Tear Out Tool

By Paul Keller

The recently released “East Evans Creek Tree Strike Lessons Learned Review” has lots of important lessons and insights. A firefighter was struck and severely injured by a falling snag at two in the morning. Firefighters from multiple crews came together to enact a successful extraction in the dark using multiple means of patient transport.


Layout of the Accident Scene

A key learning tool in this report is a two-page “Firefighter Lessons Learned Tear Out Sheet”.

Found on page 31 of the LLR, this “Tear Out Sheet” is designed to aid you and your crew to continue the conversation regarding this incident. Use these two pages to pursue your own follow-up training. Discussion topics in this stand-alone document include: “Keys to this very successful extraction”, “Innovation”, “Training”, and “Use of the 8-Line”. These are key topics to consider and discuss about how they relate to you and your crew.

This helpful learning tool also has input/quotes from those folks who were directly involved in this medical extraction incident.

Check it out!

East Evans Page 1 Friday

Page 1 of Tear Out Sheet.

East Evans Page 2 Friday

Page 2 of Tear Out Sheet.

Read the full report: “East Evans Creek Tree Strike Lessons Learned Review”

Tac-Pause Please

By Travis Dotson

Here are a few numbers from the fire year so far.

Please consider these points:

  • These numbers reflect incidents reported to The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.
  • These numbers don’t reflect everything that has occurred (many incidents are not reported to us).
  • Compiling these numbers doesn’t really mean anything – we publish them in hopes of inspiring meaningful thought and dialogue about risk  – maybe even some action related to reducing risk.

LLC Mid-Year Numbers 1LLC 1st Quarter #2


The Week of Remembrance – Honor Through Learning

By Paul Keller

Did you know that this is the annual NWCG “Wildland Firefighter Week of Remembrance”?

This special remembrance time is featured every year for seven days, beginning June 30 through July 6. The intent is to provide an opportunity to collectively remember our fallen firefighters as we continue our ongoing efforts to enhance and renew our commitment to health, wellness, and the safety of all wildland firefighters.


Beginning in 2014, each year the overall theme of this week is to honor our fallen through learning.

During this week, the NWCG “6 Minutes for Safety” program develops and issues special topics to encourage firefighters to remember, reflect on, and discuss lessons from the past, then apply these lessons to today’s risk management challenges.

The topics, review, and resources for all seven days of the Week of Remembrance have been contributed by the NWCG Leadership Committee, the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, and many other field subject matter experts.

This year the Week of Remembrance focuses on “normal work”. As we grow in familiarity with a task we naturally and inevitably focus less attention to that task while doing it. Whether it’s hose lay drills, buddy checks, or 6 Minutes for Safety—we do lots of things over and over and they become normal work.

Check it out:




Quick Tree Lessons From AK

Going to a Fire in Alaska?

Check out these lessons from two tree strike incidents that occurred in the Fairbanks area.

Pat Creek Fire Tree Strike (2010)

August 8, 2010. Bucking and swamping was in progress when a gust of wind blew over a black spruce a couple tree lengths away, which then struck a second tree while on the way down, which struck a third tree causing it also to fall. Tree #3 which was approximately 8” dbh, struck the firefighter with its top section. The sawyer was bucking with the saw and the swampers busy moving fuel to the bone-pile, so the falling domino trees were seen only by the CRWB(t) observing the operation some distance away.


Hardhat of Firefighter struck by tree

  • Key Factor: Trees in permafrost conditions develop shallow root systems. Fires burning deeply into the organic layer containing those root systems frequently result in consumed roots and unstable trees.
  • Mitigation: Hazard trees need to be evaluated and felled prior to mop-up activities. Mop-up crews cannot assume that prior snagging operations mitigated all hazard trees. Increasing winds in burned-over timber, as well as recently observed wind-throw, should act as watchout triggers to have one eye looking up, or designating a snag look-out for each working group. Good spacing between swampers or other crewmembers involved in mop-up is also key. The working area of this allotment was snagged again after this incident.

Hastings Fire Tree Incident (2011)

At approximately 1820 hours (ADST) on June 16, 2011 while conducting mop-up
operations on the Hastings Fire, near Fairbanks, Alaska, a member of the ZigZag
IHC was struck by a tree. A medium helicopter already working the fire was
quickly staffed with medical personnel and used to extract the injured crew
member from a rapidly improved sling spot near the injury location. The injured
crew member was then flown directly to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.


