Legal pyro

How a fireline grunt torched her way to the top

  • Jeanne Pincha-Tulley on site at the Castle Rock Fire near Ketchum, Idaho.

    Kari Greer Photography
  • A homeowner watches as the fire draws near at the Sun Valley Ski Resort.

    Kari Greer Photography
 

Name Jeanne Pincha-Tulley

Age 51

Current hometown Grass Valley, Calif.

Occupation Tahoe National Forest chief of fire and aviation management; U.S. Forest Service Incident Commander Type 1

Favorite tool (and favorite bird) The Blackhawk helicopter. "Man, that's a toy."

Hobby
Quilting. One recent design, which won a prize at a local show, incorporated a yellow Smokey Bear bandanna, 75 different fire agency shoulder patches and two yellow scarves inscribed with the 10 basic "Fire Orders" and 18 "Watchout Situations" every U.S. wildland firefighter must know.

Mainstay Her husband, real estate broker Ed Tulley, whose more flexible career has allowed him to take care of the couple's two sons when Pincha-Tulley is away for weeks on assignment.

 

The office of the chief of fire and aviation management at California's Tahoe National Forest headquarters, in Nevada City, Calif., is as homey as a teenager's bedroom. Its narrow walls are festooned with tchotchkes -- photos of helicopters and borate bombers, a toy firefighter's helmet, miniature stuffed animals, badges and banners, figurines and refrigerator magnets.

On this August morning, the room's occupant is as restless as a teenager. She's fresh off an adrenaline high, and things are just too quiet.

"Firefighters are used to chaos and disruption," grumbles Jeanne Pincha-Tulley. "In the office, we're the chaos and disruption."

Pincha-Tulley -- 51 years old, short and sturdy, with shoulder-length black hair and a quick smile that often erupts into laughter -- has spent the last two weeks camped on the central California coast, leading more than 2,400 firefighters and aircraft in a battle against a 90,000-acre wildfire in the rugged foothills north of Santa Barbara. It's the kind of challenge she's relished since 2005, when she was promoted to Incident Commander Type 1, in charge of California Interagency Incident Management Team 3.  This elite, 70-member strike force of command, operations, planning, logistics and finance specialists is one of 17 such teams under Forest Service leadership on call nationwide to direct the response to major disasters.

Pincha-Tulley is the first and only woman to have achieved this rarefied level of federal authority.

Her position is equivalent in rank to one-star general, a fact she exploited on her first assignment: Hurricane Katrina. Pincha-Tulley and her team had been dispatched to NASA's Stennis Space Center in Waveland, Miss., to coordinate regional relief efforts. But the admirals and generals commanding local military forces didn't know what to make of the diminutive woman in the green Forest Service cargo pants until -- in a flash of inspiration -- she replaced the gold chief's badge on her uniform collar with a silver star. Her authority was immediately accepted, and for the next 35 days she and her team oversaw the construction of three city-size base camps for incoming rescue personnel, directed all aircraft and truck traffic into the ravaged area and arranged the distribution of millions of pounds of ice, drinking water, food and supplies.

"We had a blast!" she exclaims.

"A blast" is probably not how most people would describe a month of 16-hour days confronting death and destruction in a fetid, sweltering disaster zone. But Pincha-Tulley has always combined her devotion to public service with an appetite for hardship and danger. 

A native of Huntsville, Ala., she attended the University of Washington and majored in forest economics and fire science. At 19, she worked for a summer as a seasonal firefighter in Washington's Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. She loved being outdoors and testing herself physically. So, after graduation in 1979, she signed on full-time as a Forest Service firefighter.

She rose through the ranks in six districts in three states: squad boss, crew boss, strike team leader and on up the ladder. She spent countless hours on the ground in the Lower 48 and Alaska breathing smoke, humping hose, chopping brush with Pulaskis and McLeods and setting backburns with drip torches. She also logged close to 600 hours flying to backcountry firelines as a member of a helitack crew. The scariest moment in her career, she says, came when she found herself stuck inside a faltering helicopter whose Bambi bucket had snagged while scooping water from a lake in Idaho's Payette National Forest. She was swathed in bulky fire-retardant clothing and wearing heavy boots and a helmet.

"I realized that no way was I going to be able to swim if we went down," she recalls. (She didn't have to -- but there's still a Bambi bucket at the bottom of the lake.)

When Pincha-Tulley was named fire chief at Mendocino National Forest in 1990, she was only the second woman in Forest Service history to have achieved the rank. She was only 32, unusually young for anyone to make chief, but it wasn't enough to satisfy her ambition. No woman had ever risen to the top rung of the National Interagency Incident Management System ladder, she knew, so that became her new goal. And at age 47, after reassignment to Tahoe National Forest, she reached it. Whether you're male or female, she observes, "it takes longer to become a Type 1 incident commander than to become a doctor."

Over the years, when Pincha-Tulley told people she worked fires, they often assumed she was a lookout. (The Forest Service began posting women to lonely watchtowers as early as 1913.) "That would drive me friggin' nuts," she says. " ‘No,' I'd tell them, ‘I'm a legal pyro! I set hillsides on fire!' "

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