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Winchester York, senior environmental safety management student, strolls through the Gorilla Village on Wednesday, Sept. 5. Winchester hopes to bring more exposure to the environmental department at PSU.

Fighting fires in Philmont

When Winchester York, senior in environmental and safety management, started an internship at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico over the summer, he did not know that he would end up fighting live wildfires.  

Two weeks into the internship, while York was going through extensive training that included search-and-rescue exercises and youth protection training, wildfires started outside Philmont, confirmed by radio traffic. Orders included no social posts about the fire in order to prevent undue influence on the public and pressure toward incident commanders, whether with Philmont or the local fire response. 

“Initially we were expecting it to be something that would be put out easily, however due to the winds that fire blew further on to the ranch and grew enough that for the first time in Philmont history they called the evacuation,” York said.  

From there they planned to evacuate the base in a timely and orderly fashion. Due to the absence of wildfire evacuation guidelines, York put together Philmont’s first aid training.  

“The purpose of this training is to give adequate response in the field to give the infirmary enough time to arrange a hasty team or make a direct pickup,” he said. “It turns out that the evacuation was not as planned as it appeared and Philmont had no formal emergency response plan written out—merely a handful of people with incident command system/national incident management System training and experience, all of whom knew how to assemble and run incident command,” York said.  

York said the base camp manager remarked that the timing of the fire was perfect, as nobody was yet in the backcountry, but that they needed a better response plan than merely operating “on-the-fly.” 

“My task for the night is to develop an evacuation plan and a risk assessment chart with a logical engine for addressing risk and hazards alike,” he said. “It turns out that Philmont does not use our risk chart.”  

This is an experience where York turned his classroom lessons into real life training.  

“I assembled the risk assessment spreadsheet using the basic standard form learned at Pitt State, the job hazard analysis, failure model effects analysis, five why’s, and the risk chart at my safety classes, and by given the peculiar nature of Philmont I built each page of the Excel file around the risk chart and gave each tier of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration hierarchy its own job hazard analysis column,” York said. “While it may be viable to predetermine a course of action in smaller incidents, its usefulness is more with the individual departments themselves. And after some revision I pitched this idea toward the Ranger Office, Infirmary, and a few of the camp directors.”  

York’s evacuation plan helped in evacuating the affected areas and kept the fire from spreading. Patrick Flynn, environment and safety management coordinating professor, gave credit to York’s effort and real-world application of information learned in the classroom to such a pressing situation. 

“A lot of times in classrooms you are talking theory and concept and ideas, and even on the job in preparation you take those concepts and try to assign a plan,” Flynn said. “In Winchester’s case, he had thousands of acers that were on fire and hundreds of Boy Scouts that had to be evacuated. They found that the plan they had were more theory-based instead of reality-based, so he was able to take some of the lessons that he had learned from Federal Emergency Management Agency coursework and combined that with wilderness type setting.” 


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