Wildfire Leadership: Innovation – A Matter of Necessity

(This is the first of a four-part series.)

My husband's favorite plane is the SR-71, Blackbird. We went to many museums of the air and space to discover this iconic figure. I've never caught "Blackbird Fever" before watching the documentary "Blackbird – Legacy of Innovation". The second part of the documentary drew the attention and admiration of this geek leader. The links with current concerns about forest fires (recruitment, retention, loss of life, global warming, etc.) have made me think.

US public television has rights on this video until 2021. So I will try to highlight topics related to the service of forest fires. I challenge leadership students to watch the schedules of your public television stations for future shows in your area.

In this series of blogs, I will address the same topics of innovation as video: need, leadership, rupture and risk.


"The need is the mother of invention." – English language proverb

We find ourselves at an interesting point in history. The industrial age has been replaced (or supplemented) by the digital age, during which individuals and manufacturing companies compete for the latest and best performing gadgets and processes for which we continually test the personal and business value systems.

The national fire plan of the 2000s brought significant budgets. With larger budgets, more equipment and more people have come. Things were good. For 20 years, fire managers have had to deal with maintaining these organizations with fixed or declining budgets. (Chicken chime Small cries "The sky is falling!")

Is the sky really falling? If you understand the cycles of leadership and innovation, the answer is a "NO!" Resounding. In fact, the time has come to face our problems, make it impossible and bring the future to the present.

Recruitment and retention of employees is a concern within the Forest Fire Department. This should not be a shock for many? When we moved to the digital age, the type of individuals required to support the jobs available changed. Advances in technology have made the need for humans less in some areas and more important in others. The small family farms (where we hired many of our firefighters) have been replaced by large organizations using specialized equipment run by qualified technicians, the same people we hire. The farm kid we were hiring does not have the same skills as him.

In addition, the economic weakness of the number of jobs means that companies must pay more for talent. Forest fire services have the same structure of low wages for ages. We will continue to attract people who want to make a difference, love the outdoors and seek adventure, but they are fewer in number than they were before. We have reached a point of diminishing returns. The necessity demands that we change our model.

Next week we will talk DIRECTION. Until then, I leave you with "Mother Necessity" from Schoolhouse Rock.

Necessity of the mother

(If the video does not load, click here or search on YouTube 馃檪

Leadership Challenge in Forest Fires – Fucking A Little Further

  • What innovative ideas do you have for recruitment and retention?
  • If your opinion, what requires changes within your organization – locally and beyond?
  • How does the curiosity of science influence innovation?

Pam McDonald is an editor and publisher for BLM Wildland Fire Training and Workforce Development and a member of the NWCG Leadership subcommittee. The expressions are those of the author.

Source: Blackbird: Legacy of Innovation – Trailer of Fuel Creative, Inc. on Vimeo.