If You Hang a Tree Up, Hand Over the Saw

By Travis Dotson

“. . . when that tree gets held up by some of its tree buddies anywhere shy of the dirt, the only thing damaged at that point is our ego.”

Yes, you read that title correctly.

I’m suggesting that if you are trying to put a tree on the ground and you end up with that soul-crushing situation of no BIG BOOM because the tree never hit the ground—don’t try to fix it yourself.

Screen Shot 2017-04-19 at 2.27.54 PM

Give the saw to someone else and let them figure out if it’s worth it to mess with. If they think it is worth the risk, let them figure out how to go about it. No, I’m not suggesting this as punishment. I’m suggesting this as a simple check-and-balance.

Here’s the deal—and you already know this—when that tree gets held up by some of its tree buddies anywhere shy of the dirt, the only thing damaged at that point is our ego. We will go to great lengths to repair that damage. And by “great lengths” I mean we will take on more risk than normal and maybe not see things as clearly as someone else with less attachment to seeing that chunk of wood fully horizontal.

This Makes Sense on Prescribed Fires – Why Not With Tree Felling?

We do this on prescribed fires.

Surely, you’ve been at the briefing before the test fire where they talk about the “if we lose it” process. It goes like this: “If we’re down there pulling fire around the dogleg when it decides to get up and run over the hill and we can’t catch it, the Burn Boss will declare an escape and __________ will assume command as the IC.”

Why do we set it up that way? Why not keep the Burn Boss in charge? No brainer right?

 That Burn Boss might have a bit more invested and unconsciously end up being a more aggressive dog catcher than the situation calls for. Yeah, that makes sense. That’s why we put a little check in the process there, to help ourselves out with some pre-planned protocol to override our humanness.

So why not do it with trees? Same deal. It happens. You’ve been there. Yeah, I know all about how we clean up our own mess and finish the job.” I feel that – I really do because I’ve followed bad cuts with more bad cuts on more than one occasion. I’m just saying our judgement in that moment might not be as good as it normally is because our self-image as “proficient faller” just got punched in the eye and we often try to sooth it with some “watch-this” double-down action. Don’t lie to yourself.

If handing the saw over is just not an option—physically or emotionally—at least turn it off, set it down, take a deep breath and laugh a little. Reset. Then start a whole new size-up because this is an entirely new situation. You may not even be qualified to tackle it.

Why is it you keep flagging in your pack?


Are Some IMTs Making Emergencies Harder to Manage?

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 9.57.06 AMBy Jayson Coil, Battalion Chief Special Operations and Wildland Fire, Sedona Fire District, Arizona

I have a rule about not setting things on the top of my toolbox when loading-up for an assignment. This rule was developed after a new coffee cup and a BK radio slid off the toolbox and into traffic as I was leaving. So, I conducted my own little AAR as I filled out the damaged equipment report and realized that even though I intended to put them both in the front seat, there were distractions that prevented me from doing so.

On incidents, standardizing helps avoid bad outcomes by creating a shared understanding and expectations. When I think about how we make decisions and apply our training and experience to avoid costly errors, this standardization makes sense.

Do you remember what direction Wagner Dodge gave the rest of the jumpers when he realized the fire was below them?

When faced with a high stress, serious consequence situation, we do not engage in a strict comparison of options. In fact, we typically have incomplete information that requires us to continually reassess and validate the decision as the situation becomes clearer. So, we fall back onto our training and utilize recognition primed decision making (RPDM). And if the slide in our head—even if it’s a slide we developed in training—lines up with the reality we are facing, we make higher-quality decisions.

Do you remember what direction Wagner Dodge gave the rest of the jumpers when he realized the fire was below them? He told them to drop everything heavy. This was not anything they had practiced. Different crew members interpreted the order to mean different things. Because of this and other tragic events, we now incorporate “dropping your tools” into shelter training and conduct exercises on static and dynamic deployment. So at least in that example, we have demonstrated that we recognized developing a standardized approach to a critical task and practicing to proficiency makes sense.

