Mar 05, 2020
Learning the Rules of the Game: Understanding Jeremy Bailey and the origins of TREX
Type: Impact Story
I don’t like games. Everyone knows this about me: there’s only one thing that will get me to go bed early, and that’s a board game. I’ve been this way forever, and I’ve developed various explanations. In my younger years, I thought it was because I grew up in a highly competitive family, with a dad—otherwise a pacifist—in whom competition evoked a less likable side, and a sister—now a lawyer and politician—for whom losing was not an option. As I grew older and more introspective, I thought maybe I was just a sore loser—a poor sport. Or maybe extroverts just don’t like games? Most recently, I’ve considered that it could be deeper: maybe games trigger my imposter syndrome, and I worry that by playing a game and losing, everyone will find out who I really am. Did I mention I don’t like games?
In my last blog, I argued that we should focus on the heroes of prescribed fire rather than the barriers—that we should work to understand the personal philosophies and attitudes of our most effective prescribed fire leaders, rather than continue to dwell on the things that aren’t working.
Enter Jeremy Bailey, one of my favorite colleagues and mentors, and the person I credit with many of my pivotal opportunities and successes in prescribed fire. Those of you who know Jeremy may know him as serious, commanding, maybe a little mysterious. Or you might have the honor of knowing his goofier side: the barely discernible jokes, the spontaneity, the clever and direct (yet somehow still mysterious) communication style. But did you know that Jeremy Bailey is a gamer? And that all we TREX enthusiasts are playing one big game—one that he designed? To truly understand the international phenomenon of the prescribed fire training exchange (TREX), I think it helps to better understand Jeremy.
If you could rewind time and watch Jeremy’s career unfold, there would be some key moments to note: the junior firefighter program that brought teenage Jeremy into the local volunteer fire department; the move to the Southwest, where he first burned in ponderosa pine; the random presentation by an entomologist, where he learned how fire affected ant populations and realized he needed to know more about how fire affected everything; his job as supervisor of Bandelier National Monument’s Fire Use Module; and—of course—his transition to The Nature Conservancy, where we still find him today.
But we’d learn even more by rewinding further and understanding how games shaped Jeremy’s thinking and, later, his work. This was a little kid who spent hours playing games with his family—who to this day exchanges board games with his sister for Christmas, contributing to an extensive family library of games. This was a teenager whose favorite way to engage with his five-year-old brother was to play Risk, then Axis and Allies, then their own made-up games. This is a man whose personal philosophy revolves around a few key ideas: knowing the rules of the game; ensuring the rules are fair for all parties; remembering the rules are always negotiable, especially if things become inequitable or dysfunctional; and using the rules of the game to maximize creativity and good times. In Jeremy’s mind, games are always about connection and fun—never about winning.
Let’s rewind to 2004, when Jeremy became the supervisor of Bandelier’s Fire Use Module. In that position, he saw a critical issue: he had an extensive cache of resources and equipment and he was working on a landscape that sorely needed fire, but he only had a seasonal crew. For him, the resources and staffing were like pieces of a game; the goal was to keep the equipment working year-round, but some creativity was required to staff it. To win the game, he devised ways to hire administratively determined (AD) employees to work in the off-season, and he brought in details for two-week rolls to fill vacant crew positions. Another conundrum: maximizing productivity given disparate prescribed fire and wildfire seasons. Another solution: Bringing seasonal crews on in February, maximizing prescribed fire and fuels work throughout the spring, then laying everyone off for the month of May—offering a much-needed rest before wildfire season. Underappreciated and overworked crew members? Turns out the federal government can give bonuses, and Jeremy did. Game on.
In 2008, Jeremy joined The Nature Conservancy (TNC). One of his primary tasks there was to address the deficit in burn boss training opportunities, which were critical for both federal and TNC fire management officers. Federal practitioners lacked opportunities to train as Burn Boss Type 2 (RXB2) because there was a dearth of prescribed fire projects on federal ground; TNC burn bosses struggled for Incident Commander Type 4 (ICT4) trainee assignments because they didn’t respond to as many wildfires as their federal counterparts, though they had relatively copious opportunities in prescribed fire. It was Jeremy who suggested a “training exchange” between the federal agencies and TNC: why not juggle some staffing and meet everyone’s needs? They were all playing by the same National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) rules, after all.
That effort largely failed because the federal partners ultimately didn’t want to give up their ICT4 trainee assignments to non-federal partners, however attractive the non-federal RXB2 trainee opportunities were. But that failure was the fertile ground for TREX—the prescribed fire training exchange—as we know it now.
In 2013, when we hosted the first TREX in California, Jeremy and I talked about the potential of exhausting our TREX audience. What if one day there’d be too many TREX events and not enough participants?
We’ve found those concerns were ill-founded—not because they weren’t relevant at the time, but because we, the larger TREX community, have consistently found ways to expand the audience and invite richer and deeper engagement. What started out as a training exchange among the higher echelons of fire management—burn bosses and incident commanders—evolved to include a broader base of practitioners, all of whom have something to teach and something to learn, and all of whom have a stake in the renegotiation of the rules of fire, expert or not. Games are more fun if more people are playing.
When you really start to think about it, you can see that fire is full of games, from sand table exercises to the roles we assume on incident management teams, all the way up to our higher level political and regulatory conversations. Yesterday I sat in a meeting with CAL FIRE leadership, and in some ways the discussion was like high-stakes poker—we knew there was abundant power, strategy and smarts in the room, but no one laid all their cards on the table. The negotiations and intrigue will continue.
When I think of Jeremy, I think of someone who’s quietly coming up with his next move—someone whose commitment to what’s fair and right and innovative overrides his commitment to what he thinks he knows from his 25-year career in fire. He continues to study the rules of the game, but he questions them as well. Using his philosophy and approach, fire becomes a much more creative space—one with competition and teams and rules, but one where we’re all part of the same bigger picture.
And a couple weeks ago, I bought my first board game. After some anxiety and minimal peer pressure, I played a game with Jeremy and some other beloved colleagues at a work retreat in Colorado, and you know what? I enjoyed it. And I decided to buy it for my family. Maybe I’m not an imposter after all.
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