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Forest Ranger Annual Report Statewide Highlights for 2015

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 130 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 25 presentations about the proper use of state lands to 5,557 recreationists. In addition, rangers issued 1,807 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 1,496 times to support campground staff or to check facilities during the off-season. Routine patrols included 70,439 inspections of trailhead access points and inspection of 2,645 miles of non-roadside state boundary lines.

Law Enforcement on State Lands

Number of Forest Ranger Tickets or Arrests by Category in 2015
Category Number
Offenses Related to State Land Use 1,292
Offenses Related to Fire Laws 73
Offenses Related to Fish & Wildlife Laws 133
Offenses Related to High Peaks Rules and Regulations 9
Offenses Related to Illegal ATV Operation 258
Offenses Related to Illegal Motor Vehicles on State 303
Offenses Related to DEC Campgrounds 74
Offenses Related to Air Pollution 18
Offenses Related to Under-age Drinking 89
Offenses Related to other EnCon Law, Rules or Regulations 35
Offenses related to Other Laws, Rules or Regulations 218
Offenses Related to Illegal Snowmobile Operation 345
Total Number of Tickets and Arrests 2,847

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 2015, forest rangers issued tickets or made 258 arrests for violations involving ATVs and another 345 tickets or arrests for snowmobile offenses. Another 303 violations involved the unauthorized use of traditional motor vehicles on state land. Rangers executed enforcement actions in response to 74 violations in department campgrounds and another 1,301 violations of various regulations designed to protect state land. An increased emphasis on curbing underage alcohol consumption on state lands resulted in rangers making 89 arrests for illegal possession of alcohol by a person less than 21 years of age. Rangers issued tickets or made arrests for 133 fish and wildlife law offenses that occurred on or near state land and 271 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 2015, 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 2015, forest rangers conducted 179 search missions, 149 rescues and 13 recoveries. Eighty-two percent (278) 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 largest wildland search event in 2015 was the response to a missing 82-year old Troy hunter in Warren County. Forty-four rangers were assigned to this mission which occurred from November 15 through December 9. A total of 14,524 search hours by rangers, state and local police, fire department and New York State Federation of Search and Rescue Team volunteers intensively searched 8,028 acres (12.5 square miles). As of April 2016, the man has not been found nor has any evidence of his whereabouts been determined.

Number of Forest Ranger Search and Rescue Missions by Category in 2015
Category Number Category Number
Aircraft 1 Hunting 13
Biking 7 Motor Vehicle 1
Boating 4 Off Road Vehicle/ATV 5
Camping 12 Runaway 5
Climbing: Rock/Ice 7 Skiing 4
Criminal 3 Snowmobile 12
Despondent 20 Swimming 5
Fishing 3 Walking 23
Hiking 216
Total # of Incidents 341
State Land Incidents 278

Clinton County Fugitive Search

On the morning of June 6, state police requested forest ranger assistance with apprehending two escaped murderers from the State of New York Clinton County Correctional Facility in Dannemora. Inmates Richard Matt, 48 and David Sweat, 34 escaped the maximum security facility through months of planning and preparation and some help by one or more correctional employees. This search became the largest fugitive search in New York history and was reported daily by media throughout the world. The prison is located in the northern fringe of the Adirondack Park and is within 20 miles of the NY-Canadian border. The search was under the incident command of state police Major Charles E. Guess while Governor Andrew Cuomo made frequent visits to the area to ensure public safety was first priority. As the search continued, more agencies and officers were added to what quickly became a National Incident Management System (NIMS) Type 1, very complex incident. Because of the historic close working relationship between state police and rangers in northern NY, rangers filled out most of the incident command and general staff positions with 94 rangers and supervisors spending days or weeks supporting the search. On June 27, fugitive Matt was shot and killed by federal agents and the next day fugitive Sweat was shot and captured by state police. This incident required 13,212 ranger work hours or 5.4 percent of the total ranger work hours for the calendar year.