Developing Good Checklists

1There’s another reason why I think we should ensure that all IMTs follow a standardized approach. It has a lot to do with airplanes. When United Airlines Flight 173 ran out of fuel over Portland, Oregon and ten people were killed, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) listed the probable cause as: “The failure of the captain to monitor properly the aircraft’s fuel state and to properly respond to the low fuel state and the crewmember’s advisories regarding fuel state. This resulted in fuel exhaustion to all engines. His inattention resulted from preoccupation with a landing gear malfunction and preparations for a possible landing emergency.”

From this event and the subsequent work to reduce human error, crew resource management (CRM) was developed. In fact, CRM was one of the first books included in the wildland fire leadership development program. In CRM they recognize that checklists, such at the medical incident report, are effective ways to develop reliability and consistency. A good checklist establishes common ground, provides for standardization, serves as a cognitive aid, and reduces error.

We did our AARs and serious accident investigations and we took steps to standardize and improve. But, not every IMT has adopted the new standards. I don’t understand why.

So, I have explained why I believe we should train the way we perform in the real world and how the lessons learned in CRM can be applied to real life. If you think about my poor coffee cup and radio, a checklist that ensures nothing is on my truck before I pull out is a good thing. It would be even better to establish a standardized practice of never putting anything onto my toolbox. Also, I bet most of you know someone who has been hunting and leaned a gun against their vehicle only to drive off. That is a little off topic, but another practice to avoid. Trust me.

I Don’t Understand Why

A more serious example is the process improvements we have made for managing medical emergencies on fires. After Dutch Creek, we developed new protocol and the 9 Line. In 2014 we got a new med plan, the ICS-206WF, which included the medical incident report (MIR). We even added the MIR to the IRPG so everyone would have the same script to follow when reporting an emergency.

We did our AARs and serious accident investigations and we took steps to standardize and improve. But, not every IMT has adopted the new standards. I don’t understand why. Some IMTs still use the old ICS206 and some change the reporting requirements so they do not align with the MIR and the IRPG. Is their behavior aligning with the teaching of good CRM or what we should have learned from Dutch Creek? I don’t think so.

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When there is high stress, new priorities, incomplete information and difficult environmental conditions, we are not going to take the time and consciously align our behavior with the model that a particular IMT has chosen to adopt. Sorry, but that is not how people behave.

Those people in the field who are managing the emergency will use their intuition, experience and training. If an effective and coordinated response that provides the greatest possibility for a positive outcome is the goal, we all need to align. To put it another way, if one of our top priorities is to increase the likelihood that an emergent event that threatens the life of a firefighter is handled as effectively as possible, then we need to follow the standard on every incident.

If an effective and coordinated response that provides the greatest possibility for a positive outcome is the goal, we all need to align.

The people we place in high-risk environments should know the training they have engaged in to effectively manage an emergency will apply. Sure, it’s more difficult for the MEDL to get all the information and it also takes up a few more pages in the IAP, but I fail to realize how either one of those issues trumps consistency and clear expectations for the crews in the field.

The way I see it, we have lots of things we can change, including: briefing times, the order of briefing, how far the toilets are from the sleeping area, if we are going to let crews spike out, collar brass, no collar brass. The list goes on and on. With all that ability to change stuff, let us all agree to leave the ICS206 WF and MIR standardized. Deal?

Fuel Geysers: Take the Quiz, Hear the Latest

You’ve heard the term “fuel geyser,” right?

If you haven’t, watch this:

That’s a fuel geyser.

Even if you’re familiar with the term, there’s a high likelihood you’ve fallen victim to some falsehoods, myths or half-truths surrounding what a fuel geyser is and what it isn’t.

Think you know fuel geysers?  Prove it!

Take the quiz below. Then hear a great conversation with a real-life engineer who’s been trying to crack the fuel geyser code. He’s Ralph Gonzales, U.S. Forest Service Engineer, surfer, mountain biker and all around cool dude.


Tell us how you did in the comments below!

