We Made it Out, But it Was Very, Very Close – Reflections From The Nuttall Fire.

Everyone was moving in slow motion. On our intercrew I could hear our Lookout giving us updates calmly but forcefully: It was time to be gone.

 

By Matt Holmstrom

Current – Superintendent Lewis & Clark IHC

Nuttall Fire – Squad Leader Lassen IHC

There are so many impressions and recollections that I have from that day, July 2, 2004. Some of them are lessons I tried to learn and pass on to my guys, some that, even now, I’m not sure that I have fully processed. I do know it was very, very close.

And I do know that this is in contrast to the official record.

I was a young Squad Leader that day. One Foreman was detailed away and the other was in a large-scale lookout. So it was the Superintendent, another Squad Leader, and myself running the crew.

I remember that during the previous shifts we had been burning across these ridges and for at least one night shift. The slop-over on the Division that day wasn’t too large and certainly wasn’t very active. I thought it would be a good transition day from nights to days.

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We were cutting direct line and making good progress with the other crews. On our initial scout that morning we had identified the same “safety zone” that everyone else did. This would become the safety zone that the Flagstaff IHC ended up deploying in.

The fact that 80+ people all thought that a SZ that 20 people later deployed in looked good should give a good indication of our mindset. The Augusta IHC ended up in a nearby aspen grove with our Superintendent. Lassen and Plumas IHCs ran uphill back to the road system.

One of the Most Terrifying Moments in My Life

On that run, at the start, I was impatient to get going. I was trail, making sure that everyone had been accounted for and was together moving up the line.

Plumas was ahead of us and it seemed to take forever for the hike to start. Everyone was moving in slow motion. On our intercrew I could hear our Lookout giving us updates calmly but forcefully: It was time to be gone.

As we started up slope, the gaps started almost immediately. The Squad Leader leading our crew out was very tall and was striding it out, gapping the slower guys at the back. I was annoyed and was trying to close up those gaps. That’s when I had one of the most terrifying moments in my life.

I looked back below us to gauge the distance between us and the fire—fire that we could now hear. What I saw made me almost physically ill: one lone blue hardhat at the bottom of our line, looking around, obviously confused.

At first, I thought that I had miscounted. That I had missed one of my guys. I immediately started another head count. I was turning around to go back and shouting down at them to hurry when the two overhead from Plumas thundered past me downhill on the run.

Because both crews wore the same color hats, I couldn’t tell that this person was a Plumas firefighter, and not one of mine.

Of course, we all made it out that day, but that was a powerful reflection in leadership that I have always carried with me.  Those two guys ran down at fire coming uphill at them to help a slower teammate who somehow just got separated in the retreat. I got to see leadership and bravery exemplified, and tempered with humility.

Mike Sherman and Pete Duncan, my hat is off to you both for your courage and leadership. Again, none of this is in any official records, mostly because those guys are humble. They’ll probably be mad at me for mentioning them here.

I was in Disbelief—I Felt Tricked or Somehow Betrayed

Our Lookout, my Captain, later asked me why we didn’t leave when he first told us about the activity below us. He had eyes on the entire Division, gave us plenty of advance warning, and we could’ve left far earlier.

I couldn’t answer then and I would struggle to answer now.

I reflect back to the confidence that I felt that morning. The idea that this would be a good shift to transition over from the night burns we’d been doing and into the day shift. I remember being extremely convinced that The Plan was solid. After all, it was developed by guys who had been fighting fire longer than I’d been alive. If they weren’t concerned, why should I be?

I remember even once we were pulling out, I was in disbelief. I felt tricked or somehow betrayed. The fire had not done what it was supposed to, what we had planned for it.

I had completely forgotten that there is a home team, and we were not it. Looking back, I would say that we got head-faked by our earlier work. We were victims of our own making – through several successful shifts and the corresponding over confidence.

So, what did I take away from the Nuttall Fire?

  • Every day is a new day. Don’t be overconfident.
  • All transitions are tough and may be dangerous.
  • Listen to your Lookouts, you put them there for a reason.

Always remember that the fire gets a vote on your plan—Mother Nature always bats last.

