Forest Ranger Annual Report Statewide Highlights for 2012
The Division of Forest Protection (forest rangers) is responsible for protecting 5.0 million acres of state-owned and department-managed lands and easements. Over three million acres are in the Adirondack Park alone, but every region of the state has substantial state land resources. Forest rangers have 127 years of law enforcement history protecting public lands and the people who use the state's natural resources.
365-Day by 24-Hour Responsibility
The division's forest rangers continue their historic tradition of providing police, wildland fire, search and rescue, and emergency medical services to protect department state lands and the people using these lands. The direct professional contact rangers make with state land users is an essential service for both residents and visitors to the state. The information rangers provide helps enhance people's enjoyment and safety, while protecting the land resources from which we all benefit. This public service role is a 365-day responsibility for every ranger. Historically, summer hiking/camping and fall hunting seasons were the primary periods of state-land use. However, in recent years, the use of state lands has expanded throughout the entire year, with summer and fall weekends as peak-use periods. Rangers use the Leave-No-Trace (LNT) Program as a means of promoting and inspiring responsible outdoor recreation on public lands through education, research and partnerships. Rangers made 60 presentations about the proper use of state lands to 7,048 recreationists. In additions, rangers issued 2,030 camping permits to groups of 10 or more or to any group staying at one site for more than three nights. Throughout the year, rangers inspected or patrolled the department's 60 public campgrounds 1,823 times to support campground staff or to check facilities during the off-season. Routine patrols included 65,701 inspections of trailhead access points and inspection of 2,079 miles of non-roadside state boundary lines.
Law Enforcement on State Lands
Continuing a trend of the last decade, the most problematic activity encountered by rangers was the illegal use of all-terrain vehicles (ATV) and snowmobiles on state land. In 2012, forest rangers issued tickets or made arrests for 483 violations involving ATVs and another 298 tickets or arrests for snowmobile offenses. Another 269 violations involved the unauthorized use of traditional motor vehicles on state land. Rangers executed enforcement actions in response to 140 violations in department campgrounds and another 1,129 violations of various regulations designed to protect state land. An increased emphasis on curbing underage alcohol consumption on state lands resulted in rangers making 195 arrests for illegal possession of alcohol by a person less than 21 years of age. Rangers issued tickets or made arrests for 325 offenses related to protecting state lands and 205 fish and wildlife law offenses that occurred on or near state land.
Search and Rescue Responsibility
An important part of protecting the people who use New York's natural resources is wildland search and rescue. The need often arises to find and rescue lost or injured people in wild or remote locations. Throughout 2012, the division fulfilled its traditional responsibility of assisting, rescuing and comforting hundreds of people. Forest rangers have always provided search-and-rescue response in the Adirondack and Catskill parks. During the last five decades, this service has expanded to all wildland areas of the state. In rural areas, local emergency services are insufficient to effectively find a lost hiker or rescue an injured person in a remote area. In urban and suburban areas, local services are available but generally not trained or experienced in wildland search or back-country rescue techniques. New York's forest rangers the state's lead agency and subject matter experts on wildland search and rescue, and are nationally known and respected for their work.
Search and Rescue Missions
In 2012, forest rangers conducted 162 search missions, 101 rescues and 11 recoveries. Seventy-six percent (208) of these incidents occurred on state lands. Most of them were resolved in one or two days, but several searches went on for several days, incurring thousands of hours of search time. Although hikers are the group most often reported lost or injured, people suffering from dementia or mental illness are often the most difficult to find. Rescue and recovery missions are frequently complicated by the nature of wildland recreational activity. Ice-climbing rescue requires special training and equipment. White-water boating activities require rangers to prepare for fast-moving water rescue, sometimes in the most remote and inaccessible areas of the state. Snowmobiling accidents require rangers to be prepared to treat potentially serious injuries in cold weather and remote locations. The prevailing motto within the division, "If it was easy, someone else would do it," reflects the nature and complexity of search-and-rescue missions conducted by forest rangers. During the response to Superstorm Sandy in October and November, rangers used their airboats to evacuate people in Queens, New York City.
