Wildfire Suppression in 1916

Early fire fighting manual restored

Poverty ridge fire camp on the Siskiyou National Forest, 1936. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.
Poverty ridge fire camp on the Siskiyou National Forest, 1936. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

A window into the early years of fire fighting is available online due to the persistent efforts of Southern Research Station (SRS) scientist Jeff Prestemon.

Roy Headley, who served as head of the Forest Service Division of Fire Control (precursor to today’s Fire and Aviation Management Office) for 25 years, started out with the Forest Service at District 5 in Northern California in 1908. In 1916, he wrote Fire Suppression, District 5, a 57-page manual that outlines many of the methods that evolved into current approaches to firefighting and incident management. Though an important historical resource, only one printed copy of the manual remains, archived in the University of California, Berkeley library.

Several years ago, Prestemon, project leader of the SRS Forest Economics and Policy unit who researches economic aspects of wildfire, requested a copy of the document through interlibrary loan. The scan he received — a 17-megabyte file barely legible in parts — still interested him enough to take the time to reproduce the document as accurately as possible and to request that it be posted to the SRS publications database.

“Headley’s views on the economics of fire suppression formed part of the classical foundation for fire economics still in use today, which is the main reason I took the effort to reproduce the manual,” said Prestemon, “It also contains interesting passages on all aspects of firefighting that have a broader appeal.”

Sections of interest include:

  • The early use of telephones (then 25 pounds each) for incident management;
  • The provisions (food, water, equipment, pack animals) needed for firefighting operations;
  • The importance of health care for firefighters, including the need for rest and medical coverage;
  • Instructions on how to do a backfire properly;
  • Various methods of constructing fire lines;
  • Lists of tools, forms, and publicity materials needed; and
  • The “classes of firefighters” in terms of their trustworthiness.

Access the full text of the restored document.

In 1936, Headley, then Division of Fire Control chief, introduced Fire Control Notes, a publication he envisioned as “a common meeting ground” for wildland fire professionals. The original newsletter has since morphed into the agency journal Fire Management Today.

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