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Forest Ranger Annual Report Statewide Highlights for 2014

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 129 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 department lands and easements are in the Adirondack Park alone, 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 department 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. Rangers made 36 presentations about the proper use of state lands to 5,799 recreationists. In addition, rangers issued 2,176 camping permits to groups of 10 or more or to groups staying at one site for more than three nights. Throughout the year, rangers inspected or patrolled the department's 52 public campgrounds 1,543 times to support campground staff or to check facilities during the off-season. Routine patrols included 72,362 spections of trailhead access points and inspection of 2,377 miles of non-roadside state boundary lines.

Law Enforcement on State Lands

Number of Forest Ranger Tickets or Arrests by Category in 2014
Category Number
Offenses Related to State Land Use 705
Offenses Related to Fire Laws 58
Offenses Related to Fish & Wildlife Laws 120
Offenses Related to High Peaks Rules and Regulations 45
Offenses Related to Illegal ATV Operation 457
Offenses Related to Illegal Motor Vehicles on State 196
Offenses Related to DEC Campgrounds 95
Offenses Related to Air Pollution 12
Offenses Related to Under-age Drinking 104
Offenses Related to other EnCon Law, Rules or Regulations 37
Offenses related to Other Laws, Rules or Regulations 264
Offenses Related to Illegal Snowmobile Operation 328

Continuing a trend of the last two decades, the most problematic activity encountered by rangers was the illegal use of all-terrain vehicles (ATV) and snowmobiles on state land. In 2014, forest rangers issued tickets or made arrests for 457 violations involving ATVs and another 328 tickets or arrests for snowmobile offenses. Another 196 violations involved the unauthorized use of traditional motor vehicles on state land. Rangers executed enforcement actions in response to 95 violations in department campgrounds and another 750 violations of various regulations designed to protect state land. An increased emphasis on curbing underage alcohol consumption on state lands resulted in rangers making 104 arrests for illegal possession of alcohol by a person less than 21 years of age. Rangers issued tickets or made arrests for 120 fish and wildlife law offenses that occurred on or near state land and 313 tickets related to other environmental law offenses.

Search and Rescue Responsibility

An important part of protecting the people who use New York's natural resources is wilderness search and rescue. The need to find and rescue lost or injured people in wild or remote locations is almost a daily event. Throughout 2014, 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 wilderness search or back-country 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

In 2014, forest rangers conducted 164 search missions, 100 rescues and 9 recoveries. Eighty-two percent (224) 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 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 largest search-and-rescue event in 2014 was the response to the devastating snowfall in Buffalo in November. Forty rangers were assigned to the response, which included helping stranded motorists, welfare checks of shut-ins and prepositioning airboats for possible flood recovery.

Number of Forest Ranger Search and Rescue Missions by Category in 2014
Category Number Category Number
Aircraft 1 Hunting 14
Biking 1 Motor Vehicle 2
Boating 5 Off Road Vehicle/ATV 3
Camping 14 Runaway 1
Climbing: Rock/Ice 2 Skiing 1
Criminal 2 Snowmobile 6
Despondent 16 Stranded 1
Fishing 2 Swimming 7
Hiking 173 Walking 21
Horseback Riding 1
Total # of Incidents 273
State Land Incidents 224

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 support them during incidents. Together, they maintain positive relationships and continually improve the search-and-rescue program. In 2014, rangers presented 27 NYS Basic Wildland Search courses to 581 participants. Another 62 presentations, covering wilderness first aid, advanced search-and-rescue training and incident management were given to 1,309 participants in support of local and division response to incidents statewide.

