« Return to this article

Know the West

Legal pyro

How a fireline grunt torched her way to the top


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."

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!' "

Aggressive counterattack is Pincha-Tulley's trademark. California Interagency Incident Management Team 3 snuffed last summer's La Brea Fire in just 13 days with hotshot crews, helicopters and air tankers, all working inside 132 miles of firebreaks often dug only two or three miles ahead of the fire's rapid advance. In 2008, Pincha-Tulley wrapped up the long-simmering Indians-Basin complex in Big Sur-Carmel Valley with an impressive backburning blitz. And in 2006, she ordered the closure of California's major north-south traffic artery, Interstate 5, enabling 2,000 firefighters under her command to corral the huge Day Fire before it jumped the freeway to disrupt critical gas, water and power supplies to the Los Angeles basin. The news media lauded her as a heroine.

In late August 2007, lightning ignited the Castle Rock Fire in Idaho's Sawtooth National Forest. More than 10,000 acres had been blackened by the time Pincha-Tulley's team was summoned. Computer models showed the winds from an approaching cold front posed "a 99-percent chance the town of Ketchum would burn down."

Pincha-Tulley immediately called a town meeting. Hundreds of frightened residents -- "inching toward panic due to the proximity of the flames and the dearth of information," according to the Idaho Mountain Express -- crowded into Ketchum's Hemingway Elementary School gym to hear the new fire boss explain the aggressive line-building and burnout tactics she planned along the ridge of Mount Baldy.

"We're going to put a dozer line down your favorite trail," she warned them. "We're going to do strafing runs over your house. We're going to land helicopters in your backyard. We're going to burn the views you love, turn them black. ..."

Instead of reacting in horror, they applauded. Pincha-Tulley's straightforward manner and clear explanation inspired confidence. "In all of our careers," District Ranger Kurt Nelson later declared, "we've never seen anything like this, where a community, faced with fire breathing right down on (it), had the ability to pull together and actually trust the Forest Service."

That faith was rewarded. Some 1,400 residents were evacuated and 48,000 acres ultimately charred, but not a single home burned and no one was injured.

Throughout the campaign, Pincha-Tulley kept characteristically close to the ground. Offered a flossy cabin to stay in, she chose instead to tent with her fellow firefighters.

Pincha-Tulley's team has taken the reins at two hurricanes and nine superfires in the past five years. In between, she's responsible for 11 engine companies, three shop crews, a helitack crew, an interagency dispatch center and a tanker base at Tahoe National Forest. She has to attend to a lot of what she calls "administrative crap." There are meetings. There are training classes and simulations. During the damp months, there are controlled burns to thin the undergrowth in her own drought-parched forest. There's conditioning so that she can pass an arduous physical test -- carrying a 45-pound pack for three miles in less than 45 minutes ("hotshot crews do a lot more than that," she notes modestly) -- that allows her to join her troops on the fireline. The aim is to keep herself and her staff busy.

"Bored firemen are dangerous," she says. "They do stupid things. And I can't say I was any better at their age."

Pincha-Tulley tends to get more ink than her fellow incident commanders, partly because of her humor and candor, but mostly, she acknowledges, because of her gender. "It comes up just about every time I go out," she says. "At this point I see it as helping women coming up from the ranks. It shows them you can do this and still have a husband and kids and a family. You may not have your mind left, but ..." she trails off laughing.
Women remain a distinct minority, but they are increasingly visible in today's frontline firefighting units. They've been members of the Forest Service's 20-person hotshot crews since the mid-1970s, and have served as smokejumpers since 1981. About a quarter of Pincha-Tulley's team are women. They contribute "a kind of diversity that brings stability," she says. "Women have a different viewpoint. That makes for questions and healthy discussions. That makes it less likely you'll fall into a pit of group-think that'll kill somebody." 

Because of the stress of the job, Type 1 incident commanders are supposed to serve no more than five years. Pincha-Tulley had expected to step down this year, but with few replacements at hand, she's considering extending her term. Even a promotion to area commander holds scant appeal. "That's kind of like going to the dark side," she once told an interviewer. "You're even farther away from the smoke and flames."

Combating fires along the West's wildland urban interface "is really an art form in terms of applying the science," she says. "You have to use your intuition. A large part of what you do also comes from knowing who you're working with ... knowing your team, knowing each others' strengths and weaknesses. We usually spend five or six years at a time together, and the team becomes your second family.

"I have a great group of renegades that I adore," she continues. "We're known for playing jokes on people ... and being serious when we need to be serious ... throwing just enough levity in so that people can stop ... breathe. We have a grand time!"

Turning earnest, she adds, "Our mission is to safely do the impossible in very short order. And sometimes," she cracks before bursting again into laughter, "we actually can do it!"

David Ollier Weber writes magazine articles, short stories and novels from a straw-bale house between Rescue and Lotus in California's Motherlode.