we prevent this from occurring in the future?" And as a result, the National Fire Plan was developed. It has several different aspects to it, one of which is hazard mitigation work in and around communities that are threatened by fire. Another is working with those communities to address those issues. It has affected Flagstaff in that we have been able to receive funding from a couple of different sources—originally it was congressional money, but it's flowed to us in different manners -that has allowed us to expand our program and do additional work within and around the community. It was funded at a fairly high level by Congress following the report. And our hope is that that will continue, at least for the next few years. It's taken us, in this country, in the western United States, over a hundred years to get into the positions that we are now, which is that we have unhealthy forests, we have too many trees, we have accumulation of fuels, naturally occurring fuels, that are built up to the point that the fires that we are now experiencing are unlike historical norms. They are much more intense, much more severe. From a public safety and firefighter safety standpoint they are very dangerous. And they are costing a tremendous amount of money to deal with annually. And it's getting worse every year.

I remember in 1988 at Yellowstone: "This is the biggest fire we'll ever see in our career. We'll talk about this kind of like they talk about the 1910 fires, for so many years. That was the big fire. You should have been here yesterday type of thing if you wanted to see fire." Well, we've done that now every year since 1988, literally, and they're getting worse and worse. So it's going to take us a number of years to extract ourselves from that situation, to back out of that. It's not something we can accomplish in a year—or two. And our hope is that congressional funding will continue, and the mechanisms will continue that will allow us to do that.

Kern: How have fire policies changed since 1910, since the beginning of....

Summerfelt: Well, the 1910 fires were a tremendously significant event historically in this country. The U.S. Forest Service had been chartered a few years prior. They lacked a real clear mission, a real clear public buy-in to what the agency was about. The 1910 fires, the Great Northern Rocky Mountain Fires of 1910, occurred in August of 1910 and they burned roughly 3 million acres, which was three times the size of Yellowstone. They burned throughout the month of August, but primarily the acreage loss occurred on August 20 and 21. And it was really the first time that the Forest Service, that public support and public attention was galvanized on the threat of fire, the evilness of forest fires. That's how it was portrayed. There's a great story, a ranger who had a fire crew—and at that point they picked people up off the streets, miners and loggers and everybody else. You were recruited and drafted right at the time of the fire. [This ranger] held a crew at gunpoint in the War Eagle Mine in Idaho, because the crew wanted to flee. The fire was so bad that they wanted to run. Well, a lot of people, somewhere in the vicinity of seventy-eight or eighty people died in that fire, primarily trying to run away from the fire. This ranger held the crew at gunpoint until he passed out, and the crew passed out in the mine. And when they came to later, they thought the ranger was dead, and many of their crew members were dead, so a couple of them stumbled out of the mine, found some people that came back. The crew was becoming revived by that time, and they all lived. And his name was Ed Pulaski. And he developed a tool, a pulaski, which is a part ax, part (unclear) type, hoe-type tool, that we still use in fire service today, and it's called a pulaski.

But as a result of that fire, the next three chief rangers of the Forest Service were all veterans of that fire company. And it was very—they had been forged, so to speak, in that fire, during those fires that occurred. When the policy was articulated finally in the early thirties by the last of those three chief rangers, that fires were bad, they were going to be suppressed, and they were going to be suppressed by 10a.m. the following day. That became known as the "10 a.m." policy. And it stayed in effect until not too many years ago. And it worked very well for a number of years, because the fuels had not yet built to the point that it became very dangerous. And it was probably in the late seventies, early eighties, and Yellowstone was probably the catalyst for the change that "this is not working." And as we've gone into the nineties and now into the early two thousands, we recognize that can work some of the time, but it doesn't work all the time. It's kind of like holding the lid on a boiling pot of water for so long, and something's going to give. And we're at that point now in this country, that the sides are beginning to give, and have given on different sites. Yellowstone was one. Last summer, throughout the West, was another. We can't keep preventing these kind of fires, or putting them out very easily.

It's a truth that the more money we put into fire suppression on an annual basis, the more money we have to, to be successful. Because we're not reversing the conditions that have allowed those kind of fires to develop. That's what we're attempting to do here, is bring that back into a situation where we will have the fires, they will occur, but they won't be the devastating fires.

Kern: Have you had any recent prescribed burns?

