Trial By Fire

Published Feb 28, 2023

Forest firefighter and conservation biologist Jon Trapp talks about analyzing wildfires, close calls with endangered wolves, and the urgency of global warming.

In this episode
  • What do F15s, wolf pups, and wildfires have in common? Our guest, Jon Trapp!
  • This week we turn our focus away from the pandemic and towards another one of today's pressing issues: wildfires.
  • We discuss wildfires currently burning in the US, Jon's interesting career path and forest management.
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Show credits

Editing: Omari Spears
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Colleen: Jon, welcome to the podcast.

Jon: Hello. Yeah, thanks. It's great to be here.

Colleen: You're the first firefighter we've had on the podcast, but you've had an interesting career path from a stint in the Air Force to studying conservation biology and endangered wolves to fighting wildfires. Is there a common thread to your career path?

Jon: Well, I'd like to think so. As we unravel our past, looking at it from when I was in the air force, I was an intelligence analyst, and part of that job involves taking a lot of different information and putting it together and trying to predict outcomes. So I think that analytical mind started to be built during that timeframe. I flew in F-15s and F-16s and that was a lot of fun, but I found myself looking at the ground and the landscapes below me a lot.

I had been interested in wolves for a long time. And when I was stationed in Germany, I'd heard that wolves are recolonizing the Eastern part of Germany, and I wanted to go see that. So on my days off, I would travel out to Eastern Germany and go tracking and set up a tent and look for wolves. I didn't ever see any while I was there but it kind of definitely started that hunt.

From there, when I got out of the Air Force, I was able to use the GI bill, go back to school, and get a master's degree in conservation biology and study wolves more specifically. And I worked across the West, started in Arizona and New Mexico with the Mexican gray wolf.

Colleen: So what kind of work were you doing? Were you up close and personal?

Jon: Yes. Yeah. So the wolf job had maybe three main parts to it. So the first part was that we were tracking and monitoring the wolf population in conjunction with the Endangered Species Act. And that involved primarily trapping and radio-collaring, and then once again, flying, which put me in the air again looking down onto the ground. But now, I was looking for wolves. So we would track that and keep, so we knew what the status of the population was and how they were doing towards meeting the objectives of being a recovered species. And the next part of that job would be conflict resolution between, as I mentioned, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana. There was a fair amount of conflict with wolves.

Colleen: And by conflict, do you mean with, like, ranchers?

Jon: Yes. Most of the conflict involved with livestock depredations or losses of livestock or a perceived loss or a worry of loss. And so, wolves definitely elicited a lot of passion, anger, sometimes they were able to focus anger towards... rural ranching communities sometimes could have an anger towards the government and they were able to focus that anger at the wolves and the people that were there with the wolves. But I also worked with a lot of ranchers that, you know, they were really good people. They were just trying to do their, you know, their business on the landscape. And so, we were trying to figure out how to minimize livestock losses and also keep the wolves alive. So, one thing that I found interesting early on was that as I was out there working with wolves and meeting these ranchers is they, you know, I had one rancher right away say, you know, "You brought those wolves here!"

And I was able to say, "Actually, I was serving overseas in the military when the wolves were reintroduced." And that brought with it, especially in that community, a lot of respect. So they would actually step back and go, "Oh, well, thank you for your service." And that opened a door to a lot of the people and the ranchers I was dealing with. So I found that as quite the benefit. They were able to respect that and realize that I had done other things besides just working with the wolves. And then the last part was the education and the outreach part of it which was constant because there's so much misinformation about wolves and there's a lot of misinformation about wildfire as well.

Colleen: Give me an example of some of the misinformation about wolves that you encountered.

Jon: Sure. There was a lot of irrational fear of wolves being dangerous to humans. In New Mexico, they were building these shelters so that the children while waiting for the school bus could be protected from the wolves or thoughts that wolves would reproduce endlessly and multiple times a year, which is not the fact. They only go into heat once a year in the April timeframe, February. And also the thought that if wolves weren't kept in check that they would overrun all the native game and kill everything on the landscape, which I'd follow up with explaining that wolves and ungulates or native game would've been on the landscape for, you know, tens of thousands of years and that didn't happen then. So I'm not sure why they thought it was going to happen now.

Colleen: Tell me about an encounter you’ve had with a wolf

Jon: Yeah. Wolves are amazing creatures and I remember one time I had to hike into an area. This was in Arizona with the Mexican gray wolf to figure out if this wolf pack had had pups. Typically, with radio collars, we can tell when they have pups because they kind of localize in a region during the denning season. But we had no idea and so I had to go hike into this area. And I had a radio telemetry receiver, and I was hiking up this ridge and I knew I was getting close because the beeps were getting louder and louder. And I turned down the gain on my receiver. And finally, I got to the point where I actually disconnected the antenna because I was so close to the wolves that I didn't even need the antenna on the receiver.