Wildfire Mitigation

An important part of protecting publicly 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 2014, forest rangers reported 131 wildfires, which burned a total of 836 acres. During the last 25 years, rangers responded to an average of 245 wildfires per year, burning an average total of 2,068 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 1,269 wildfires that burned a total of 1,541 acres in 2014. The past 15-year average occurrence of wildfires in New York was 4,952 fires, which burned 4,279 acres per year. In 2013, the largest wildfire to occur in New York was the 363-acre Orangeburg Fire in Rockland County that began on November 14. This fire occurred on county park land and was seen by hundreds of thousands of people as they crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River a few miles north of New York City. The only other fire in 2013 that burned more than 100 acres was the 147-acre Mount Eve fire in Orange County that began on October 21. Both fires were caused by unextinguished campfires that escaped after the campers left. In 2013, campfires accounted for 22% of all fires that rangers fought but burned 66% of the total acres scarred for the year.

In 2014, the largest wildfire to occur in New York State was the 173-acre Darling Mountain Fire in Warren County that began on November 4. This fire occurred on private land and spread quickly because of strong winds blowing fallen leaves. This fire was caused by hunters leaving an unextinguished campfire. Rangers in Suffolk County experienced 33 wildfires, with all but six classified as incendiary-that is, purposely caused by people other than children. In 2014, incendiary fires accounted for 31% of all fires that rangers fought, making it the primary cause for the year.

Wildfire Training

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 focuses on preventing fires and preparing for fire suppression. Forest rangers instructed the 12-hour NYS Basic Wildland Fire Suppression Course on 19 occasions, teaching 352 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 93 firefighters, state employees, students and volunteers completed this course, which is considered basic training for professional (non-volunteer) wildland firefighters. Rangers provided an
additional 20 training sessions to 306 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 (DOCCS) inmate crews for "mop-up" of controlled fires. Rangers gave one four-hour training session to 212 inmates.

Wildfire Prevention

The best way to reduce wildfires is to prevent fires from starting. Rangers made 65 prevention presentations to 10,834 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 131 wildfires extinguished by the division in 2014, rangers attributed only five fires to the actions of children. This statistic stands as a tribute to the effectiveness of the 70-year Smokey Bear campaign at preventing wildfires started by children and adults.

Wildfire Prevention Enforcement

Debris burning, incendiary and unextinguished campfires are the three leading categories of human-caused wildfires in New York State over the past decade. As a means of preventing debris fires, rangers and their permit-issuing agents issued 3,542 burning permits as required by state Environmental Conservation Law. Rangers inspected 86 of the permitted burns to insure compliance with the terms of the permits. I n 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. In October 2009, New York's open burning regulations were updated for the first time since their last modification in 1970. The new regulation generally prohibits burning anything other than tree branches and prohibits even these fires from March 16 through May 14. Forest rangers and environmental conservation officers (ECOs) made 370 arrests for those violating the state's open burning regulations. As a result, upstate New Yorkers experienced a 74% reduction in the number of wildfires caused by debris burning during the spring ban period from 2010 through 2014 as compared to the previous ten-year record. Many rural fire departments supported the burn ban with public announcements.

National Response to Wildfires

New York Fire Crew out West

On July 25, the division sent one 20-person initial attack firefighting crew for 14 days to the 14,201-acre Chiwaukum Creek Fire in Washington as part of its mutual aid agreement with the U.S. 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 sent four of its specially trained and experienced rangers
to national wildfire incidents as single resources. In addition to fire details, the division's fire prevention officer hosted a Fire Prevention Team Leader course for 15 international students and instructors in Albany during November.

Prescribed Fire

In 2014, 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 supported 13 prescribed fires on public lands, burning a total of 349 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 2014, 443 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 584 occasions in 2014. Many were automobile accidents after 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.

Licensed Guide Program

The division manages the NYS Licensed Guide Program. By the end of 2014, there was a total of 2,197 licensed New York outdoor guides. Of that total, 215 new licenses and 293 license renewals or updates were processed throughout the year. Rangers made 678 license guide checks statewide, and two arrests were made for guiding without a license. Two guides had their licenses revoked for violations of the state Environmental Conservation Law.

Comprehensive Annual Report

The division's 2014 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 2014 forest ranger accomplishments and statistics accompanies this summary.