Summerfelt: We've got a fairly successful prescribed burn program that was in the city, and which is extremely—there are other communities that have—as I said, a few other communities do some of this kind of work—but in terms of our prescribed burn program, that's very unique and it's very interesting. While the Cerro Grande Fire was going on, the Los Alamos Fire was going on, I had several phone messages that came in from people that wanted to know when we could come burn through their property—which is not the message you would have expected to receive while a community was on fire, as a result of a prescribed burn at that. Earlier this year, we did a fire and had people walk up to us—on every fire, people come up to us during the fire—we had an individual walk up to us and say, "You know, I'd lot rather see this kind of smoke than Los Alamos smoke." And that's a very wise statement. I think as long as we do prescribed fires reasonably and professionally, and explain that to the public within the Flagstaff area, we will continue to be successful. I don't like the term controlled fire, a controlled burn. I like the term prescribed fire. There's always a risk when we light a match and put it on the ground. And I think that any prescribed fire person that doesn't do—their stomach doesn't tighten and they don't do a little bit of a gut check before they put the match on the ground, they probably shouldn't be putting the match on the ground. It's a serious business. The benefits are tremendous, and probably more important, the risk of us not burning, of reintroducing fire into an ecosystem that it's been excluded from for far too long, the risk of that is extremely serious. We are going to have serious fires. And we need to reverse that trend.

Kern: What effects on the ecosystem in regards to prescribed fires take place?

Summerfelt: Well, there's two ways to look at that. And this, I think, the reason that.... We tend to look at the interface, the area in and around Flagstaff, as much larger than a lot of people do. There are groups of people that look at the interface strictly within a few hundred feet of homes, with the thought, "All we need to do is treat that couple of hundred feet around the house—vegetation treatments—and that's all we need to do to protect it." We take a much bigger view, a much bigger picture than that. Because while it is true that if we treat within a couple hundred feet, we can protect homes, we look at it from the perspective that there is much more to a community than homes. Homes are one aspect of it. Wildfires are relatively easy to deal with—even big ones. They all go out eventually. And what is much more—and if we focus on homes, we lose sight of the community. There are so many other things that involve community. They are the watershed, which is so important to so many western communities. Recreational opportunities around town. The scenic values that people have, or vistas that they may have out of their windows are from the community. The emotional or spiritual attachments that groups or individuals may have to certain sites. Wild or threatened or endangered species habitat, wild habitat....[may be] damaged or destroyed. All of those. And then the rebuilding costs that go on, that are necessary. And the rehabilitation costs of sites. The economic impacts on a community: while the fire is going on our tourists may stay away, or those sorts of things—which can be serious. And public perception and public belief in the institutions that they pay taxes to, to protect them. And the elected officials that they elect to do that. That's a community. That's the much bigger picture. And that's why we look at the interface, and where we want to work is miles outside of our community. Because while the flames may not threaten us directly in town, all those other things will be affected. That's why this fire that's burning, the Leroux Fire, right now in the San Francisco Peaks, the Flagstaff Fire Department is very heavily involved in that. That fire is burning away from Flagstaff at this point. It's not going to be a threat to the community. But it is a threat to our watershed areas, our scenic values, spiritual and emotional values that people have, threatening the endangered species habitat, visual impacts, community concern. All those issues. And that's why we need to be involved outside of our corporate boundary.

I don't know if that answered your question or not, but that gives you a bigger picture of why we're doing what we do.

Kern: How do you see Flagstaff reacting to a large fire situation?

Summerfelt: Well, I think that Flagstaff would react as most communities in this country have reacted to wildfires, or will react. There will be people that will leave at the first sign of smoke. They want to leave. We got calls last summer when we had fires outside of the community on the west side miles from town, burning away from town. But people on the east side of the community called, wondering when they need to evacuate, and where they should go. And they were not threatened at all. But there's going to be those kind of people. There's going to be a vast majority of people that when asked to leave, will leave, will pull out. There's going to be a small percentage of people that won't leave, and that becomes a law enforcement issue at that point, if necessary. In one respect, you can't blame those people, they want to stay and protect their home or their area. But they may be ignorant of the seriousness or the risk that they have, that goes on. The Oakland Hills started to burn in 1991. The Oakland Hills area burned several thousand homes and twenty-seven or twenty-nine people, I believe, killed in that fire. You can backfire at the footage, accounts of those who were involved, the tremendous amount of panic that was going on. And I can see that going on. What we want to do is not have that kind of a situation, where it's a panic evacuation. We are going to be impacted by large fires. The fires that have burned the last two years have all occurred to the west and north of town. All we need is one of those ignitions that occurs south of town. We can't prevent it, and I don't want to ever say that it won't occur, but we're working towards the goal of when we have a fire approach us, that it will be somewhat easier to deal with, and we'll have time to get people notified to move. I don't know if that'll happen. Ask me at the end of the summer or next summer. I don't know it could happen today. We just don't know when that's going to occur. But it's something we've thought about, how we're going to effect that evacuation, where people would go.

That's the other side of large fires, is that even if structures themselves are protected and are relatively safe from the impact of fire, you treat within a couple hundred feet of that, you still have the very real potential on a large fire of a panicked population. A large number of people killed in Oakland Hills were killed evacuating. That's certainly something we don't want, down that path of having that kind of an event occur here. All it takes is one big auto accident to block roads, or people leaving cars, and we're in trouble.