Next, listen up for the latest on fuel geysers:


More Resources:   

Report a fuel geyser                   National Fuel Geyser Awareness Campaign Website

capture of fuel geyser reporting form                           capture of national fuel geyser awareness campaign



Are Fire Shelters Always Necessary?

This article (below) was written by Lisa Loncar, an Engine Operator in West Virginia.  Lisa has some thoughts on how we view and use Fire Shelters.  Lisa wrote down her thoughts and shared them with the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center so we could share them with our audience.  This is the field speaking.  This is the model for dialogue.

Have something to say?  Write your piece and send it to us.


Are Fire Shelters Always Necessary?

And other thoughts and questions

By Lisa Loncar Supervisory Fire Engine Operator, White Sulfur Springs Ranger District, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Although the fire shelter has proved to be a useful and effective tool when used as intended, are there times when we can forego wearing one?

Throughout my career I have spoken to many firefighters who have differing opinions about fire shelters. Generally, there are two camps: one feels we should definitely wear them, and the other feels we don’t need to ever wear them. Of course there are also “in-betweens,” folks who feel that wearing a fire shelter should be a personal choice, not a standard policy.

I was on a fire in Virginia this past fall and had an opportunity to have a discussion with one of the Division Supervisors about this very topic. His feeling is one that falls in the middle. He thought it makes sense to wear fire shelters only when needed.

For example (my example): If the fire is contained and it has started raining, will continue to rain for several days, but due to the large size of the fire we still need to get out on the line—can we ditch the ole’ shelter?

I mainly work on an Engine. There are plenty of times I have (and witnessed many others who also have) walked into the black on a contained fire a chain+ from my truck without my fire line pack, let alone my shelter—albeit I always seem to throw on the brain bucket.

I take this calculated risk based on experience. Yes, I know that one of the common denominators on tragedy fires is the mop-up phase. So I guess the question to ask is: Am I just being complacent or am I really using my fire behavior knowledge?  I should probably also mention that on an active fire I rarely ever walk ten feet from my Engine without throwing on my pack and shelter.

My Thoughts on Safety Zones

I am briefly going to move to an important side topic: Safety Zones.

I know there are some newer calculations for a safety zone right now, but I am going to bring up the one most of us know, which is loosely four times the size of the flame height in all four directions from our person.

The math starts getting out of hand when you start adding up all of your crew and equipment. I’m more interested in the safety zone as it pertains to fire behavior than the actual dimensions. I believe that “true” safety zones are only relevant in surface fires with a particular flame height. I have not completed any scientific calculations; this is purely observation.

What I mean here is, once a fire reaches the crown we cannot make safety zones large enough. Well, that’s not really true. We can; but we usually don’t. If you don’t like my logic, do some math. First, think about how many people are on one Division and all the equipment that goes with it, then do the calculation (use the function in Behave 5.0 if you hate math).

You will learn just how large an area needs to be to be considered a “safety zone,” not a “deployment zone.” Now if you use the more current math, you might be even more alarmed. Also, we know that as we move along the line we need more than one safety zone.

So I ask, how many acres are we really going to take out to create a safety zone? I should also mention that most of our safety zones are actually created when the fire is just a surface fire.

Pros and Cons of Fire Shelters

Okay, now back to fire shelters. This topic of fire shelter use has many pros and cons, and possesses many questions. Because I cannot conceive them all, I will only address a few here.

A few of the questions I ask myself about fire shelters, in no particular order:

  1. Can we be “trusted” to take our shelter on and off at the appropriate times? What are the appropriate times?
  2. Would we remember to put it back in our packs under times of stress?
  3. Are we willing to allow people to make their own choice? Can we really make our own choice? (Peer pressure not only exists but is alive and well—from the “newbie’s” up through the “old dogs.”) Given the aftermath of a fatality fire will our families be willing to accept our choice?
  4. Are fire shelters just a crutch at this point?
  5. Why don’t we pay attention to fire behavior and punt at a time we know we can’t catch it (yes we know this), instead of not only putting people in harm’s way, but allowing them to believe they can “catch it”?

