Massachusetts Bureau Of Forest Fire Control

May 1, 1999
Grass, brush, forest or a mix of this vegetation covers over 80% of the land area within Massachusetts. At certain times of the year and depending on weather conditions, wildfires are numerous and can become a direct threat to lives and property.
Photo by Robert M. Winston The newest "brush breaker" operated by the MBFFC is carries 750 gallons of water and a class A foam injection system. It is stationed at the Myles Standish State Forest in Carver, MA.

As areas of Massachusetts became densely populated in the 1950s, more and more people began to move from these crowded locations to seek a better quality of life closer to nature. This population shift created many additional structural wildland interzone (SWI) areas throughout the state. Wildfire and SWI fire prevention and suppression operations became a significant concern to both the structural fire services and the Massachusetts Bureau of Forest Fire Control (MBFFC).

It was in 1911 that the MBFFC was established and it has been providing aid and assistance in the form of fire prevention and education, fire detection and suppression to the cities and towns of Massachusetts. In 1919, the bureau was called the Department of Conservation (DOC). In 1953, it was reorganized and named the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The bureau is a branch of the Division of Forests & Parks under what is now called the Department of Environmental Management (DEM). The MBFFC helps to protect 3.5 million acres of state, public and private wildlands and over 100,000 acres of municipal drinking-water reservoirs in the state.

Photo by Robert M. Winston MBFFC wildland firefighters demonstrate the use of class A foam. Many of the bureau's firefighting vehicles are equipped with foam systems.

The bureau is an active participant with all city and town structural fire departments, responding to their aid during wildland and SWI fire incidents. It also works with county and local fire wardens, foresters, law enforcement agencies, and county and statewide civil defense and mutual aid organizations. The bureau also cooperates closely with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, Massachusetts Army Air National Guard, Massachusetts Fire Training Academy, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Northeast Forest Fire Protection Commission, and many other governmental and private agencies.

There are presently 123 positions (authorized for 131) in the MBFFC. Of these, 60 are year-round and 63 are seasonal. The bureau's commander is Chief Fire Warden Michael W. Tirrell, who also is an active participant in several facets of emergency service work where he resides in the small western Massachusetts town of Windsor. This includes being a member of the volunteer fire department for 34 years, serving as lieutenant, captain and training officer (he also has been the town's police chief since 1986). Tirrell was elected to the executive board of the Northeast Forest Fire Supervisors; is liaison from DEM to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency; and serves on the operations committee of the Northeast Forest Fire Protection Commission.

Strategic Plans

Since his appointment in March 1997, Tirrell has developed a strategic plan to upgrade the MBFFC. This plan includes:

  1. Prevention. Expansion of the "Smokey (the) Bear" program, more prescribed burning as a fuels management tool and use of a 45-foot fire prevention trailer.
  2. Detection. Reconstruction of some fire lookout tower cabins and construction of new fire lookout towers.
  3. Pre-suppression and suppression. Increasing prescribed fire use for fuel reduction and the purchasing of new "brush breakers," tankers/ tenders, slip-on units and command vehicles.
  4. Communications. A new radio console at Mount Wachusetts State Reservation and a website to be linked to local, state and federal agencies.

This far-reaching plan also encompasses further expansion of the role of the bureau in the areas of the Federal Excess Property Program, grants programs and air operations with the Massachusetts Army Air National Guard and the Massachusetts State Police for fire suppression operations.

"The bureau's mission has increased over the years," Tirrell said. "I and my staff are working to bring this agency to the forefront in wildland fire prevention and suppression."

Photo by Robert M. Winston MBFFC wildland firefighters demonstrate the use of class A foam. Many of the bureau's firefighting vehicles are equipped with foam systems.

Thirteen district fire wardens, 15 patrolmen, and a number of permanent and seasonal truckmen/firefighters staff 13 fire districts in five fire regions across the state. The MBFFC operates about 55 mobile wildland fire suppression vehicles, including four large brush breakers and one crew bus. Command vehicles are four-wheel-drive units.

Under the chief fire warden, the bureau operates as a committee-based organization. The district fire wardens and the patrolmen are assigned to specific committees, i.e., Rural Community Fire Protection, Federal Excess Property, Weather Monitoring, Communications, Equipment, Fire Detection, Training, Law Enforcement and others.

Fire Prevention

In 1926, the MBFFC began a system of prevention and preparedness programs. One such program is the Rural Fire Prevention & Control Program (RFP&C); via this program the bureau conducts many educational sessions devoted to increasing the public's awareness of fire prevention and the hazards of wildland fires. The bureau also works with the U.S.D.A. Forest Service and conducts the Smokey program.

To predict the daily "fire weather danger classification," the bureau also uses weather stations. Fire danger classification is determined by the National Fire Danger Rating System. It is a combined measurement of humidity, temperature, wind speed and precipitation. The final calculation determines the rate of fire spread (ROS) and the classes of day ranging from 1 (the least fire danger) to 5 (the highest fire danger). This number is broadcast to all fire departments in the state during wildland fire season.

In addition to the prevention programs, MBFFC personnel are involved with other pre-suppression and readiness activities such as: constructing and maintaining fire access roads; brush and tree thinning on state forest roads; fire lookout tower maintenance; firefighting equipment and truck maintenance; fire break construction; and limited "prescribed burning."