 

 

When You’re the Division Supervisor and Fire Shelters Come Out

“I try to cultivate relationships and build trust so I can create an environment where people feel safe telling me that my idea is a bad one.”

By Jayson Coil

Division Supervisor on the Nuttall Fire

When I reflect on the events surrounding the entrapment and subsequent shelter deployment on the Nuttall Fire there is one main lesson that continues to resonate with me. Along with this lesson comes the acknowledgement of the cost of this lesson.

When I refer to “cost,” I am not referring to the cost for me personally, but the impact the event had on others that day. Like any other fire, there are firefighters who depend on us (leaders) for their safety. This is not to say that individuals are not accountable for their own safety. But the actions that those of us in leadership positions advocate for can most certainly influence the risks that a firefighter faces. This is the “cost” I am referring to here.

A Potential Slow and Painful Death

For some of the people on H-4 that day, it was their first big fire. For them, it was not just smoky, it was the scariest thing they had ever experienced. For others, it was another one of too many close calls.

After this incident, some people left their careers for other professions. And, there may be other impacts to folks that I am unaware of.

The conditions that afternoon were bad. When the fire whirl crossed the helispot, it would have been a slow and painful death if anyone had inhaled those superheated gases.

I Would Be ‘That Guy’

I am certain somewhere in my own thoughts, along with the concern I felt for the other people, I was also troubled about the personal impact if we deployed our shelters. This was my Division. I would be “That Guy”.

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Of course, I know it should not be that way. Such a concern should not influence one’s decision. However, I know that it can.

I try to remember the potential of a given consequence when I consider a course of action—to help myself remember that the actions you take early in an incident can impact your options days down the road. I find this sort of assessment beneficial because it prevents me from anchoring into false assumptions.

But if I minimize this incident’s impact on others, what message would I be sending?

I Wanted the Plan to Work

So, what did I learn on July 2, 2004?

 

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I learned—and I have attempted to remind myself of this on every subsequent incident—that the effort you put into a plan and its implementation should not taint your assessment of risk on a given day.

Many people had worked hard on that line. They were invested. I was invested. I had just arrived at the lookout when everything started to pick up. I am thankful for the leadership many provided that day.

I do not look at this incident with the notion of how I could have changed things that day. Rather, I look at it from the perspective that I was invested more in that line because it was mine and because of the hard work crews had put into constructing it. I wanted the plan to work. I wanted the line to hold.

I felt accountable for the slopover. It was my Division. So, I wanted it fixed and the line to hold.

However, I would suggest that this is the wrong way to look at it. We deal with uncertainty and variables outside our control all the time. Often, these variables lead to unintended consequences. Today, I try really hard to recognize that and continue to reassess the quality of information I have received.

I try to declare my biases and invite others to challenge my assumptions. I want them to help me calibrate because I know self-assessment is not the solution. I try to cultivate relationships and build trust so I can create an environment where people feel safe telling me that my idea is a bad one. From my perspective, that is essential to effective leadership.

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In Honor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots

By Brit Rosso – Director of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.

June 30th 2017 – The fourth anniversary of the Yarnell Hill fire, where we lost 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. A few weeks back I was asked if I could write something about Yarnell Hill to post on the fourth anniversary. I’ve been struggling ever since to come up with the right words to honor our fallen.

After some deep thought about this opportunity, I’ve decided to share a letter with you that was sent to me a few weeks after Yarnell Hill. I used to work with this letter’s author before coming to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. He was not a firefighter. He is now retired, out enjoying life. At that time, he asked me to share his letter with the families of our fallen Hotshots. I, in turn, shared his letter with a member of the Prescott Fire Department to pass on to the families.

Here’s a condensed version of this man’s letter. In honor of our fallen, I now share his words with you:

This is an open letter to the families of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew—all twenty members.

I am a biker. On June 3, 2013 I was camping on some U.S. Forest Service land near Happy Jack, Arizona.

After sleeping on the ground beneath the stars, I’m looking forward to a hardy breakfast at a nearby small café. I think it is called the Long Valley Café. But I’ve always called it “Happy Jack.”