The number one “con” of a fire shelter is its weight. In 2004, when I received my “New Generation” fire shelter, the most obvious difference to that of my old one was the weight. This “new” shelter is almost double the weight of the “old” one. We all complain about it.

In a quest to carry as little weight as possible in our packs while still carrying what we as individuals consider essential, the weight of the shelter has always been a topic of discussion. There are good safety reasons for not toting around a cinderblock if you don’t need it. If you pack less weight, there is less chance of injury (ankle, knee, hip strain, etc.), one would have more stamina and less fatigue, one would even be more agile . . . You get the point.

Likewise, of course, there is good reason for carrying a fire shelter. After all, it has saved lives and prevented many burn injuries.

Do We Really Learn Anything?

Now I am going to bring up a very raw subject, one I know will raise the hackles: Granite Mountain. I am not going to speak to the events, just the fire shelters. Nineteen individuals died in their fire shelters. Just looking at the facts of the design of fire shelters we know they can only withstand a certain amount of heat and direct flame impingement for a certain amount of time. They are an absolute last resort and for greatest success should be used as intended. Yes our jobs are dangerous (no matter how much we change our buzz words, case in point: safety vs. risk management) and can result in severe injury or death.

We all study the history of fire. We read investigations and Facilitated Learning Analyses about fatality fires, burn-over incidents, major accidents, and prescribed fire escapes. And I ask (and have been for some time): Do we really learn anything?

What I really mean is, do we take these lessons and put them into practice? If we really do so, then why do we have the saying “History repeats itself”? If still unconvinced, watch the Mack Lake video then read the Foss Lake FLA (or any other FLAs on escaped prescribed fire for that matter) and see how many similarities you find.

Discussion is How We Find Solutions

What is my intent in all this pontificating? It is to make you think and to use this thinking for not only positive outcomes but to provide you enough “hair” to speak up—even when it makes you unpopular.

I, for one, would much rather be unpopular than maimed, or worse, dead.

I hope I made you angry, or some other emotion, so that you are now willing to share your perspective with the fire community, no matter what the topic. After all, discussion is how we find solutions. I also hope that I recognize hazardous situations better and quicker so I can mitigate/deal with the risk quickly enough to not get hurt. I hope you do, too.

I will never really know if this article helped you decide on a stance, but I do hope it helps you to be a more thoughtful firefighter—not one who won’t take action, but one who will take action more mindfully.


We (Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center) chose to include this recent video from the 2016 Canyon Fire as food for thought related to Lisa’s piece.  Please leave comments.

Be sure to read the report: Canyon Fire Entrapment

No Power Point! A Refreshing Approach to Your Annual Fire Refresher

By Persephone Whelan

West Zone Fire Management Officer – Huron Manistee National Forest


Ever gone into a class or refresher and felt like it was a total waste of time?

If you have heard of the phrase “death by PowerPoint” then you might understand what I’m throwing down here. The past several years I have been plagued with the desire to make our yearly fire refreshers more interactive, more thought provoking, and more interesting.

While we have made some attempts, our refreshers continue to fall into the same deep educational rut: someone stands up in front of the others and talks and talks and talks. Often times, it feels like a sermon where instructors ask questions but then immediately answer them, preaching to the participants the dangers of complacency, erratic fire behavior, and gosh darn it you better have situational awareness. We use the 10 and 18s as the foundational text upon what we preach.aha

What’s the Point?

What is the point of our yearly refresher? To refresh! To knock out the cobwebs. To share information and discuss. This spring I had the privilege of attending a staff ride workshop where we learned how to build staff rides. The cadre for that class teased us with the idea that doing a staff ride doesn’t have to be for a fatality event. They told us to consider using staff rides for all kinds of different training or classes like saw refreshers, burn boss refreshers, or even wildland fire refreshers. This was my “AHA!” moment. And from that moment on I began scheming.