Forest Fire Detection

The early and rapid detection of wildland fires is a major responsibility of the MBFFC. It is vitally important to detect and pinpoint the location of wildland fires as soon as possible because of the rapid spread of wildfire through the seasonally combustible vegetation in the state. The growing SWI fire problem underscores the critical need for the staffing and maintaining of fire lookout towers.

The bureau provides fixed-point fire detection from its 42 active fire tower locations throughout Massachusetts. From their high vantage points, skilled tower persons use alidade tables, binoculars, sharp eyes, knowledge of their geographic areas, and topographic maps to triangulate and pinpoint the location of observed smoke. This information is then given to the local fire department for initial dispatch of fire units.

Photo by Robert M. Winston A Massachusetts Army Air National Guard helicopter dips its 200-gallon "Bambi Bucket" during wildfire operations. The Guard works closely with the MBFFC under a mutual aid agreement.

Tower personnel watch the progress and spread of fires and relay vital information to fire units and commanders at incidents. This can be extremely important during rapidly moving and/or large fire incidents. Tower personnel also initiate dispatch requests to the district fire wardens for state fire assistance to fires when resources are requested by a city or town fire department.

Also used by the MBFFC are limited county-based fire patrols and contracted fixed-wing aircraft for detection of fires in forested areas during periods of high fire danger. The state also maintains an agreement with the Massachusetts Army Air National Guard for use of aircraft.

Suppression Operations

Within the state's 13 fire districts, crews of trained wildland firefighters operate under the supervision of their respective district fire wardens. These wildland firefighters are schooled in forest fire behavior and wildland firefighting methods. Some of their skills include: use of the incident command system (ICS); fireground safety; and use of specialized tools and equipment such as pumps, brushfire vehicles, brush breakers, chain saws, class A foam systems and wildland firefighting hand tools.These firefighters are also available to assist any city or town in Massachusetts during times of difficult wildfire incidents or when other specialized equipment is needed during non-fire emergencies, i.e., tree removal after damaging storms.

The bureau maintains an agreement with the Massachusetts Army Air National Guard for helicopter water-/class A foam-dropping operations. These helicopters are equipped with 200-gallon "Bambi Buckets" for aerial drops to contain wildfires in remote locations where access by ground firefighting equipment is difficult or impossible.

Massachusetts also benefits from mutual aid agreements with neighboring states and other forest firefighting agencies, such as the Northeast Forest Fire Compact and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service. The MBFFC may request resources to combat any extreme fire incident in the state.

Massachusetts Wildfire Crew

The bureau maintains a specialized fully trained and equipped Wildfire Crew that is "Red Card" certified for deployment to any out-of-state fire managed by the federal government's U.S.D.A. Forest Service. To become "Red Card" certified, a firefighter must pass a series of written and physical endurance tests. These required tests are administered annually.

There are approximately 60 firefighters on the state's Wildfire Crew list. A crew boss leads the units with the assistance of squad bosses. Wildfire Crews have been dispatched to large fires in California; the Yellowstone, Wyoming fires; the Grasslands of North Dakota; Montana; Idaho; the Florida fires of 1998; and fires in Virginia last November.

For further information on the Wildfire Crews, contact the bureau's crew boss and training officer, District Fire Warden Philip Gilmore, at: Erving State Forest, 200 Main St., Erving, MA 01344 (telephone 978-544-2760).

Special Services

  • Federal Excess Property Program. This program is operated in cooperation with the U.S.D.A. Forest Service and provides cities and towns with free equipment and materials strictly for firefighting purposes. Fire departments have benefited from free use of portable pumps, generators, all-wheel-drive heavy- and light-duty trucks, and even personal protective clothing.
  • Rural Community Fire Protection. This program is also operated in cooperation with the U.S.D.A. Forest Service and works directly with communities with populations of 10,000 or less. It provides training, safety equipment, firefighting supplies, class A foam, special forestry tools and other items directly related to wildland fire control.
  • Natural disaster emergencies. The MBFFC has provided and can provide assistance to communities during any large disaster incident through the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. Bureau personnel have assisted during past disasters like the blizzard of 1978, Hurricane Bob and other natural disasters. Additionally, individual Bureau personnel are first responder certified and also trained for search and rescue operations.
  • Specialized training for wildfires. Through the Massachusetts Fire Training Academy, bureau personnel teach wildfire behavior and modern methods of fire suppression and give demonstrations using modern suppression equipment. Wildland and wildland urban interface fire training is also provided to municipal structural firefighters.

Following the Florida Fire Siege of 1998, the need for additional structural firefighters to be cross-trained for wildland and interface fire suppression became evident and interest was high. The chief fire warden sent a notice to all Massachusetts fire departments, offering wildland fire suppression training to municipal firefighters. The first of these training programs was begun during this winter and will continue in selected locations.


As wildfire and SWI fire problems increase, so does the need increase for firefighters who are specially cross- trained and cross-equipped to effectively and safely meet this fire challenge. The personnel and equipment of the MBFFC are ready to work with the structural municipal firefighters of Massachusetts and elsewhere. The bureau is moving ahead, modernizing its multi-faceted programs, promoting wildfire prevention, and expanding its training programs to enable its firefighters to suppress wildfires with increased safety and efficiency.

For further information, contact Chief Fire Warden Michael W. Tirrell at: Mass. DEM Fire Control, Hampton Ponds State Park, 1048 North Road, Westfield, MA 01085 (telephone 413-538-8892 or 617 727-3180, ext. 665).

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with extensive experience and training in wildland and SWI protection. Questions and comments may be sent to him via e-mail at [email protected]

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