Long Valley Cafe

The fire trucks parked out front do not register in my mind. I am only thinking of coffee and hot food. As I walk into this little restaurant, I see a whole bunch of firefighters. I see one waitress moving quickly and I can only imagine how long it will take for my breakfast to arrive. I whisper to myself: “This is a big mistake.”

The waitress is very fast. The next thing I know, coffee and water is on my table. Time is on my side, so I relax. I begin to look at the young men next to me. They appear to be very well fit, happy, and enjoying their breakfast with enthusiasm. Secretly, I hope there are a few eggs left over for me. They all look like they could be movie actors. They remind me of my son.

When the waitress hears my order—eggs over easy, hash browns, with corn beef hash—she writes it down and pours more coffee. The young firefighter next to me says: “That’s what I ordered. It was very good.”

I see this as an opportunity to make small talk. “What fires are you coming from?” Many of these firefighters quickly begin to talk at once—informing what, where, and how they left the last fire.

I am impressed. “Where are you going now?”

“We’re going to fires in New Mexico,” they say. I tell them that I just came from New Mexico and that two days ago there was severe lightning and rain. I tell them that I like their shirts with the words “Granite Mountain Prescott Fire.” This image sticks in my mind. I wish them well and say: “Be safe.”

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The firefighters get up, move toward their trucks, and are gone. But a young man comes back into the cafe and simply says: “Thank you, sir.” At the time, I thought he must be a bit homesick. I appreciated his comment immensely.

On July 1, 2013, the headlines immediately caught my attention. Nineteen firefighters die in Yarnell, Arizona. They are the elite Hotshot Crew from Prescott, Arizona. I read slowly knowing that the guys I met earlier were part of the Granite Mountain crew. Maybe this tragedy involved another crew?

The words became harder to read, but I continued. Toward the article’s end, my eyes see the words: “The elite firefighters are known as the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew.” They are the same guys I had breakfast with at the café. Tears fill my eyes. My wife comforts me, but does not really know why I’m so upset. I tell her about my connection to these young men.

Even now, days later, I cannot stop seeing those young firefighters in my mind having breakfast at that small cafe. To their family, my tears do not stop and I send to you my most heartfelt condolences.

To the survivor of the twenty-person Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew, “Thank you. I am so proud of you and your service.”

Make sure you find a way to Honor the Fallen every day.

Close Call Stories – Trusting Intuition

This post uses a video from:

THE SMOKEY GENERATION: A WILDLAND FIRE ORAL HISTORY AND DIGITAL STORYTELLING PROJECT

The Smokey Generation is a website dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing the stories and oral history of wildland fire.


By Travis Dotson

“I still kick myself for this…”

Ever felt that way? We all have. That is called hindsight. When we look back it’s easy to see what we should have done.

How do we take a “bad feeling” into pro-active mode?

“It’s so hard to put your finger on that bad feeling.” Yes.

“Talk about it, get it out in the open…maybe you’re not the only one.” Action.

Be able to say this: “Here’s my worst case scenario for the day and it’s sure going that way right now, maybe it’s time to talk about it.”  Bam.

Thank you for the wisdom Dan.

 

This Has Happened Before…UTV Floorboard Fire.

By Travis Dotson

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OK – super simple deal here. Go look under your UTV, specifically look between the skid plate and the floorboard.  Chances are there is a bunch of grass and sticks and stuff packed in that little space. It’s probably all dried out and primed to ignite – all it needs is a heat source – and we drive these things around in one big heat source.

Don’t think it’s possible? Tell that to the folks who have had it happen to them. Thankfully, some of those folks took pictures and wrote up the event and shared it with us here at the Lessons Learned Center – now we can tell you to go clean your UTV up so it doesn’t catch on fire while you’re driving it!

Here are some quotes from the reports:

“…vegetation lodged between skid plate and underbody ignited, burning a hole through floorboard…”

“Firefighter noticed flames protruding through the floorboard. A shovel with sand and the UTV fire extinguisher were used to suppress the flames.”

“Described as looking ‘like a hay bale,’ the material—packed in tightly—completely filled the compartment.”