The design idea was simple: build a mobile framework for a refresher than can be utilized in a variety of locations. For example, on the south end of the Zone we took the framework and applied it to a prescribed burn we accomplished in 2015. For the north end of the Zone we took the same framework and applied it to a prescribed burn we accomplished in 2016.

The premise was: it’s not about the location in which we provide the refresher/staff ride, it’s all about the discussions, the ideas, and the questions shared with the groups. We implemented our idea on March 9, 2017. We identified two pre-work items: the Twisp Fire video and the Two More Chains issue on “The Big Lie” essay. I sent out multiple emails explaining that people would need to come prepared to be in the field by having the appropriate equipment and gear to stay warm and dry.

An Eclectic Mix

The refresher began at the District office. The group of participants represented an eclectic mix of experiences and backgrounds. In one corner, we had the retired Type 2 IC, the FBAN with centuries of knowledge (OK, maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but the guy is wicked smart!), Public Information Officers, Liaison Officers, and several who work as Divisions and Safety Officers. In the other corner we had firefighters with a range of experience from 1 year to 10+, Engine Bosses, Squad Bosses, tool swingers and hose draggers. Oh, and did I mention it was a mix of BIA, Park Service, Forest Service, Contractors, University representatives, and ADs?

Knowing full well that most people wouldn’t do the pre-work (sent out to everyone via email prior to the refresher), we had the Twisp River video playing as people shuffled into the conference room. Everyone did introductions and then the Line Officer stood up to give his expectations for the impending fire season. I then launched into an explanation about why our fire refresher would be different. This speech covered how I hated droning PowerPoint presentations and much preferred experiential learning – and this is why we were going into the field. People went from a general faked attentive look to a spark of interest.

DSC01624We broke into four groups and assigned group facilitators. They arranged transportation to the nearby prescribed fire unit where we would host the staff ride fire refresher. I won’t lie, I felt very nervous and almost apprehensive. There is a lot that goes into planning one of these and I didn’t feel very prepared. I was wondering what we were missing, what could go wrong, etc.

It’s About the Conversations

As we walked out to the first stand, the group was animated. People were talking about the prescribed fire unit we were walking past, last week’s initial attacks, wondering what we were doing, etc.

Before we got started, I had one more speech to share with everyone. It went something like this: “At the Battle of Shiloh Staff Ride our group facilitator had a story I think will help you all understand what we are trying to do today. His story was about the Marine Corps Commandant and how he had gone through the Gettysburg Staff Ride many, many times. In the back of my mind I wondered what the heck? How did he not pick up the lessons learned the first couple times? My group facilitator told us, every time you do a staff ride it’s different. The reason for this is because it’s not about the staff ride location. It’s not about Gettysburg or Shiloh. It’s about the conversations, the dialogue, the different perspectives and the people you are there with. This fire refresher staff ride is not about the prescribed burn we are standing in. It’s about the conversations and the people in your groups.”

And with that, the wildland fire refresher staff ride began. Each stand started with a brief narrative about the phase of the prescribed fire implementation we were at, then the main group split into small units and had discussions centered around the learning theme for that stand. Three main learning themes were presented: Current Issues (utilizing the Twisp River video and the 6 Minutes for Safety discussion about Wildand Urban-Interface Watchouts); Avoiding Entrapments (utilizing the 6 Minutes for Safety discussion about bias for action vs freelancing); and Hazards and Safety Issues (utilizing the Two More Chains issue about “The Big Lie” essay).


After a set time, we would move to the next stand and do it again. There were a total of three stands, plus an integration stop. At the very end, we brought everyone back together in one main group to reflect upon the day and give a quick 30 seconds for participants to share their thoughts.

The Ultimate Success

The positive feedback was overwhelming. Everyone loved the format. The only suggestion for improvement was to provide more time at the small groups to discuss the topics. For me, as the main facilitator, it was thrilling to walk past the small groups and eavesdrop on their conversations. Everyone seemed engaged, providing their own perspective and discussing a wide variety of topics.

More than once, I found myself resisting the urge to input my own opinion—but stopped. The intent was not to overrule others’ thoughts on these themes. The point was to share and engage in an open dialogue. We wanted to get people to think and reflect.