Kern: I want to ask you, last time you also mentioned several programs components under your supervision.

Summerfelt: We have, right now, there's a few program areas within our fuel management effort. One is land use planning, and we do quite a bit of work with the Planning Division of the city. We've established a very good relationship with them. And right now, we have an effort underway, where new developments that come into town, even down to a single home, the property has to undergo fuel management treatment. That is a huge benefit, long-term benefit to this community, to be able to deal with it that way.

The second aspect of our program is public education. We do a lot of that kind of work. And we look at public education also in terms of we want the public to support the effort, but we also are looking to recruit property owners, home owners, to do the things we want them to do. We're not satisfied with them just supporting our efforts in general—we want them to take that message internally and do the things on their property that need to be done. At some point we will be on their property. We will be there during the fire. And surprisingly, most people in this country will call the fire department at some point during their life. We will be there. We would rather be there before the event, so that we can have the kind of event later that is much more manageable. So that's the second aspect of it.

The third is hazard mitigation, where we do the selective tree thinning, brush disposal, prescribed fire, those kind of activities to reduce the severity and intensity of the fire.

The fourth aspect is what we call response training. Internally, we want the fire department personnel to understand the program, to understand wildland fire management, so that when we have these fires, they will know what they're to do. So many times we deal—as I am a member of a fire team that travels nationally—we deal with departments that have not trained, they're not equipped, to deal with wildland fire. They are structural firefighters. And when they get into these kind of fires, they're at a loss. We want our folks to be as comfortable pulling a drip torch off an engine, or lighting it, or setting a burnout operation to protect a home, as they would be pulling a hose off the truck and spraying water. That's a big problem right there.

And then the last one is what I term outreach. And that's what I mentioned earlier, where we're involved with other communities, other agencies, about what we are doing here, external to the community—that we're being an example of what they're capable of doing in their area. So there's five areas.

Kern: And what are some of the other agencies you work with?

Summerfelt: Well, for example, the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Los Alamos. There's the state of Arizona. Several communities within Arizona. We've gone as far as up to Wisconsin, Minnesota. We have been involved with the national office of the Forest Service and the BLM, Bureau of Land Management. Rapid City, South Dakota; Boulder, Colorado; a couple of places in Utah; Lake Tahoe, California; state of Alaska. There's a variety of places that our information has gone. Some of those folks have come here. We encourage that. That's one of the things we like, if folks want to come to see what it is we're doing, they're more than welcome to do that. So in a variety of mechanisms we're trying to get that message out.

Kern: At what stage does the military get involved?

Summerfelt: On fire suppression?

Kern: Yeah, or even....

Summerfelt: Well, I've been involved with the military—most recently, last year, on a couple of fires. We had a marine battalion on the Clear Creek Fire outside Salmon, Idaho, which is the largest fire I've ever been on—over 200,000 acres. And we had an army battalion involved on a fire in Montana. Typically the military becomes involved when we reach what's called National Preparedness Level 5, which is the top level in terms of fire management, which means that there are more fires to be staffed, the severity of fires is varied, conditions are very bad. All resources that could be committed from a state, local, and federal level, have been. And that's when the military becomes active. .

Kern: …but not in recent times in Flagstaff?

Summerfelt: No, we had , of course, the fires last year. We had previous times to that, when I was involved with the military was in Yellowstone. In the last ten to fifteen years, there's been occasions where they have been activated. It seems to be becoming more frequent, because we're reaching Preparedness Level 5, we're reaching that step much quicker than we had, because we have worse fires.

Kern: Do you have experience with international....

Summerfelt: Well, I've been in Canada on fires—actually on fires that began in the United States and burned into Canada. I've been on fires in Mexico that then eventually burned into the U.S. So I've been both sides of the border on this, and last year had the really unique opportunity of working with people that came from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, who were brought in to help us. So it's not always an issue where.... It had been, up until last year, always an issue of us going to help others. And last year, for the first time, we faced an issue of we needed help. I think that that cross-border exchange will probably become more commonplace. It's a great experience for those involved. It gives us a much better feel for what's occurring in other parts. And we don't do things all that differently. Terminology is a bit different. Tactics may be a little different. But it's pretty much the same. We're all in this together. I mean, it even shows you the way our fires can burn outside Flagstaff into the surroundings—well, fires burn outside this country into other countries, and we need help, they need help.

Kern: Have there been big advances in fire fighting technology?