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 2015, rangers presented 29 NYS Basic Wildland Search courses to 686 participants. Another 55 presentations, covering wilderness first aid, advanced search-and-rescue training and incident management were given to 1,385 participants in support of local and division response to incidents statewide.

Wildfire Mitigation

Wildfire statistics from 1991 to 2015

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 2015, forest rangers reported 175 wildfires which burned a total of 3,924 acres. During the last 25 years, rangers responded to an average of 239 wildfires per year burning an average total of 2,156 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 3,404 wildfires that burned a total of 5,847 acres in 2015. The past fifteen-year average occurrence of wildfires in New York was 5,269 fires burned 4,667 acres per year.

In 2015, the largest wildfire to occur in New York was the 2,759-acre Roosa Gap Fire in Sullivan and Ulster counties that began on May 3. Although the fire started on May 3, it increased by at least 2,000 acres on May 4 when a National Weather Service "red flag" was posted for most of the state. Most of the fire occurred on Shawangunk Ridge State Forest and exceptional firefighting tactics by rangers and firefighters kept the fire from destroying homes in the Hamlet of Cragsmoor, Ulster County. New York's state incident management team (IMT) assumed incident command on May 5 and utilized bulldozers, state police and national guard helicopters and a single-engine air tanker and an aerial command planes from Brunswick, Canada through interagency cooperation from the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Commission or "Compact". By May 8, the fire was fully contained and then declared out on May 11. Only two firefighters were hurt when their fire department all-terrain vehicle (ATV) rolled over. A 62-year old East Meadow man and a 52-year old Bethpage man were charged for setting and allowing the fire to escape their control at a weekend residence near the Hamlet of Roosa Gap, Sullivan County.

This year was the third consecutive year in which the primary cause of wildfires reported by forest rangers was not from debris burning. Campfires caused 36 wildfires (21 percent), intentional incendiary fires caused 32 fires (18 percent) while debris burning caused 30 wildfires (17 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.

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 12 occasions, teaching 192 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 35 firefighters, state employees, students and volunteers completed this course, which is considered basic training for professional (non-volunteer) wildland firefighters. Rangers provided an additional 21 training sessions to 411 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 90 inmates.

Wildfire Prevention

The best way to reduce wildfires is to prevent fires from starting. Rangers made 24 prevention presentations to 6,896 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 175 wildfires extinguished by the division in 2015, rangers attributed only four fires to the actions of children. This statistic stands as a tribute to the effectiveness of the 72-year Smokey Bear campaign at preventing wildfires started by children and adults.

Wildfire Prevention Enforcement

Debris burning, unextinguished campfires and arson 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 3,287 burning permits as required by state Environmental Conservation Law. Rangers inspected 117 of the permitted burns to insure compliance with the terms of the permits. In addition, they issued tickets or made arrests for 73 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 in the 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#2 after returning to New York from fighting wildfires in
California

National Response to Wildfires

In 2015, the Division sent two 20-person initial attack firefighting crews for 14 days to western wildfires as part of its mutual aid agreement with the US Forest Service. Typically, one crew is sent each year but 2015 experienced exceptional wildfire activity in northwestern states. 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 first crew, NYS#1, was sent to the 23,000-acre Stouts Fire in Oregon with Ranger John Scanlon as crew boss. The Second crew, NYS#2, was sent to the 38,000-acre Mad River Fire Complex in California with Ranger Ian Kerr as crew boss. Seven other specially trained and experienced rangers were sent to national wildfire incidents as single resources.

Prescribed Fire

In 2015, 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 11 prescribed fires on public lands, burning a total of 268 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 2015, 262 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 727 occasions in 2015. 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.

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 2015, there were a total of 2,288 licensed New York outdoor guides. Of that total, 242 new licenses and 330 license renewals or updates were processed throughout the year. Rangers made 710 license guide checks statewide and two arrests were made for guiding without a license. In 2015, no guides had their licenses revoked for violations of the state environmental conservation law.

Comprehensive Annual Report

The division's 2015 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 2015 forest ranger accomplishments and statistics accompanies this summary.