“While using a 2016 Polaris 6×6 UTV on a prescribed fire, an accumulation of fine fuels located in an enclosed compartment under the UTV’s floorboard and above the skid plate ignited.”

“This fire melted a four-foot hole in the skid plate and floorboard and caused extensive damage to wiring and the gear selector cable.”

You get the picture – now go check your UTV.

Links:

UTV Floorboard Fire RLS 2017

UTV Flammable Debris RLS 2014

UTV Fire SAFENET 2014

Burn Injuries – Wrong Hurts

By Alex Viktora

Wildland Firefighters receive burn injuries every season. Often times some sort of flammable liquid ignites resulting in a burn, like the rather common drip torch leg burn scenario mentioned in this NWCG memo. Other times we fall in stump holes and ash pits—sometimes up to our waist!

And then there is the plain old flame front scorching our elbows through Nomex or the super bad deal entrapment situations. Bottom line, it happens. So we need to know how best to follow through on medical treatment for these instances—because you can do it wrong, and wrong hurts!

Read these reports using the links below:

Rim Fire Burn Injury    Farm Fire Burn Injury    Mystery Fire Burn Injury

Information Collected from Multiple Burn Injury Incidents—Here are Some of the Most Important Reminders, Lessons and Tips

 First of all, if you or someone with you, gets burned, report the injury! Even if you think it’s a minor burn, even if you think you screwed-up somehow—let someone know about the burn. Chances are it’s worse than it seems and time untreated can be a bad deal all around—from paperwork to infections. It’s just better to let someone know and get the ball rolling toward proper treatment.

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Go to the place that can help – It’s called Definitive Medical Care (Emergency Room, Clinic, etc.)

  • Burn injuries are often difficult to evaluate and may take 72 hours to fully manifest.
  • Burns are different. Not all doctors have experience with the types of burns that firefighters suffer. Burns require specialized experience to treat appropriately. This often means that the injured party will need to seek care at a Burn Center.
  • Burns must be kept clean. Therefore, the fireline isn’t a good place to try to manage a burn injury. If you’re treated and released, don’t go back to the line. Don’t go up on a lookout. Focus on taking care of your burn injury.

Nobody wants to hang out at the hospital, but make sure to run through this list before you are discharged:

  • Make sure your Agency Administrator is notified, especially if you’ll require follow-up treatment and referral to a Burn Center.
  • Agency Administrators should be involved if there is hesitation to refer to a Burn Center.
  • Referrals to Burn Centers are critical and must be in the patient’s hands before leaving the Emergency Room, clinic, or doctor’s office.
  • When there is any doubt as to the severity of the burn injury, the recommended action should be to facilitate the immediate referral and transport of the firefighter to the nearest Burn Center.
  • Physicians Assistants (PA) CANNOT write referrals for Burn Centers (or any other increased level of care). If a PA prescribes any follow-up, including Burn Center visits, it must be countersigned by a Doctor (MD).

Copy? Here’s the deal: Get your higher-ups involved. Have a discussion with your higher-ups about a Burn Center referral.

Burn Center Tips

  • Burn Centers have both in and outpatient services. If you think you might need to go to a Burn Center, ask to be referred—even if you won’t need inpatient treatment (hospital stay).
  • Burn Centers may prefer to consult via telemedicine (such as e-mailing photos or videos of the injury, video-calls, etc.), rather than transporting a patient to their facility.
  • Ask about the option to have a Nurse Case Manager assigned to the case.

OWCP Claimant tips

  • Your OWCP claim number is critical. Once you get this claim number, put it in a place you’ll be able to access when you’re on the phone with doctors, visiting the hospital, filling prescriptions, etc.
  • YOU—the patient and claimant—are ultimately responsible for your OWCP case. Get involved. Pay attention. Ask questions. If you’re not getting the answers you need, keep asking.

Call the Wildland Firefighter Foundation (208) 336-2996. They have experience dealing with folks who have received burn injuries in the line of duty.

Watch this video:

Socks Matter

By Alex Viktora

I used to work for the National Park Service. One of the sweetest things about working for the NPS was the official socks.