Now, multiple times in the weeks that followed, I have been stopped by many people who tell me about something they have been reflecting on since the refresher. For me, this is the ultimate success.


Who Mixed the Fuel?

3:1, 1:1, 3:2? What’s the right ratio for burn juice?  If you don’t have an opinion on drip mix you must not be very cool.  The more adamant you are the more likely you are to talk loud about how everyone else does it wrong – no matter the topic.  Wait…what were we talking about?  Oh yeah…drip mix.  Amanda Stamper shares her view on the matter, and gives us a bit of a history lesson as well.

Torch Mix

By Amanda Stamper – Oregon Fire Manager, The Nature Conservancy

A recent podcast about drip torch leg burns got me thinking about drip torch fuel mix ratios. It is no coincidence that I make this association. Last October my pants caught on fire while I was burning gamble oak in New Mexico. After having learned during briefing about how to properly extinguish Nomex on fire by grabbing your pants with a gloved hand and pulling them away from you to extinguish rather than smothering the burning fuel against your skin, and just before my pants combusted, we engaged in lively debate about the proper drip torch mix ratio. And I thought the mix was too cool!


So what is the proper drip torch mix ratio? Does the likelihood of one’s pants catching fire change with different fuel mix ratios? Have you ever wondered how bio-diesel might work in a drip torch? How were burns ignited before the various combustible liquids were at our disposal? These and other questions arise the further one probes.

Ask Ten Fire Managers

Ask ten fire managers from across the country for the ratio of diesel to gasoline in drip torch or slash fuel mix, and you are bound to get at least two if not three or four different answers. Not sure about the ratio of agreement vs disagreement, but suffice to say that drip torch mix ratios depend on the fuels, burning conditions, and perhaps nothing more than past practice of the organization or local area.

Where longevity of combustion is more important than temperature, as in pile burning or broadcast burning for reduction of larger diameter fuels, a higher percentage of diesel may be desired. More diesel than gasoline is perhaps the only cardinal rule when it comes to mix ratio, with somewhere between 3:1 and 4:1 being the most common. The most volatile mixture, according to the U.S. Forest Service, is 3:1, and is recommended for use only in appropriate fuel types (such as grass) during periods of high humidity.


A 5:1 fuel mix ratio is reported to have been used on the Saddle Prescribed Fire, where a burn injury associated with pants igniting occurred in 2012. My pants caught fire with the 4:1 ratio being used on the burn in New Mexico, that I had deemed cool given that I had long been using 3:1. Is longer-burning fuel a contributing factor? Does gasoline vaporize more readily and thereby contribute less to pants igniting? More research to this end may be needed.

More on Bio-Diesel

As for bio-diesel, it works just fine with drip torches and has been utilized in both hand pile burn and broadcast burn situations since early 2006. The Medford District BLM has used over 1,200 gallons of bio-diesel in slash mix during prescribed fire operations to date. The mix is made by using 99% bio-diesel and regular unleaded gasoline in a 3:1 slash fuel mixture. Bio-slash fuel burns similar to regular petroleum diesel/gas mix, but with less toxic wick smoke, with more of a cooking oil smell instead of sulfur or diesel fumes. The liquid is also less toxic for personnel and the environment during mixing and handling. The cost when using the “off road” discount is comparable to diesel #2. Bio-diesel has a solvent effect on the slash tanks and drip torches and seems to prevent sediment build up, as well as a slightly higher flashpoint than regular diesel.

Other Firing Devices

Before flammable liquids were being used in wildland fire operations, fire was ignited using materials largely obtained from the same environment being burned. Among the most notable in North America is the fatwood from longleaf pine, from which the fat lighter used for setting the woods on fire is made. The rich and resinous smell of its smoke only adds to the pleasure of burning.

matchFire-stick farming refers to the burning practices of Australian Aboriginals to enhance the productivity of the land., Many wooden matches have been struck and tossed by sheep herders on their way down from the mountains to rejuvenate meadows for grazing. Recreational burners everywhere use lighters if that’s all there is.