Summerfelt: You know, it all comes down to somebody at the end of a shovel or a pulaski, digging a line. The technology, in terms of suppressing fires, it's still a ground show, and it probably always will be. We've got new detection systems, infrared and satellite imagery. We've got foams and gels that help us do a better job. And we've got aerial retardant aircraft that are more advanced than they used to be, and helicopters. We've got new Nomex. We've got a few different new tools that have shown up in the past few years. But it all comes down to somebody at the end of a shovel. That has not changed. We don't like to equate firefighting with war, in one respect, because they are different. The objectives are different, the risks are different. But in one respect, they're very close: like war and like fire, it comes to an individual on the ground doing a job. And that's what will always be that way. I just can't foresee that changing.

Kern: You mentioned some of the risks. Yesterday we were out on the Leroux Fire observing some of the hotshot crews. I noticed how close they are constantly to the fumes, and I was wondering, are there masks? Do they use additional protective equipment?

Summerfelt: Well, in our field there are filter masks that can be worn. What that does is it prevents clear radio communication. The other thing—and this is a philosophical debate within wildland firefighting—and that is how much do we want to encapsulate the firefighter? How much do we want to protect him, because they're maybe running chain saws, do they wear ear muffs, do they wear face masks, do they wear eye goggles? Do they wear two layers of clothing, or one? Those sorts of things. How much of that can be put on to protect? And one argument can be made we need to do all that and maybe more, so they're protected. The other aspect of it is the more we put that stuff on people, the more you restrict vision, to be able to talk. The more you put heavier clothes that allows them to get closer to the fire, you are reducing their senses, and their ability to see what's going on around them, and to react quickly to that. And so if you do that, you run the risk of what's going to happen is that they'll get deeper and deeper and deeper into a bad situation before where it becomes bad, to where it's life threatening. So there's a real argument, what do you do, how far do you go? I've always—and maybe I'm from the older school of fire—but I've always felt that what we need to do is unencumber firefighters. And we need to teach them not to get into those situations in the first place—not equip them so they can go do it. Teach them so that you can do what you can do, but stay out of dangerous situations. I mean, there's no wildfire that's worth injury or death. It just doesn't exist.

I've been on a fire where I've been burned on my elbows, and I was wearing a single fire shirt, short-sleeved tee shirt. I knew it was getting extremely hot and it was time to leave, and I left. Had I had on two layers of clothes, would I have stayed longer and gotten worse? It's one of those. So I always felt let's teach people to stay out of the bad, and recognize when things are going to be getting to that situation.

Kern: Where would you like to see fire management policy in twenty years?

Summerfelt: That's a good question, and I'm not sure I've really thought that through very much. I am very comfortable with where fire management policy is today, and where it's going in terms of having fire [use] fires; from the perspective we had of, well, all fires were bad, to where we've gone into a situation where there are some fires that are bad, and some fires are good. And so I'm real comfortable with that evolution. I think that will continue to grow, and I hope it does. I never want to see us go back to where all fires are bad. On the same token, we can never go to where all fires are good, and we're just going to let everything burn. That's not good. What I want to see us do more than policy, I think, is as a country, as communities, is recognize the risk of fire, recognize that we can mitigate that threat, and take the steps necessary to do it. Not eliminate fire, but have conditions that fires can be allowed to burn. It's not a let burn policy, but that fires can burn without being a threat.

On the other side of it, firefighting has been very good to me. Unlike a career, I think it's a lifestyle. I want us to always be able to support firefighters, to put them in safe places, to equip them properly, train them properly, and with the recognition that there's got to be some fires that are bigger than all of us. The Clear Creek Fire in Idaho last year is a great example of that. That fire, it wouldn't have mattered had we had every firefighting resource in the country on that fire, that fire was going to do what it does. You occasionally encounter those. Yellowstone was a good example. We had a tremendous percentage of the country's wildland firefighting resources in Yellowstone. We won a few daily battles, but the war was won by snow and nature in the fall. That's what happened. And we're going to have fires like that in this country. We had them in the past, we'll have them in the future. So I don't ever want to see us get to the point we endanger the firefighters.

Kern: What would be the best aspect of this job?

Summerfelt: Well, that's real easy to answer. And that is the people that I work with. I've been able to travel a lot, see things up close that a lot of people don't get to see. I've been involved in a lot of significant decisions made on fires. But the bottom line is, it's the type people that are attracted to this kind of a job, that do this kind of work. I like the work ethic of those folks. I like their view of life. And if you were to look at them outside of the fire arena, they're all different. You've got people that—you may have mohawks and somebody who's got a butch haircut. It's so different when you look at them outside of the yellow and green Nomex. But they all have a similar work ethic and desire to be involved in this. And I enjoy that the most. And the relationships and the friendships that I've been able to form over the past twenty-five years. Many of those people I still stay in contact with, and that's the most memorable aspect of this.

Kern: Thank you very much for taking time to be interviewed.

Summerfelt: Thank you. I appreciate being asked to do this.

[END OF INTERVIEW]