The Buck Stops Here

Fire operations chief keeps public calm as the face of the Medio Fire

By the time he arrives at a new forest fire, Buck Wickham has already spent hours poring over detailed topographic maps, learning the names of creeks, roads and trails, memorizing the angles of drainages, the heights of ridges and the distances between them. Today's digital tools are neat; however, it's the flat page with its wiggling lines and shades that helps him learn the most.

Although he's technically been retired for nine years, Wickham's arrival in Santa Fe two weeks ago for the Medio Fire marked his eighth fire this summer. As a section operation chief for the US Forest Service, his job is to oversee and carry out the strategy for fighting the fire. That means keeping an eye on the price tag (for this fire it's already more than $3.6 million), plus daily developing plans for all the crews, engines, aircraft and the tactics they all use.

For many local residents, Wickham has also become the face of the Medio Fire, appearing as the cleanup batter each night in an online community meeting and getting right back at it each morning for a 7 am update—both filmed from the incident command center at Buffalo Thunder Resort Casino on Pojoaque Pueblo, a few interstate exits away from the nearest access point to the blaze.

When viewers see his 6'6" frame, horseshoe mustache and tan cowboy hat in front of a map, they know they're about to get the straight story. And they can count on the 67-year-old's perspective being both colorful and informed.

Helicopters don't deploy delayed aerial ignition devices in Wickham's telling. Rather, ping pong balls are "kicked out of the door of the helicopter."

Are recent bear sightings because the animals are running from the fire? No, "I think it's just kind of that time of year when they are out cruising around trying to make a living…Most of the bears we have seen were just lollygagging around doing normal bear things."

Will we see full containment soon? Yes, but "fire is a dynamic thing and it has made a liar out of me many times before."

Wickham's 48 years in fire operations shines through as he expertly explains the work of the past day and what's ahead for the people on the fire lines. He's a veteran of some of New Mexico's worst blazes, notably the Pacheco Fire and Las Conchas Fire in 2011 and, two decades ago, he was on the ground when the Cerro Grande Fire swept through Los Alamos.

The Medio is his 68th as an operations leader.

He says he volunteered for the public-facing task because a few years back, he realized more information was a powerful tool. It happened when he was watching the television news one night. A public information officer was giving an interview and clearly "didn't have a clue what was going on…It was such a sorry performance, it made me feel like hiding under my couch."

It's not a slight to the spokesperson, he says, but a failure of past agency culture. "It wasn't cool for ops guys to talk to the media…and the reason that guy blew it was because the ops guys had not given him the information," he says. "So I started making it a point to go into the [public information officer] shop every day to give them an update…That morphed into, they want more and more."

"I've rolled with him all summer and everywhere we go becomes 'The Buck…Show.' In our morning briefings and our evening community meetings, we just get tons of comments and phone calls," says Steven La-Sky, an agency public information officer. "It's like this on every fire. He talks to people, not at people, which I think is unlike a lot of government officials. He's so old school and so knowledgeable."

Wickham's approach has clearly won over many viewers. Take a sampling of comments halfway through a recent livestream posted on Facebook:"We want Buck!" "Buck for President 2020!" "Buck is the best." "Buck (three red heart emojis) You keep us calm and completely informed (praying hands emoji)."

The last comment reflects one of Wickham's goals: helping area residents understand the fire and manage fear. "We try to moderate what the threat is to people so they don't freak out," he explains. "A lot of it is to ease their anxiety."

He also aims to promote what he sees as top notch efforts by his colleagues, as an "esprit de corps."

"Whatever team you are on, if you don't think that's the best team there is, there's something wrong," he says.

Like most of the back-to-back fires he's been assigned to this summer, the Medio Fire began from a lightning strike. It started on Monday, Aug. 17 near the Rio en Medio and, by Thursday, Aug. 20, Wickham and the rest of the Southwest Area Incident Management Team 4 had arrived.

Two other section operations chiefs round out the field management of several hundred firefighters. At its high point, the fire had 286 staff. As of presstime Tuesday, it was about 55% contained and had burned an estimated 3,500 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest, with some firefighters redeployed to new and more severe fires in other states.

The fire has moved in all four compass directions, and monsoon rains and their accompanying winds have posed challenges many afternoons. But firefighters secured Forest Road 102 as its southern edge and are allowing it to burn to the north into the large Pacheco Fire burn scar, where fuel loads are minimal and it should peter out. The western edge of the fire, now close to Tesuque tribal lands, is the biggest area of concern.

While once under order to be ready for evacuation, homes in Rio en Medio and Pacheco Canyon are no longer considered under threat.

"This is not a big fire, and there's a reason for that. It's because those guys up there have been busting their asses to keep it small," Wichkam tells SFR during an interview from the side of New Mexico 576, within sight of the fire's smoke plume. "We time out after 14 days, but it looks like we are going to be on this fire a little while longer. I would love to go home while my dogs still remember who the hell I am."

Earlier, he talked briefly with Juan Handelin, who lives at the bottom of the Chupadero Valley, and who picked up a map from the Forest Service at the junction. Handelin asks about the fire's intensity. Wickham does not skip a beat.

"Most of it is going to be beneficial for the forest," he says. "About a third of it burned really hot, and the rest is just an under-story burn. It will prevent fire, probably in our lifetimes, from destroying it. "

Two more drivers spot Wickham on the side of the road and stop to ask a question. It's become part of the routine.

A lifelong Arizonan, Wickham grew up near Winslow and started his first firefighting job at 18 in Flagstaff, which he now calls home. With a few sidelines, including the Vietnam War draft and a stint in range management, he's spent the bulk of his career on fire. He tries to make sure to call his mom every day, and he loves to fish and play golf in his off time.

His veteran presence on the team, he says, helps fill management positions and gives younger firefighters more time to learn and form valuable field experiences.

Want more Buck? He self-published a book two years ago about his life in firefighting and how the job has changed over time—from the days of paper sleeping-bags through the digital era. It's called Spot Fires and Slop Overs: Memoir of a Firefighter but, he warns, be patient with delivery. "I'm not Tolstoy," he says. "It's not like they have a bunch of them. I think they have to print a copy every time you order one."

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