That’s right. Socks.

As a member of a wildland fire crew, I rarely had much need to be in official NPS uniform, so my annual uniform allowance was spent on socks. Brown wool socks. If you wear them with shorts, you look like…well…German?

I bought so many of these things, I still have a cache of unopened wool socks in my closet.

As most firefighters can attest, keeping your feet in good shape is super important. The NPS uniform socks—most of which are a milk chocolate-colored wool blend—were awesome socks on the fire line.

I’ve always known this.

But what I just now learned is this: These sock could save me from a serious burn. Come to think of it, they probably already have.

My Leg Had Fire Swirling Around It

In maybe my third season, I was on a prescribed fire somewhere in Utah. I’d been running a torch for days and days during our typical spring burning. I usually carry the torch in my right hand, and so my right pant-leg was, uh, pretty dirty. It wasn’t drenched or dripping, but it was certainly flammable—as I was about to find out.

On this particular shift, I was the guy way up the hill, with torches strung out down the hill below me.

We came to a place where we had to hold-up firing for a bit. For some reason, someone rang me up on the radio. I answered the call. As I did so, I moved maybe 10 feet downhill from the line of fire that I just laid in ponderosa litter. (If you’ve never burned in ponderosa needle litter, you’re missing out. Mmmm….Pondo litter!)

This line of fire backed slowly towards me. And as I yammered away on the radio, the fire inched closer and closer to my right leg.

Suddenly, I looked down. My leg had fire swirling around it.

I thought: “Wait—I’m on fire?” What a bizarre realization!

I put the fire out and I can’t say for sure how it all happened. One thing’s for sure: Putting that fire out took longer than I woulda guessed.

My Nomex turned that telltale yellow/brown. And I had some ‘splanin to do to the boss. My damaged ego was the worst of my injuries. My leg was barely as red as a sunburn.

Did my socks help prevent a serious burn injury? Turns out, they may have.

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Tips on What To Do If Your Pant Leg Catches on Fire

The folks at the National Technology Development Program in Missoula have done some recently released great work to describe what happens when Nomex catches on fire. And it turns out, wool socks could be a key part of avoiding a burn injury.

Check out this new video for some cool tests:

 

Here’s a few specific tips on what to do if you find yourself with your pant leg on fire:


Testing Results and Accident Observations

  • Swatting at burning fuel can increase the fire intensity.
  • Stop, drop and roll does not readily extinguish fuel fires on clothing.
  • Fuel-soaked clothing burns hotter and for a longer duration than clean clothing.
  • Wool-blend socks provide significant protection to the wearer from thermal burn injuries caused by burning drip torch fuel.
  • Pouring water from a readily available water bottle onto the clothing is an effective way to extinguish the fire.
  • Dropping the pants to the ankles removes heat from next to the skin.

Next time you’re shopping for socks, consider some woolies that come up above your boots. Turns out, even the lovely brown ones might save your skin.

Do you have a story like this? Do you own any green Nomex pants that aren’t as green as they used to be?

 

 

Lessons from the Knoxville Mobilization Center

How Thorough and Creative “What If” Thinking Led to Safety Successes

SERBy the 2016 Fire Safety and Learning Teams, U.S. Forest Service Southern Region

 [Note: As part of the historic 2016 fall fire season in the Southeastern United States, the U.S. Forest Service deployed teams throughout the Region to capture learning opportunities.]

IMT personnel at the Knoxville Mobilization (MOB) Center during the 2016 fires in the Southeast were proactive.

Instead of saying: “We had an accident and then we changed our procedures,” they thought through intricate scenarios about how things might go wrong—so that they would go right.

The intent here is not only to share the specific lessons, but also to encourage this type of thinking.

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Procedures and Innovations

  • High visibility vests were worn by all command and camp help for safety and to also ease recognition of leadership.
  • One-way traffic was established at ICP to streamline the mob/demob of crews.
  • Safety was emphasized during loading and unloading buses and boarding planes. They eliminated access to the active runway through the positioning of buses. 
  • Driving in the area was particularly dangerous. Crews were informed not to try to convoy.
  • They reduced the potential for off-duty incidents by having crews turn-in rental vehicles the night before they flew out and established hotel shuttles. They were also mindful of housing crews in areas that had restaurants and laundry facilities nearby.

