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Forest Ranger Annual Report Statewide Highlights for 2017

Division Mission

The Division of Forest Protection protects five million acres of state-owned, department-managed lands and easements as well as the people who use these lands. For 132 years, New York State Forest Rangers have extinguished wildfires, found and rescued the lost and injured, and enforced state land use and wildfire prevention laws. Over three million acres of lands and easements managed by DEC are in the Adirondack Park, but every region has substantial state land resources that support public recreational use, habitat protection and open space.

365-Day by 24-Hour Responsibility

The division's Forest Rangers continue their historic tradition of providing police, wildfire and wilderness search, rescue and emergency medical services to protect DEC-managed state lands and the people using these lands. Direct professional contact between Rangers and state land users enhances people's safety and enjoyment while protecting the land for the benefit of all. This public service role is a 365-day responsibility. Historically, summer hiking and camping and fall hunting seasons were the primary periods of state-land use. In recent decades, however, the use of state lands has expanded through the entire year, with peak use during summer and fall weekends. Rangers use the nationally recognized Leave-No-Trace (LNT) program as a means of promoting and inspiring responsible outdoor recreation on public lands through education, research and partnerships. In 2017, Rangers made 34 presentations about the proper use of state lands to 2,800 recreationists. In addition, Rangers checked 11,635 occupied campsites and issued 2,446 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 52 public campgrounds 1,620 times to support campground staff or to check facilities during off season. Routine patrols included 88,963 inspections of trailhead access points and inspection of 3,264 miles of non-roadside state boundary lines.

Law Enforcement on State Lands

Number of Forest Ranger Tickets or Arrests by Category in 2017
Category Number
Offenses Related to State Land Use 706
Offenses Related to Fire Laws 58
Offenses Related to Fish & Wildlife Laws 115
Offenses Related to High Peaks Rules and Regulations 8
Offenses Related to Illegal ATV Operation 353
Offenses Related to Illegal Motor Vehicles on State 148
Offenses Related to DEC Campgrounds 55
Offenses Related to Air Pollution 14
Offenses Related to Under-age Drinking 56
Offenses Related to other EnCon Law, Rules or Regulations 30
Offenses related to Other Laws, Rules or Regulations 346
Offenses Related to Illegal Snowmobile Operation 220
Total Number of Tickets and Arrests 2,109

Continuing a trend of the last three decades, the most problematic activity encountered by Rangers was the illegal use of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles on state land. In 2017, Forest Rangers made arrests and issued 353 tickets and for violations involving ATVs. There were another 220 tickets for snowmobile offenses. Unauthorized use of traditional motor vehicles on state land accounted for another 148 violations. Rangers took enforcement actions to 55 violations in DEC campgrounds and another 706 violations of various regulations designed to protect state land. An increased emphasis on curbing underage alcohol consumption on state lands resulted in Rangers making 56 arrests for illegal possession of alcohol by people less than 21 years old. Rangers issued tickets or made arrests for 115 fish and wildlife law offenses that occurred on or near state land and 346 tickets related to other environmental law offenses.

Search and Rescue Responsibility

Wilderness search-and-rescue to protect people using New York's natural resources is an important and traditional role. Finding and rescuing lost or injured people in wild or remote locations is an almost-daily event in the state. In 2017, the division assisted, rescued and comforted 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 they are generally not trained or experienced in wilderness search or rescue techniques. New York's Forest Rangers are nationally known and respected for their search-and-rescue work and are even asked to teach agencies and volunteer groups from other states.

Search and Rescue Missions

A helicopter flying over the snowy peak of the Adirondack Mountains

In 2017, Forest Rangers conducted 177 search missions, 147 rescues and 22 recoveries. Eighty-two percent (284) of these incidents occurred on state lands. Most of them were resolved in one or two days, but several searches went on for many days, incurring thousands of hours of search time. Although hikers are the group most often reported lost or injured, people suffering from dementia, mental illness or a fatal health condition 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. Whitewater boating requires 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 most dramatic mission that Rangers performed in 2017 began on September 2 for a lost lone hiker attempting to climb the Saranac Lake Six, a series of mountain peaks in the area. Five Rangers responded, as well as a State Police helicopter with night vision capability. Neither the trail nor air search found any sign of the hiker. By the next morning, 19 Rangers searched the area, however, heavy rains from Tropical Storm Harvey prevented helicopter flights. As the weather cleared on September 4, 26 Rangers were involved with the search, with efforts supported by the local fire department, search volunteers, State Police, and State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. Shortly after starting, helicopter personnel spotted a person signaling for help. A Ranger was inserted to the location and helped secure the man for hoist. After hoisting him into the helicopter, the man was flown to Saranac Lake Adirondack Medical Center, evaluated, and released.

Number of Forest Ranger Search and Rescue Missions by Category in 2017
Category Number
Aircraft 1
Biking 5
Boating 21
Camping 10
Climbing: Rock/Ice 9
Criminal 4
Despondent 10
Fishing 5
Hiking 358
Horseback Riding 3
Hunting 25
Motor Vehicle 7
Off Road Vehicle/ATV 1
Other 0
Runaway 12
Skiing 10
Snowmobile 19
Swimming 5
Walking 15
Whitewater/Flooding 3
Total # of Incidents 346
State Land Incidents 284

Search and Rescue Training

Considerable time and effort is spent preparing for search-and-rescue missions. Rangers train emergency service agencies and volunteer groups to support them during incidents. Together, they maintain positive relationships and continually improve the search and rescue program. In 2017, Rangers presented 28 NYS Basic Wildland Search courses to 679 participants. Another 44 presentations covering wilderness first aid, advanced search-and-rescue training and incident management were given to 622 participants in support of local and division incidents statewide.

