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Forest Ranger Annual Report Statewide Highlights for 2016

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 131 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 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 18 presentations about the proper use of state lands to 2,640 recreationists. In addition, rangers issued 1,851 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 1,463 times to support campground staff or to check facilities during the off-season. Routine patrols included 72,905 inspections of trailhead access points and inspection of 2,082 miles of non-roadside state boundary lines.

Law Enforcement on State Lands

Number of Forest Ranger Tickets or Arrests by Category in 2016
Category Number
Offenses Related to State Land Use 878
Offenses Related to Fire Laws 81
Offenses Related to Fish & Wildlife Laws 125
Offenses Related to High Peaks Rules and Regulations 22
Offenses Related to Illegal ATV Operation 345
Offenses Related to Illegal Motor Vehicles on State 137
Offenses Related to DEC Campgrounds 136
Offenses Related to Air Pollution 15
Offenses Related to Under-age Drinking 57
Offenses Related to other EnCon Law, Rules or Regulations 38
Offenses related to Other Laws, Rules or Regulations 578
Offenses Related to Illegal Snowmobile Operation 149
Total Number of Tickets and Arrests 2,561

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 2016, forest rangers issued tickets or made 345 arrests for violations involving ATVs and another 149 tickets or arrests for snowmobile offenses. Another 137 violations involved the unauthorized use of traditional motor vehicles on state land. Rangers executed enforcement actions in response to 136 violations in department campgrounds and another 900 violations of various regulations designed to protect state land. An increased emphasis on curbing underage alcohol consumption on state lands resulted in rangers making 57 arrests for illegal possession of alcohol by a person less than 21 years of age. Rangers issued tickets or made arrests for 81 fish and wildlife law offenses that occurred on or near state land and 631 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, state event. Throughout 2016, 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

A helicopter flying over the snowy peak of the Adirondack Mountains

In 2016, forest rangers conducted 217 search missions, 131 rescues and 9 recoveries. Seventy-six percent (271) 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 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 most dramatic mission that rangers performed in 2016 was the search for and eventual rescue of a 19 and 20-year-old lost hikers on Algonquin Mountain from December 11 through 13. Blizzard conditions occurred at the highest elevations throughout this period that prevented the couple from finding their way down the mountain. Once trapped in a spruce hole, they were unable to move and became hypothermic. On day three and after two nights in sub-zero weather, the two were found by rangers near the summit. A DEC volunteer video-recorded the dramatic helicopter hoist mission during a snow squall that was viewed throughout the world. Both hikers recovered from their injuries, but they would likely have perished with one more night on the mountain.

Number of Forest Ranger Search and Rescue Missions by Category in 2016
Category Number
Aircraft 1
Biking 2
Boating 7
Camping 14
Climbing: Rock/Ice 7
Criminal 2
Despondent 21
Fishing 7
Hiking 225
Hunting 25
Motor Vehicle 1
Off Road Vehicle/ATV 5
Other 2
Runaway 15
Snowmobile 5
Swimming 1
Walking 16
Whitewater 1
Total # of Incidents 357
State Land Incidents 271

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 2016, rangers presented 29 NYS Basic Wildland Search courses to 643 participants. Another 53 presentations, covering wilderness first aid, advanced search-and-rescue training and incident management were given to 1,112 participants in support of local and division response to incidents statewide.

Wildfire Mitigation

Wildfire statistics from 1992 to 2016
Forest Ranger Wildfire Statistics from 1992 through 2016

An important part of protecting public and private-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 2016, forest rangers reported 185 wildfires which burned a total of 4,191 acres. During the last 25 years, rangers responded to an average of 226 wildfires per year burning an average total of 2,178 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 3,943 wildfires that burned a total of 5,961 acres in 2016. The past 15-year average occurrence of wildfires in New York was 5,317 fires burned 4,596 acres per year.