Communication

  • The Emergency Phone Number for the airport ambulance was conspicuously posted around the MOB center so that people would NOT call 9-1-1. Calling 9-1-1 would have sent an ambulance from the city, which was much farther away.
  • Intake materials were printed in Spanish and English.
  • They also set up a text message system and email account to communicate with crews about departure times.
  • To enhance and ensure optimum communication between the IMTs and airport, one person was assigned as a single point of contact.
  • This liaison was extremely important in working with airport personnel to get access to secure areas. For example, the secure snow bay was used to keep crews dry during loading and unloading, which helped with safety and morale.
  • The liaison formed relationships with the pilots and flight crews, which allowed the opportunity to weigh-in early and fly when ready instead of sticking to a rigid schedule.
  • The liaison worked with the rental car company and the airport to identify alternative parking options to accommodate the high volume of rental vehicles being returned at the same time.
  • The National Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation spoke to incoming crews on the apron which provided a clear boost in morale, and emphasized Life First.

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Adaptive ICS

  • IMT personnel were flexible about roles and tasks. When it was time to load or unload, everyone in the ICP, except for Finance, would put on a vest and go help.
  • They weighed crews in the night before they were scheduled to fly and allowed them to shed excess weight in a less stressful environment.
  • They assisted fire victims by donating excess items that had been shed to the Red Cross.
  • They ordered a 10-person module for the MOB center specifically to streamline loading and unloading of cargo and personnel.

How Do You Manage “Aggressive Kindness” on Incidents?

Although volunteers and individual acts of kindness provide wonderful support, if a mechanism is not in place to deliver this support, it can create a unique kind of challenge.

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By the 2016 Fire Safety and Learning Teams, U.S. Forest Service Southern Region

[Note: As part of the historic 2016 fall fire season in the Southeastern United States, the U.S. Forest Service deployed teams throughout the Region to capture learning opportunities.]

During the 2016 fires in the Southeast, communities rallied together to support emergency responders. These emergency responders reported an outpouring of community support unlike anything they’d ever seen.

One Incident Commander said that you had to be careful to avoid being overheard saying something like “my hands are cold” because the next day you would walk out and find 200 pairs of gloves out by your truck.

Restaurants in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee organized breakfast donations for every morning briefing. Crews reported having a hard time refusing cash donations from members of the public. Some of these people had lost their homes, yet they were concerned for the health and safety of the firefighters in the area.

In addition to such individual acts of kindness, volunteer organizations also worked tirelessly to support emergency responders during the severe 2016 Southeast fire season. DollyLocal as well as national celebrities also gave their time to encourage this type of giving.

Dolly Parton set a positive tone by releasing a PSA filmed with Smokey Bear about wildfire prevention and local giving.

These examples of giving truly support the notion that Southern hospitality is more than a colloquialism.

Helping to Make Giving as Effective as Possible

Although volunteers and individual acts of kindness provide wonderful support, if a mechanism is not in place to deliver this support, it can create a unique kind of challenge.

During these types of “disaster” events, people need an outlet for their thankfulness in order for their giving to be as effective as possible. At one morning briefing, hundreds of sausage biscuits were donated. They were delicious and everyone left with an extra biscuit for their pocket—but many were not consumed.

While gifts may be more difficult to manage, voicing thankfulness, like the letter below, is always warmly appreciated.

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Three Suggestions for Managing Kindness on Incidents:

  • Create a volunteer “welcome center” to streamline the efforts of volunteers.
  • Discuss the phenomenon of “aggressive giving” during a morning briefing so that people can be aware and discuss strategies that might be useful, particularly within the affected area.
  • Finally, because most state and federal employees are not allowed to accept financial contributions, we must also be thoughtful about preparing our employees with strategies to re-direct this public giving to the appropriate outlets. Creating a pocket card or handout for Division Supervisors that lists locations for donations at the local level, and contact information for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation or other national organizations are examples of these outlets.

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