So I had my head up. I'm looking for them. I look down and there's a fresh wolf scat right under my feet. And I looked a little bit further and a head of a wolf just kind of raised out from a ridge and looked at me. And it was about maybe 20 yards away from me. And then right next to it, another wolf head, and on the other side, another wolf head, and I had three wolves staring at me. I was by myself and so I was kind of looking at them and they were looking at me and then suddenly, the alpha male started running towards me and then the other two joined. And that's very uncharacteristic of the wolves even if you're in their denning area. And they ran till they got about 10 yards away from me and then circled me and the three wolves were circling me.

And the last wolf I could tell was a yearling from last year's litter because it was hopping, trying to look at me, and they just weren't used to having humans right there. And so they were just trying to get a good view of me. And they circled me several times and then they went back to the ridge where I first saw them, and then all three of them started howling. It was the alpha male, alpha female, and a yearling. And I was like, "Oh wow, this is really cool, but I don't know if they've had pups yet." And just then in this little drainage next to me, I heard all the wolf pups start howling back. So I knew that they had had pups and that they had reproduced successfully. And so I was able to kind of turn around and walk out from that area. And it was a fun...

Colleen: Wow. That's amazing.

Jon: The alpha male escorted me out of there as I walked out. So he kind of followed me and flanked me and just made sure I was leaving and then he left me alone.

Colleen: So you then moved from working with wolves to firefighting. Tell me about that transition.

Jon: Well, it seemed just about every summer that I was out trapping and radio-collaring wolves that at one point or another, I would have to leave an area or pull traps because a wildfire was burning. And one of the largest fires that burned in this area where I live in Montana, I actually flew over the origin of that fire earlier in the day tracking wolves. And then later, a lightning strike hit that same location and started a fire, which is where most of the wildfires in the West and Northern Rockies, they come from, you know, lightning strikes. So, it was interesting to see when I... that fire burned for several weeks. And when I returned above the fire area and in the airplane tracking wolves, there was this one drainage where the wolves, they were in this drainage every time I flew, day after day.

And that's a bit unusual for the wolves because they cover several hundred square miles for a home range up to 500. And up in Alaska, you're looking at 1000 square miles. So they move a lot. They cover a lot of ground and to keep finding them in the same spot was strange. So after a few weeks of this, I decided I needed to hike into the area and see what was going on. And in the process, I had found that the fire had burned up this one particular canyon, and there was a lot of smoke coming up the canyon that ended up asphyxiating a small herd of elk and they were all dead there in that canyon. And the wolves were just staying there and eating these dead elk. So I guess this relationship of fire and wolves, it was around me.

And so I was also volunteering at the local fire department search and rescue organization as an EMT, a job opportunity opened up which would allow me to be with my family more than I would be potentially on the wolf side of things. So I made a decision to switch careers to fire and paramedicine, and in the process trained as a wildland firefighter and found very quickly that that was my passion. It was very interesting, and it got me out on the landscape to continue to be with my feet on the ground and dealing with, you know, wild forces of nature.


Colleen: So let's talk wildfires for a bit. When I think about firefighting from where I sit, which is on the East Coast in...well, in a small town, but in a city setting, I see a fire on television, it might be a three or four-alarm fire, sometimes a five-alarm fire, it's a house or a building, and surrounding towns will come and they fight this fire. And the ratio of firefighters and equipment to fire is pretty high. And I think about what you're doing fighting a wildfire where it's just immense amount of land that's burning. I mean, what is the strategy for fighting something that huge?

Jon: Well, you know, all fires start small. And most firefighters in the United States are volunteers. So there's over a million firefighters and only a third of those are full-time paid firefighters. So it is common like you described that a fire starts and then you have several local fire departments respond with their engines. So from a structure side, it's a little bit different approach to a wildland fireside.

Colleen: So currently, your position is fire behavior analyst, which I'm thinking back to your work in the air force being an analyst, I'm thinking you're kind of a data geek at heart. What is the role of a fire behavior analyst?

Jon: You're right. It is a little bit geeky and I do like that... I like the idea of trying to predict what's going to happen. And so, when the fire first starts, we've just kind of...all right, we just got to get there and get on it and try to knock it down. But as a fire continues to grow or exceeds our ability to suppress it, and it starts to span multiple days and multiple operational periods, that means that we're going to fight fire all day and possibly some in the night. And then the next morning, we're going to get up and we're gonna attack and hopefully have a plan...almost always have a plan. But that plan is really contingent on what we're expecting the fire to do. And that's contingent on three main factors. We have the fuels, the materials that are burning and mostly natural, but fuels also include structures. We have the weather, what's it going to do? What's the temperatures, the relative humidity, the winds?

And then we have the topography, where you have things like canyons or upslope. Fire likes to go upslope and you have really explosive fire growth when you have an upslope canyon and a wind that aligns with it. So the fire behavior analyst is using science to put all these things together. We plug all these variables into models that can give us important information like rate of spread. Like, how fast is this fire going to move? Flame lengths. How tall is this fire going to be coming up because if it's, four feet or less, which you might get off of grass, we could go direct. We could go right at the head of the fire and we could knock it down.

