Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on July 1, 2014.

RECENTLY, AS I SAT THROUGH A POLICY MEETING on national wildfire issues, it occurred to me how much of our “viewpoints” on such issues, national and local, are shaped by PowerPoint presentations—which, depending on your perspective, are invaluable lifesavers, necessary evils, professional plagues, or some combination thereof. (In 2011, a Swiss political party formed to ban PowerPoints, claiming that productivity loss from sitting through such presentations cost the Swiss economy the equivalent of $2.5 billion annually and bored audiences to tears. Despite its quixotic genius, the party didn’t come to much.) In any industry, we need to be aware of the tools we use to shape our viewpoints, and of the resources we have to keep us better connected to what’s actually happening in the field.

Sanne Esque is one of those resources. Esque, a pilot for the Florida Forest Service, flies her single-engine Cessna 182 high over south-central Florida looking for wildfires. Each morning, she checks with dispatch to review the wind conditions and temperatures forecast for that afternoon. She studies the drought indexes and recent precipitation to set a flight plan for at-risk areas. If the likelihood of fire is high, the plan is to fly.

Esque’s district spans six counties, north of Lake Okeechobee and west of Port St. Lucie, which she covers in a bowtie flight pattern to maximize fire spotting. Her view aloft is 10–25 miles. Flying solo, she navigates localized thunderstorms and other planes, keeping watch for smoke plumes. Her viewpoint lets her see where a fire is going, and she helps the incident commander identify the resources that will be needed, as well as the open areas, homes, and neighborhoods that are at risk.

Over the last 14 years, Esque has watched from her cockpit window as the wildland/urban interface has grown, the orange groves giving way to the westward creep of homes and businesses. She doesn’t blame people for wanting to live in this part of the state—she lives there, too, on 10 acres. She’s quick to highlight the importance of clearing risk fuels around her home; every time she flies, she sees the value of defensible space and the implementation of Firewise principles. Knowing her district’s big picture is a big help when she spots a wildfire.

This local viewpoint of wildfire helps people like Esque see the national picture as well—the urban vs. rural balance of fire suppression is demonstrated every day out her cockpit window. Local fire departments extinguish the majority of small fires around developed areas, she says, but fires in isolated areas can go unnoticed for hours from the ground, which is why her airborne perspective is such an important aspect of the balance of response. In those cases, the Florida Forest Service is first on scene and county fire trucks engage the fire.

From the air, Esque sees the interdependencies between the various agencies and assets, all working together with a common goal. She’s quick to share how proud she is of the responders on the ground, who work long and difficult hours without complaint. Her vantage point allows her to see a fire from beginning to end, along with all of the ground work that goes into fighting it—a perspective appreciated by too few residents, who are primarily concerned with an immediate fire service response when fire threatens their property.

As for those ubiquitous PowerPoint meetings, she jokingly says that somebody has to do it because it’s important, if not as romantic as cruising the skies in a Cessna. I’ll have her viewpoint in mind the next time I sit through one.