Would you feel comfortable throwing matches instead of dot firing? What are some other traditional or unconventional firing devices that we could and should be using?

Learning at Work – Safe spaces required? The wisdom and irony of ‘Don’t F it up’ Part 1

A three-part series by Rachel Reimer

In the Winter 2017 issue of Two More Chains, firefighter Bre Orcasitas discussed wildland fire culture. In her blog, https://theevolvingnomad.com/2016/11/20/fire-culture/, she wrote, “Hearing ‘don’t F… it up’ is a sarcastic yet serious show of support for whatever small task you have taken on.” This blog series digs deeper into how and why that phrase has meaning, and examines wildland fire culture and learning.

Part 1

Wildland firefighting is dangerous work. And yet every year, there are hundreds of new recruits hired into the ranks of wildland firefighters, regular people who undergo a learning process in order to become one of the team.  It is through this process of learning that they are able to transform from “the public”–those people we order off of our fires, and hopefully keep far away from any real firefighting–into “wildland firefighters”. When I consider the topic of learning in wildland fire workplaces, I think of new recruits because they are enduring the most obvious and steep learning curve. But in reality, the learning never stops. My question is, can we learn when the stakes are so highsaw1 that failure is not an option? Doesn’t learning require a “safe-to-fail” environment where people can honestly engage with the vulnerability of trying something new for the first time? Or, is the sarcastic yet gritty and horribly honest phrase ‘don’t F… it up,’ the sum total of all we need to know about learning in wildland fire?
I explore these questions through my experiences in the 2016 fire season instructing at boot camp, leading my crew, and at the Women’s TREX in Northern California.

We’re not here to breed sissies

When I think back to my experiences as a rookie at the ten–day boot camp my agency runs for new recruits, I didn’t feel like there was room to fail. I was intimidated. I tried really, really hard all the time even when no one was looking, in part because that’s who I am, and in part because I suspected that there was never a time when no one was looking. I distinctly remember the hill runs, pushing myself to physical limits I didn’t think possible, watching as people vomited and hyper-ventilated at the top, trying desperately to slow my heart rate and recover before the next lap, thinking ‘Oh shit, it’s going to be me next.” The stress is real. It’s real at boot camp because it’s real in our jobs…or at least that’s what I thought then.

This year I was invited to attend boot camp again. I joined the ranks of the privileged few who get to run the camp. When I got the call, the first thing I did was up my PT. Hill runs three times a week. I realized that while I would be an instructor…I’m still a rookie instructor. But this year it was different. What I saw at boot camp this year re-framed how I think about learning and safe-to-fail spaces within wildland fire.

At boot camp the instructor cadre had many conversations about the learning curve of new recruits, all revolving around the need to push people to expand their skillset while also not breaking them down as human beings. We want them to be tough, capable of handling stress, and yet also comfortable asking for help. We want them to prove they can work hard, that they will earn their way, to show pride in their work ethic and yet not have attachment to ego or exhibit too much personal pride. The paradox of learning puzzled me, and I thought about it through the season as I interacted with my crew.

Running saw– the irony of ‘don’t F… it up’

On the small Initial Attack crews that the BC Wildfire Service utilizes, there is limited room for a delay in passing on skills. With three or four people to an Initial Attack fire, often in large timber with a significant amount of saw work, everyone has to be capable of performing most fireline tasks. This is why rookies on IA crews often get to run a saw, something unheard of on the larger 20-person unit crews. This year I thought about safe spaces for learning as I handed a chainsaw to the 19-year-old rookie I had on my crew. After hours of classroom training and in-the-field instruction, it was finally time for him to make his first cut. I looked at him and said, “I will be right here. Look up between cuts and make eye-contact with me, if I tell you stop–STOP. I trust you. You’re going to do great.” I smiled. He nodded, eyes wide, every muscle in his body tensed. In my mind, I was screaming don’t F… it up!