But when it starts to exceed 4 feet, getting up into 4 feet to 8 feet flame lengths, then we need engines and we start needing dozers. And then we're needing aircraft and retardant and helicopters with bucket drops. And it completely starts to change our overall approach from direct fire attack to an indirect method. And so, the fire behavior analyst is critical in figuring out what we're dealing with. But fire behavior analysts don't usually get mobilized until it's a large fire, so, a large incident like what we've seen in, well, in Colorado and Alaska and California. We've seen them in Texas and New Mexico, so it's a big team at that point. You're talking hundreds of firefighters, maybe thousands before you start to have a dedicated fire behavior analyst.

Colleen: To get a sense of the size of these fires, I looked up the size of the state of Rhode Island, which is just under 800,000 square feet. So how large are the fires that you’re dealing with?

Jon: We have huge portions of America that are burning every year. And that 8.6 million is more than the 10-year average. But if you start to look at the averages over even the last five years, we are rapidly growing in the number of fires, the length of the fire season, and the total acres that are burned.

So it's definitely, even in the 14 years that I've been firefighting, which is really a blip in fire ecology and fire landscape studies, it's changing dramatically. And we're seeing things burn. I was on a fire at Point Reyes outside of San Francisco, that the portion of the park that we were in had no human record of ever burning. And we were watching green ferns burn up a slope with all of the firefighters standing there with our jaws dropped. It's not normal. You don't see green vegetation burn like that and especially in an area that had never burned. So things are definitely changing.

Colleen: Why would that be?

Jon: So with climate change, we see changes in large scale weather patterns. We all know about rising temperatures. But in addition to rising temperatures, we have changes in the climate and the patterns above us, which change, where moisture, where we have more precipitation, where we used to have some that we don't anymore. Areas that used to have more rain are seeing less. And we're seeing areas that have lightning that we didn't really have lightning before, areas in Alaska. And then of course, in California, we had a huge lightning burst in August that there was just lightning hitting everywhere. These are large scale pattern changes, in our climate that are a little bit hard for people to see unless they're in the middle of it watching it. And the people that I run into that live in these areas, they're just saying, "We've never seen this before."

Colleen: Do you see any parallels between endangered species management and fire management?

Jon: Yes, I do. Fairly quickly when I started working with wildfire, I was still involved with wolf education and outreach and continued that on the side. But something that stood out pretty quickly and I came across a poster that kind of cemented it. It was from the '50s. It was a U.S. Forest Service poster. It had a wolf on it. The wolf was made out of flames and it said, "Don't unleash the beast on the forest." And they were using both of these symbols, both of these things that were at the time both considered bad. At the time all fire needed to be suppressed because it burned forest. It took away habitat for wildlife. And, of course, it impacted logging. And we had strong messages from Smokey the Bear and Bambi about how wildfire was bad.

And in around the early 1900s, we had the same transition with wolves, that all wolves were bad and the only good wolf was a dead wolf. And so both of the management approaches were to remove and stop all wildfire and all wolves, just to remove it from the landscape as much as possible without really understanding the ecological consequence of doing both those things. So the management approach was very similar and I found that very interesting. But there was a point where we started to recognize that we, "Uh-oh, maybe we have done something we shouldn't have," which, humans occasionally do, right, as we figure out what we're doing. So, then we started the process of trying to bring some fire back to the landscape and bringing wolves back to the landscape.

Colleen: So if I put you in charge of doing an all-new Smokey Bear campaign today, what would you have him advocate for?

Jon: Well, I do believe that Smokey's message of, you know, "Don't be the one who starts the fire," is a good message, right? You don't have to be the one that forgets to put your campfire out. But the rest of the message and then maybe the side that involves with Bambi is that fire is a necessary part of the landscape: that our forests have evolved with fire. And many of the species in our forests are fire-dependent which means that's how they, you know, regenerate in our forests.

So I think the messages that fire is okay under certain circumstances and helping people understand what those circumstances are, but helping to prepare the landscape for the inevitable fire that will come. So after 100 years of fairly aggressive fire suppression, we have unhealthy forests because just like the wolves that cleanse the herd of elk to improve the elk health, frequent low and moderate-intensity fires, cleanse the grounds of the forest, and do nutrient releases back and help also remove the sick, the dying, and the dead from the forest. So, I think the message is we have to find a place for fire on the landscape, but we need to do some prep work ahead of time.

Colleen: So what are some of the options for people who are living in these fire-prone areas?

Jon: I think there are options, but we have to understand that we are not going to be living without fire. If you're living in a forest, there will be fire. It's coming. So how do we prepare for that? And I think a lot of people want to live in the forest. You know, approximately 60% of the homes that were built since 1990 have been built in the wild and urban interface, which is defined as where, you know, natural forest materials intermix with structures. That's the wild and urban interface. So if we're going to do that, we have to think about planning at the subdivision level, and we have to also understand what we're doing to habitat. So any time you put a subdivision in, right, you are destroying some sort of habitat. And so, that always should be taken into account.

Colleen: Well Jon, I have so many more questions for you, but I think we might just have to do another podcast interview at some point. You’re doing amazing work protecting wolves, fighting wildfires, and connecting the dots to climate change. Thanks so much for joining me on the podcast.

Jon: Yeah, you're welcome. It was a pleasure to be here with you.

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