In 2016, the largest wildfire to occur in New York was the 2,028-acre Sam's Point Fire, near Cragsmoor in Ulster County that began on April 23. By April 25 the fire had increased to 2,000 acres in the thick dwarf pitch pine that covers the top of the Shawangunk Mountains in the Minnewaska State Park. Firefighting tactics required state police helicopters to drop water with Bambi-buckets to control the spread of the fire. Constructing fireline on the mountain top was difficult because of shallow soils and exposed granite bedrock. The fire easily jumped control lines when the wind would pick up. By May 2, rains had fallen in the area and the fire was declared out. In the end, the fire had threatened critical radio tower infrastructure, resulted in 16 miles of fire perimeter and control line, included 91 fire departments with a total of 1,955 personnel engaged in the fire containment. Fire investigators concluded the fire was intentionally started along a hiking trail.

This year was the fourth consecutive year in which the primary cause of wildfires reported by forest rangers was not from debris burning. Campfires caused 64 wildfires (35 percent), intentional incendiary fires caused 29 fires (16 percent) while debris burning caused 34 wildfires (18 percent). The continued significant reduction of wildfires from debris burning is attributed to the well-supported annual burning ban from March 16 through May 14 that began in 2010. Total number of fires per year continues to decline and it is only the occasional very large wildfire, like the Sam's Point Fire, that maintains the average acres burned per year over 2,000 acres.

Wildfire Training

A burning building

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 13 occasions, teaching 284 volunteer firefighters the basics of wildfire suppression. On four occasions, rangers taught the 44-hour Basic Federal Wildland Firefighting Course, commonly referred to as S130/190. A total of 59 firefighters, state employees, students and volunteers completed this course, which is considered basic training for professional (non-volunteer) wildland firefighters. Rangers provided an additional 23 training sessions to 421 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 three four-hour training session to 471 inmates.

Wildfire Prevention

The best way to reduce wildfires is to prevent fires from starting. Rangers made 35 prevention presentations to 11,335 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 184 wildfires extinguished by the division in 2016, rangers attributed only five fires to the actions of children. This statistic stands as a tribute to the effectiveness of the 73-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 2,547 burning permits as required by state Environmental Conservation Law. Rangers inspected 102 of the permitted burns to insure compliance with the terms of the permits. In addition, they issued tickets or made arrests for 81 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. The Division's rangers, trained as wildfire cause and determination investigators, assisted the National Park Service with securing evidence at a rash of suspicious fires near Gateway National Recreation Area in Queens County, New York City. Incendiary evidence was collected to support further investigation by National Park Service Police.

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

National Response to Wildfires

In 2016, the Division sent one 20-person initial attack firefighting crew for 14 days to wildfires in Idaho as part of its mutual aid agreement with the US Forest Service. Typically, one crew is sent each year but in 2015 two crews were sent west due to exceptional wildfire occurrence. 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. Crew, NYS#1, was sent to the 180,300-acre Pioneer Fire with Ranger Kevin Slade as crew boss. Five other specially trained and experienced rangers were sent during the summer to national wildfires as single resources. The highly unusual southern wildfires in November provided seven other rangers with single resource fire assignments to multiple fires in Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia.

Prescribed Fire

In 2016, 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 352 acres.

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 2016, 289 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 the department, other state agencies and local governments throughout New York State. They assisted other agencies with emergency incidents on 574 occasions in 2016. 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. The largest of such supports was to the Department as its response to water contamination in the Rensselaer County Town of Hoosick. Forest Rangers spent 10,475 hours providing incident command support to DEC Division of Water managers in February, March and April.

Licensed Guide Program

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

The division manages the NYS Licensed Guide Program. By the end of 2016, there were a total of 2,317 licensed New York outdoor guides. Of that total, 222 new licenses and 288 license renewals or updates were processed throughout the year. Rangers made 264 license guide checks statewide and one arrest was made for guiding without a license. In 2016, one guide had his license revoked for violations of the state environmental conservation law.

Comprehensive Annual Report

The division's 2016 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 2016 forest ranger accomplishments and statistics accompanies this summary.