Wildfire Mitigation

graph showing decrease in number of wildfires in 2017
Forest Ranger Wildfire Statistics from 1993 through 2017

An important part of protecting public and privately owned open space 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 2017, Forest Rangers reported 55 wildfires, which burned a total of 191 acres, the lowest total acres in Ranger history. During the last 25 years, Rangers responded to an average of 209 wildfires per year, burning an average of 2,001 acres per year. More than 1,700 volunteer and career fire departments are the primary first responders to wildfires throughout the state. Combined, fire departments and Rangers responded to 1,401 wildfires that burned a total of 474 acres in 2017. The past 15-year average occurrence of wildfires in New York is 5,420 fires, burning 5,335 acres per year.

In 2017, the largest wildfire to occur in New York was a wildfire that spread into New York from Connecticut and burned 30 acres on May 18. This area had been under severe drought conditions since early 2016. The fire started along the Appalachian Trail and was investigated by Connecticut State Forestry fire investigators.
2017 saw a return to debris burning being the number one cause of wildfires reported by Rangers, in contrast to a five-year trend were campfires and arson where the most common fire cause. Debris fires caused 18 wildfires (33 percent), campfires caused 15 fires (27 percent) and smoking cause 6 fires (11 percent). The change in primary cause of wildfires was likely due to the second least number of wildfires in Ranger history that included a slightly higher number of fall fires than usual. The continued significant reduction of wildfires from debris burning is attributed to the well-supported annual burning ban (began in 2010) from March 16 through May 14. This ban has resulted in 37 percent less spring wildfires reported by Rangers and fire departments from 2010 through 2017 as compared to 2002 through 2009. That equates to a statewide average of 972 less wildfires each Spring.

Wildfire Training

A burning building

he division's wildfire mitigation role requires considerably more time than that spent extinguishing fires. Like the search-and-rescue program, significant time and energy is focused on preventing fires and preparing for fire suppression. During 2017, Forest Rangers instructed the 12-hour NYS Basic Wildland Fire Suppression Course on 14 occasions, teaching 295 volunteer firefighters the basics of wildfire suppression. On three occasions, Rangers taught the 44-hour Basic Federal Wildland Firefighting Course, commonly referred to as S130/190. A total of 54 firefighters, state employees, students and volunteers completed this course, which is considered basic training for professional (non-volunteer) wildland firefighters. Rangers provided an additional 13 training sessions to 212 firefighters, emergency service personnel and volunteers in advanced firefighting or incident command management. When needed, the division uses state Department of Correctional and Community Supervision inmate crews for "mop-up" of controlled fires. Rangers gave one 4-hour training session to 139 inmates..

Wildfire Prevention

The best way to reduce wildfires is to prevent fires from starting. Rangers made 62 prevention presentations to 23,810 people. Many of these events were large gatherings such as the New York State Fair 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 55 wildfires extinguished by the division in 2017, Rangers attributed only one fire to the actions of children. This statistic stands as a tribute to the effectiveness of the 74-year Smokey Bear campaign at preventing wildfires started by children and adults.

Wildfire Prevention Enforcement

Over the past decade, debris burning, unextinguished campfires and intentional fires are the three leading categories of human-caused wildfires in New York State. As a means of preventing debris fires outside of the spring burn ban, Rangers and their permit-issuing agents issued 2,642 burning permits as required by state Environmental Conservation Law. Rangers inspected 126 of the permitted burns to insure compliance with the terms of the permits. In addition, they issued tickets or made arrests for 58 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.

New York Fire Crew
NYS#1 on the Pioneer Fire containment line in Idaho

National Response to Wildfires

In 2017, the division sent three 20-person initial attack firefighting crews to wildfires in Montana and California, each for 14 days as part of its mutual aid agreement with the U.S. Forest Service. Typically, one crew is sent 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. In addition, eight Rangers accepted national fire assignments as single subject-matter experts or resources that supported medium and large incident management teams in Montana and Oregon. In total, 41 Rangers spent 698 work-days assigned to eight different wildfires that burned a total of 469,000 acres in three states. This was the largest mobilization of New York's Forest Rangers to national wildfires in history.

Prescribed Fire

In 2017, Forest Rangers maintained their working relationship with DEC'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 supported 29 prescribed fires on public lands, burning a total of 564 acres. This was the first time in Ranger history where the combined acres of prescribed fire outmatched the combined acres of wildfire (191 acres).

Volunteer Fire Assistance Grants

Each year, the division administers the Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) Grant Program, using funds provided by the U.S. Forest Service. VFA grants assist rural volunteer fire departments with the purchase of fire-suppression equipment and supplies. In 2017, 319 qualifying fire departments received VFA grants of $1,500 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 DEC, other state agencies and local governments throughout New York State. They assisted other agencies with emergency incidents on 676 occasions in 2017. Many were automobile accidents at which a Ranger came upon the scene. Others included criminal and evidence searches, fire scene traffic control, 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. Five Rangers joined the State Incident Management Team (IMT) that was sent to College Station, Texas as part of post-Hurricane Harvey support. Two Rangers brought their assigned unmanned aircraft system (UAS, or drones) to provide reconnaissance for the IMT.

Licensed Guide Program

NYS licensed guide badge
NYS Licensed Guide badge that is required
to be worn when guiding.

he division manages the NYS Licensed Guide Program. By the end of 2017, there were a total of 2,309 licensed New York outdoor guides. Of that total, 221 new licenses and 315 license renewals or updates were processed throughout the year. Rangers made 292 license guide checks statewide, and one arrest was made for guiding without a license. In 2017, four guides had their license revoked for violations of the state Environmental Conservation Law.

Comprehensive Annual Report

The division's 2017 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 DEC 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 2017 forest ranger accomplishments and statistics accompanies this summary.