This issue of The Independent features the first segment of a three-part series, based on an interview with John Helmich about wildfire in the East Mountains.

The series is part of the paper’s “Fire Beat” coverage in print and online as the area enters the heart of the 2019 fire season.

John Helmich is geeky. Wildfire dynamics geeky and amateur weather geeky.

He maintains rainfall monitoring gauges at his home and workplace. If the National Weather Service issues a fire weather watch at 02:34, he likely knows that by 02:36. 

Helmich is a certified wildfire Public Information Officer. He, along with Karen Takai, are determined to reboot EMIFPA, the East Mountain Interagency Fire Protection Association. He has volunteered thousands of hours in the past 15 or so years to address the wildfire issue in the East Mountains.

Helmich didn’t become involved with efforts to address wildfire after some dramatic incident. No close call threatened his home or immediate neighborhood. Thankfully, no relative was lost on a fireline.

How then did it begin? He recalls that about 2003 or 2004 he dropped by the Sandia Ranger Station in Tijeras. He spoke with Takai, the district’s Public Information Officer and Public Affairs Officer at the time.

He’s not sure where or when he first met Takai; possibly at a community presentation conducted by the Ranger District or one sponsored by EMIFPA. However, by the end of that meeting, he was won over. He volunteered to assist with the District’s wildfire efforts in whatever way needed.

Helmich uses the word “stuff” a lot. What sorts of stuff did he do as a volunteer? “I was just helping Karen do … grunt work, going around putting up signs during fire season, taking down signs that have to be replaced or changed over the course of the fire season—just total grunt type stuff that needs to get done by somebody.”

In 2011, he took a fire training course in Ruidoso to qualify for certification as a PIO (public information officer). The PIO course is one of many fire courses for which nationwide training standards are established and overseen by NWCG, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. In the Southwest, those charged with mobilizing resources are usually within the Forest Service.

Helmich visualizes his formal PIO role as what he does when there is an active, heavily resourced fire—if he is called out.

Helmich has another role that is less tied to specific wildfire incidents. He refers to this as his primarily ‘out of season’ volunteer work. It involves public information to support wildfire community awareness and risk reduction.

A conscious and concerted initiative to increase regional public awareness and education efforts began about 2012-13, when he and Takai committed to expanded programming and what he refers to as ‘aware and prepare’ workshops and community sessions. Many of these program efforts were in conjunction with EMIFPA.

The goal? “Trying to get the public aware, trying to get the community prepared for the eventuality of— literally Dog Head. Dog Head really focused everybody’s attention.”

Helmich sees his role now as having evolved: “If I can educate folks in the East Mountains so that there are more people who are prepared or fire aware or fire educated… when push comes to shove, they will also be doing things that I know should be done. … I will now be a little bit safer.”

Lessons Learned

Learning from a particular wildland firefighting experience has at its heart, something called an AAR; that’s geeky shorthand for an “after action review.” Helmich regards the AAR as a powerful tool.

“After every event or incident … every team goes through that process,” he explained, adding, “Having learned the [AAR] concept and having practiced the concept, I find I use it in many other things that I do.”

Helmich said educating the public about fire is a very slow process. “To create the level of continuity to get to that point where you now have a critical mass of people working in the same direction—that is something that is also very slow to happen.”

He said that today “there are more people in the East Mountains who are aware that there are things that they should know [about fire readiness]. The question is, have they actually tried to learn more?”

Two lessons stand out for Helmich from his PIO experience during the Dog Head Fire, as well as from his fire weather interests.

“A big one that stands out for me is this – a fire this close to residents really focuses attention.” While not really a surprise, the truth of that for residents in communities impacted by Dog Head was driven home.

A second lesson takes the form of a question which Helmich thinks decision makers may want to give higher priority.

“The day after [Dog Head Fire] was a Red Flag… conditions were predicted by the [National] Weather Service to be very dangerous.”

He asks, “Should we be doing thinning and treatment projects during the middle part [of fire season]? It’s possible to do, if things are right. Is it wrong to do them? It’s not wrong to do them, but should we think about them in the context of all other factors?”

For Dog Head, among those factors were an extended period of drought, heat advisories, and weather forecast of pending low humidity, high temperature, and strong winds.

Helmich was not deployed for the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona during the 2013 fire season. Nineteen firefighters died in that blaze. John had already been called up as a PIO working in the Sandia Ranger District during a period of rapidly deteriorating fire weather conditions and imposition of a series of restrictions and closures.

Since Yarnell, agencies seem to have become much more forceful with a critical message for the public. As John puts it, “We can now tell the public, ‘Hey, no, your home is not worth my life, sorry.’ Because of Yarnell there was an awakening of the public. Fire is exceedingly dangerous and it will kill you. So, are we going to risk our lives to save a piece of property? Not going to happen. If we tell you that we feel you need to get out of the area, you need to leave.”

Sometimes experience, history and common sense indicate a lesson which should have been learned about wildfire, but that hasn’t sunk in yet. For Helmich, “my personal feeling is that the public is extremely naive about the dangers that they are living in.”