Portion of the tree that struck firefighter

  • This tree strike occurred in a mixed timber stand comprised of 8-10 inch aspen and 12-24 inch white spruce.
  • A predominate shallow duff layer allowed the fire to penetrate down to mineral soil.
  • The tree that impacted the IHC member had a very shallow root system that had not been impacted by any other activities other than the fire.



They aren’t lessons if you don’t use ’em!

Formidable Opponent

By Bre Orcasitas – Field Operations Specialist. Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

When thinking about Nomex pants there are essentially two camps of folks. Those who simply think “PPE” and others who think, “formidable opponent”. If you are in the second camp you’ll definitely want to keep reading.


If you happen to be in the first camp there may be some confusion. “Formidable opponent? They’re just pants.” True. They are just pants, but for those who are vertically challenged the standard Nomex pants can leave one struggling to keep up with the crew hiking pace as they’ve got their pulaski in one hand and the crotch of their pants in the other. Yes, you read that right. If the crotch of your pants is nearly down to your knees it doesn’t necessarily support functional fireline movement without a little assist.

So, what’s the point of diving into all this? Wait for it…

PantsOver the years there have been countless efforts to get some diversity in sizing for Nomex pants because as it turns out, firefighters come in a variety of shapes and sizes. At the core of these numerous campaigns one person has been methodically toiling away in the background. Tony Petrilli, the Equipment Specialist with NTDP (National Technology and Development Program), has taken a constant stream of comments and suggestions and has then gradually incorporated those field recommendations into sample versions of Nomex pants as well as permanent variations of the original.

Right at this moment Tony has a Nomex pant survey out on the street asking fire folks far and wide for their input so that he can make the corrections field personnel want to see. So let’s all help the cause by filling out the survey. Whether you like the pants just the way they are, or you want to stop holding-up the crotch of your pants while you hike, give him the feedback and then share the survey link with your pals; the more feedback that is received the better.

Make sure to have a tape measure handy prior to starting the survey, you’re going to need it. The deadline is July 31st so don’t miss your chance to offer up your two cents.

Wildland Fire Flame Resistant Pants Questionnaire



Medevac: How We Got Here

[Over the last several weeks we have been featuring content on this Blog related to “Growth in the Wildland Fire Service.” This content will also be featured in the forthcoming Spring 2019 Issue of Two More Chains. This Blog post “Medevac: How We Got Here” is the central cover story in this issue of Two More Chains.]

By Alex Viktora

Here’s a fireline conversation I can’t imagine happening back in the 1990s (the red highlights indicate our more recent achievements and successes):

DIVS D: “Make sure to tie-in with your FEMPs down at DP 20. They’re from a big department in California. They have everything we might need, and they’re super experienced and ready to hike wherever. Also, there’s a REM Team that will be at DP 30, just a mile down from 20. They’re pretty dialed-in. They’ve got this crazy UTV that can transport, they’ve also got a wheeled litter, and they’re ready to do high- or low-angle rope work. Our Short-Haul helicopter is down at helibase, which is maybe a ten-minute flight from where you’ll be working today. I think the Short-Haul crew is from Grand Teton National Park. They’ve got all the Short-Haul stuff, a bunch of EMTs, and one Medic. Remember, we can Short-Haul a Green or Yellow, not just a Red. If you have a medical, get stuff moving to it, and make sure to use the 9-Line…uhm…I mean the 8-Line.

Me: The Medical Incident Report, in the IRPG, right?

DIVS D: Yeah, that! It’s also in the IAP on the last page, so you don’t have to flip through the entire IAP novella to find it.

Me: Sweet. I think we’re good to go! Thanks!

A Basic Truth


That’s a lotta jargon, and I love my jargons! (I sometimes joke that I get $1 for each acronym I use. Just check out the conversation above.) All this jargon—which will be spelled out and clarified in this piece—highlights a basic truth: Today, we’ve got a ton of stuff for fireline medical and rescue work.

Here’s a partial list of achievements and accomplishments—successful improvements—you might have the benefit of encountering on your next large fire assignment:

Has it always been like this? The short answer is no. The long answer is, well, it’s longer.


Short-Haul operation successfully gets an injured firefighter off the 2011 Las Conchas Fire. Photo by Kari Greer.

The Fire Incidents that Provided Key Medevac Lessons

This particular story of medevac lessons and progress is filled with the names of fires like Dutch Creek, Deer Park, Las Conchas, Big Meadows, Freezeout, Strawberry and San Antonio. Some of these stories involve firefighter deaths; some of these stories were merely close calls; all of these stories involve chance and luck and each event is chocked-full of lessons.