Search and Rescue Training
Considerable time and effort goes into preparing for search and rescue missions. Rangers train emergency service agencies and volunteer groups to work with them during incidents. Together, they maintain positive relationships and continually improve the search and rescue program. In 2012, rangers presented 40 NYS Basic Wildland Search courses to 724 participants. Another 69 presentations, covering wilderness first aid, advanced search-and-rescue training and incident management were given to 2,190 participants in support of local and division response to incidents statewide.
An important part of protecting public lands, as well as privately-owned forest lands, is wildfire mitigation. New York State has 18.5 million acres of public and private forest lands that are susceptible to seasonal wildfires. The division is the state's lead agency for the control and prevention of wildfires. In 2012, forest rangers reported 177 wildfires which burned a total of 2,146 acres. During the last 25 years, rangers responded to an average of 279 wildfires per year burning an average total of 2,691 acres per year. Late winter and early spring of 2012 was exceptionally dry and warm in the southeastern portion of the state. On April 9, the largest wildfire in New York occurred on Long Island. The 992-acre Crescent Bow Fire burned through the central pine barrens area of Suffolk County resulting in three homes and one fire engine destroyed. The Division's wildfire investigation unit determined this fire was caused by incendiary activity but no arrests were made. Two days earlier, the 52-acre Tamarack Resort Fire destroyed eight homes and 40 other buildings in Ulster County. The owner of the property was charged with illegal open burning and fourth degree arson. April 9 also was the first day of the 481-acre Anthony Wayne Fire in the Palisades State Park in Rockland County. This fire did not damage any property and was determined to have been caused by smoking activity. The summer was also quite dry and rangers responded to 67 wildfires. All but two of these fires were less than ten acres in size and most were less than one-quarter acre. Unextinguished campfires were the primary cause of these fires with lightning causing seven fires in the Adirondacks.
The division's wildfire mitigation role requires considerably more time than that which is spent extinguishing fires. Similar to the search-and-rescue program, significant time and energy is focused on preventing fires from occurring and preparing for fire suppression. Forest rangers instructed the 12-hour NYS Basic Wildland Fire Suppression Course on 17 occasions, teaching 276 volunteer firefighters the basics of wildfire suppression. On five occasions, rangers taught the 44-hour Basic Federal Wildland Firefighting Course, commonly referred to as S130/190. A total of 90 firefighters, state employees, students and volunteers completed this course, which is considered basic training for professional (non-volunteer) wildland firefighters. Rangers provided an additional 40 training sessions to 905 firefighters, emergency service personnel and volunteers in advanced firefighting or incident command management. The division relies heavily on NYS Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) inmate crews for "mop-up" of controlled fires. Rangers gave one four-hour training sessions to 175 inmates.
The best way to reduce wildfire occurrence is to prevent fires from starting. Rangers gave 53 prevention presentations to 8,222 people. Many of these events were large gatherings such as the state and county fairs where Smokey Bear appears with a ranger. Smokey continues to be the most recognized symbol of fire prevention in the world. Of the 177 wildfires extinguished by the division in 2012, rangers only attributed five fires to the actions of children. This statistic stands as a tribute to the effectiveness of the 68-year Smokey Bear campaign at preventing wildfires started by children and adults.
Wildfire Prevention Enforcement
Debris burning, arson and unextinguished campfires are the three leading categories of human-caused wildfires in New York State. As a means of preventing debris fires, rangers and their permit-issuing agents, issued 3,681 burning permits as required by the NYS Environmental Conservation Law. Rangers inspected 142 of the permitted burns to insure compliance with the terms of the permits. In addition, they issued tickets or made arrests for 107 violations of law related to fire prevention. The most frequent violation was burning without a permit in towns within the Adirondack and Catskill parks. Department burning permits are not required in other areas of the state. In October 2009, New York's open burning regulations were updated for the first time since their inception in 1970. The new regulation generally prohibits burning anything other than tree branches and prohibits these fires from March 16 through May 14. Forest rangers and environmental conservation officers (ECOs) made 469 arrests for those violating the state's open burning regulations. As a result, New Yorkers experienced a 74% reduction in the number of wildfires caused by debris burning during the spring ban period in 2010, 2011 and 2012 as compared to the previous ten-year record. Many rural fire departments supported the burn ban with public announcements. As a result, 792 towns and cities had less wildfires caused by debris burning in 2010, 2011 and 2012 as compared to the previous five-year average, 14 had the same number of fires and 192 towns actually had more fires than their previous five-year average.
