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

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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.

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