This story also includes boards of review, memos, “Pink Stickers”, 9-Lines, as well as lessons from the world of structural fire. Through it all, there’s never been a single effort or a single Incident Commander tasked with “fixing” the medevac problem. Countless efforts at different organizational levels and at different places around the country have contributed to this effort. Bucket by bucket, the tank is being filled.

A Complex, Tragic Story

To many of us, the fireline medical story begins with Dutch Creek (https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/dutch-creek-tree-fel). As a National Park Service employee and firefighter at the time, just like Andy Palmer, his death on this incident hit particularly close to home. I didn’t know Andy. I didn’t know his brother, Robert (a former firefighter as well), and I didn’t know anyone on the Eagle Fire in Northern California that afternoon.

But over the next decade, I came to know people who worked at Olympic National Park, Andy’s home unit. I even hired one of Andy’s coworkers to join our Module in Utah during the following (2009) season. Words like “golden hour” and “definitive medical care” started peppering our conversations about medical emergencies on the fireline.


The Pink Sticker.

The First Version of the 9-Line

As the conversation around fireline medical emergencies evolved, folks were eager for additional tools in the toolbox. It was in the Dutch Creek follow-up where one tool began to emerge, the “Dutch Creek Protocol”, which established a basic process and expectations for calling in medical incidents on large, IMT-managed fires.

It’s this memo that became the “Pink Sticker”—almost literally a band-aid applied to the IRPG until 2014. That’s when the first version of the “9-Line” became part of the IRPG. Technically called the “Medical Incident Report” (MIR), this tool was designed for firefighters—not just EMTs or ICs—to call in a size-up and get resources moving to the scene of a medical emergency. This tool was designed to be used on fires of all sizes, with incident communications and local dispatch units as well. While not perfect, this first version of the MIR was a major step forward from the basic stuff in the IRPG, and an improvement on the Dutch Creek Protocol.

As the Medical Incident Report began to be used, numerous lessons began to emerge on how medevacs actually take place, how preparation and training are critical to good medical response, and how to improve the MIR itself. New tools have come on scene. REMs and Short-Haul are among the most noteworthy.


The Medical Incident Report (above) is available in the back of the IRPG, as well as in some IAPs.

Our Collective Medevac Journey

In the wake of Dutch Creek, other incidents shed light on where we were on our collective medevac journey. The 2010 “Deer Park Fire Hit By Rock FLA” (https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/deer-park-fire-hit-b) (still one of my personal favorites) calls out some hard truths, right there on the cover of the report: “The organization is ethically and morally obligated to put an EMS program in place that is supported by the organization, and given the standardized training and equipment to make the program succeed.” The organization—in this case—is the United States Forest Service, which has been working to develop an agency-wide EMS program over the last several years.


Next, helicopter Short-Haul entered the wildland fire medical story in 2011, when a firefighter with a broken leg was short-hauled off the Las Conchas fire in New Mexico. At the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC), we thought this was such a big deal that we made a video to help spread the word and tell this success story. If you’re not familiar with Short-Haul, check this video out: “ROCK: Firefighter Extraction Success Story” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sinqJsUrYzE.

The effects of deliberate medical planning, combined with specialized equipment—in this case an Automated External Defibrillator (AED)—and a touch of luck, showed up in 2013 on the Big Meadows Fire at Rocky Mountain National Park. The Lessons Learned Review (https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/big-meadow-medevac-2013) and eight videos produced to capture the lessons from this event are among the most thorough we’ve seen at the Lessons Learned Center. (This AED incident on the Big Meadows Fire is discussed in this Blog post https://wordpress.com/post/wildfirelessons.wordpress.com/2671.)

Rapid Extraction Modules entered our lexicon in 2015, with two reports regarding their use on the Rough Fire in California: “Firefighter Pinned Beneath Burning Log Lessons Learned Review” (https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/rough-fire-pinned-by-burning-log); and the “Rapid Extraction Module Support RLS” (https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/rapid-extraction-module-support-20).