What does that even mean? Well, for me it means that I care about my crewmembers and I don’t want them to get hurt, which means that I fear the consequences of them making a mistake. Let me say that again.

When I think about my crewmembers making a mistake, I am afraid.
fail-quicklyWhy? I don’t want them to fail. That fear of failure inside of me creates an intolerance of mistakes–even small ones. Because small mistakes lead to big ones, right? Wrong. Small mistakes lead to learning, which prevents big mistakes.

If I am afraid of anything that isn’t perfect in me or in my crew, I will create an environment where shame is everywhere, fear of failing is high, and the willingness to be vulnerable and take on new tasks will diminish. In short, an intolerance of mistakes can cause me to lead in a way that is not empowering, but instead intimidates those working for me.

As a leader, I try to be aware of my own fear that gets triggered when my crewmembers make mistakes. Instead of transferring that fear to them, I say “I trust you” when the fear inside me wants to say “you’d better get this damn near perfect, or else you’re not good enough, which means that I’m not good enough, and you’re probably going to get us both killed.”

Research has shown that when you look like you might be weaker than others in your group for any reason, the urge for people around you to put more pressure on you to perform is even greater.[i]  If you’re last on the hill run, you’re going to get yelled at. When it comes to being seen as weak in wildland fire, it seems like that experience is more common for women. Or is it?

Read Part 2

[i] Van Der Zee, K., Atsma, N., & Brodbeck, F. (2004). The influence of social identity and personality on outcomes of cultural diversity in teams. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35(3), 283–303.

Learning at Work – Safe spaces required? The wisdom and irony of ‘Don’t F it up’ Part 3

A three part series by Racheal Reimer

In the Winter 2017 issue of Two More Chains, firefighter Bre Orcasitas discussed wildland fire culture. In her blog, https://theevolvingnomad.com/2016/11/20/fire-culture/, she wrote, “Hearing ‘don’t F… it up’ is a sarcastic yet serious show of support for whatever small task you have taken on.” This blog series digs deeper into how and why that phrase has meaning, and examines wildland fire culture and learning.

Read part 1    Read part 2

Part 3


Have the courage to face your fear

Learning requires the willingness to allow others to see that you don’t have it all together, to be willing to be vulnerable. In wildland fire culture, this is a very difficult thing to do.

It is possible that even in jobs we love, with people we see as friends, there are areas where we are creating a culture that is intolerant of vulnerability, that reacts very strongly against anything that is seen as weak, and too often equates weakness with feminine attributes–whether those attributes are expressed by women or men.

As groups of people, we push those we see as the weak link because we are afraid of what failure might mean. For wildland fire culture to learn from its own mistakes, we all need to be brave enough to admit to that we have some learning to do.

 The wisdom of don’t F… it up

It is no one’s fault that this correlation with vulnerability and weakness exists. In a risk-taking profession like wildland fire, vulnerability can be dangerous when it applies to fireline tactics. I’m not arguing that failure is truly safe, because it isn’t. Avoiding vulnerability is an excellent tactical decision-making mindset. However, when this tactical decision-making mindset is uncritically applied in the day-to-day culture of how we lead, how we communicate with one another, and how we build our teams, this negatively impacts our ability to learn. When things that are different are labelled as weak, and those individuals shamed into silence, there are significant consequences for learning and growth in the profession as a whole.

Recognizing this intolerance for vulnerability in our own culture, and admitting to the need for change is not failure.

It means there’s room to grow – room to learn. Together.

comfort zone

“I think everyone’s going to feel uncomfortable in one way or another as it all comes out and as things start to change,” says Katie.

Casey described the change this way: “We need to be better individuals, you know, better human beings…Maybe it’s not ‘women’s thinking’ [about fire], but just being a decent human.”


Read part 1    Read part 2

The WTREX was supported by Promoting Ecosystem Resiliency through Collaboration: Landscapes, Learning and Restoration, a cooperative agreement between The Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service and agencies of the Department of the Interior. For more information, contact Lynn Decker at ldecker@tnc.org or (801) 320-0524.