National Response to Wildfires
In 2012, the division sent one 20-person initial attack firefighting crew to the 9,863-acre West Garceau and Elevation Mountain fires in Montana from August 15 through 31 as part of its cooperative agreement with the US Forest Service. The division typically sends one or two crews each year. A crew consists of a forest ranger as crew boss and three other rangers as squad bosses. The other 16 members are forest rangers, other DEC employees and department volunteer firefighters. The division did send six of its specially trained and experienced rangers to national wildfire incidents as single resources. Ranger Peter Liebig was assigned as the planning section chief at the East End and Low Gap wildfires in Missouri; Ranger Scott Jackson was assigned as a priority trainee on the same fires located in the Mark Twain National Forest; Ranger Michael Burkholder was assigned as a receiving/distribution manager at the 98,115-acre Arapaho Fire in Wyoming; Ranger Adam Pickett was assigned as a situation unit leader at the 2,562-acre Chrandal Creek Fire on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana; Ranger Jaime Laczko was assigned as a priority trainee task force leader at the 146,832-acre Trinity Ridge Fire in Idaho; Ranger Timothy Carpenter was assigned as a priority trainee task force leader on the 181,798-acre Halstead Fire in Idaho; and Ranger Robert Rogers was assigned as a resource unit leader trainee on the 340,659-acre Mustang Complex Fires in Idaho.
In 2012, forest rangers maintained their working relationship with the department's Division of Lands and Forests and Division of Fish and Wildlife to use prescribed fire as an ecosystem management tool. Throughout the year, rangers conducted eight prescribed fires on departmental state lands, burning a total of 206 acres. Rangers also assisted federal partners with three prescribed burns on their properties, treating 61 acres in total.
Volunteer Fire Assistance Grants
Each year, the division administers the Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) Grant Program, using funds provided by the US Forest Service. VFA grants assist rural volunteer fire departments with the purchase of fire-suppression equipment and supplies. In 2012, 386 qualifying fire departments received VFA grants of $1,000 each. Not only does this program place much needed dollars in the hands of rural fire departments, it also furthers the solid working relationship between forest rangers and the volunteer firefighter service.
Support to Other Agencies
Forest rangers provide a variety of support activities to other programs within the department, other state agencies and local governments throughout New York State. They assisted other agencies with emergency incidents on 581 occasions in 2012. Many were automobile accidents at which a ranger came upon the scene. Others included fugitive searches, fire-scene traffic control, evidence searches, drownings and marijuana-plantation eradication. Because rangers are considered experts in the National Incident Management System Incident Command Systems (NIMS ICS), they often are called upon to teach courses on these topics at police academies, county government centers and local fire departments. Almost every ranger in the state was involved at one time or another with the state's response to Superstorm Sandy in October and November. Rangers staffed several state and county emergency operations centers as DEC agency-representatives to the local response. In addition, Captain David Brooks was deputy incident commander of the state incident management team (IMT) assigned to the Breezy Point community of Queens, New York City. Brooks, along with a dozen other rangers, provided logistical and recovery support to the community which was severely damaged by flooding sea water and an associated fire that destroyed more than 337 homes.
Licensed Guide Program
The division manages the NYS Licensed Guide Program. By the end of 2012, there were a total of 2,159 licensed New York outdoor guides. Of that total, 220 new licenses and 327 license renewals or updates were processed throughout the year. Rangers made 255 license guide checks statewide and five arrests were made for guiding without a license. Two guides had their licenses revoked for their involvement with the drowning death of a rafting client on the Upper Hudson River in Hamilton County on September 27.
The division's 2012 Annual Report includes summary tables of reportable data on wildfire occurrence, prescribed fire, search-and-rescue missions, arrests or tickets-issued, public presentations and general activities. Most summaries are reported at the division's zone level. A zone is identified as the smallest work group under the direct command of a division supervisor. There are 17 division zones in the state, each within a department region. Each zone supervisor has provided a narrative review of activities within their zone as part of the division's annual report. All summaries are substantiated by data reporting at the region, zone or individual ranger level. A fact sheet on 2012 forest ranger accomplishments and statistics accompanies this summary.