Throughout the last decade, a persistent reality occasionally emerges: firefighters sometimes have to innovate on the fly due to system-level shortcomings. If you don’t have a hammer, well, you can actually pound a nail with a pulaski. It’s not pretty, or fast, and it might not be the safest. And there’s certainly no policy to support it, but sometimes the pulaski is the only option. In the case of the 2014 Freezeout Ridge Fire snag incident medevac (https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/freezeout-ridge-fire-snag-incident), the only tools available at the time weren’t widely known as “approved” or supported as the best tools for the task of extracting a critically injured firefighter in a timely fashion. In that situation, the use of the helicopter, long line, remote hook and Traverse Rescue Stretcher were the only tools available.

These tools were the aforementioned “pulaski” scenario. And for many years, helitack crews all over prepared to use a “pulaski” when folks knew a “hammer” would be better.

(To many folks, what took place on the Freezeout Ridge Fire set expectations for what Short-Haul programs would provide. There are critical distinctions between what happened at Freezeout and what Short-Haul is. For more information on this subject, read: https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/short-haul-procedures-and-the-trave .)

Lessons and Takeaways

When I personally look at what has changed over the last ten years, I have some key thoughts and lessons that I think folks can take action on. Each of these is associated with a set of actions, and they’re examples of fruit you can reach. (See the Summer 2017 “Fruit We Can Reach” Two More Chains https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/two-more-chains-summer-2017.)

  1. Practice Medical Responses. This lesson has shown up in reports of all kinds, from Rapid Lesson Sharing documents to Accident Investigations and Facilitated Learning Analysis reports. Practicing medical emergencies can pay huge dividends. Whether it’s crew or module-level training; a drill conducted by an Incident Management Team; or a larger-scale scenario with a patient triage, agency and non-agency aircraft (with piles ignited to provide realistic effect).
  • A Related Lesson: Do medical training, refreshers and scenarios before you do stuff that could get you or your folks hurt. Things that can get you hurt are numerous, but some of the lessons we’ve seen that stress this order of operations include chainsaw and physical training.
  • A Second Related Lesson: Ensure that more than just crew leadership is ready to run a medical incident, because supervisors aren’t immune to being injured. (See: https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/chainsaw-training-tree-injury-2012.)
  1. Get familiar with the tools in your medevac toolbox. The things we have available to us will vary from fire to fire and Division to Division. If you find yourself in close proximity to a REM, tie-in and chat about what kind of gear and experience they have. If you can swing by the helibase and say hello to the Short-Haul folks, do the same. Ask them if your backboard will work in their Bauman Bag. Don’t know what a Bauman Bag is? Yeah – you should go to helibase and say hello. In the meantime, read this: “Short-Haul Procedures and the Traverse Rescue Stretcher” written in 2016 (https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/short-haul-procedures-and-the-trave).
  2. Medical responses can be traumatic events. Regardless of the eventual outcome, and even when “everything works out OK,” a medical response can have huge impacts on numerous groups. These impacts extend beyond those firefighters on the line who experience or witness an injury. This group also includes: those who help with the medical response (adjacent crews, helitack modules, ambulance crews, etc.), as well as folks who work in communications units or dispatch centers. (See the Summer 2018 “Are Our Dispatchers Exposed to Trauma?” Two More Chains https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/two-more-chains-summer-2018.)

One of these events can be enough to send folks into tough places; several of these events could be unbearable. The lesson for all of us here is this: Watch out for each other. Lend an ear or a shoulder in the days, weeks or months after a medical emergency. If there’s a group that wants to get together around the fire pit to talk about the close-call, go for it. Also, it’s a good stroke to get familiar with some of the resources available to us. Peer Support and Employee Assistance Programs are just of few of the tools we might need to reach for.

Final Thoughts

To wrap this up, here are a few final thoughts. Unlike the lessons above, these three noteworthy topics (below) are for you, for all of us, to discuss—and maybe even argue over. Translating discussion into action will be challenging.

  1. There’s still some work to be done with regard to medical emergencies on the fireline. Here’s a sampling of the things that we still struggle with:
    • We still have a tough time talking to non-agency medevac aircraft. At the LLC, we’ve called this issue “Can’t Talk to Medevac” (we are genius namers, aren’t we?). We have a list of at least 11 reported incidents where communications between ground personnel and “Life Flight” aircraft were difficult or impossible.
    • Competition for resources like Short-Haul is high during peak fire season.
    • What exactly a “REM” (Rapid Extraction Module) is and how to reliably get one is still not widely standardized or even understood.
  2. As wildland fire organizations expand their fireline medical programs, a critical question will need to be periodically addressed: Who is this service for? Is it just for firefighters and fire-support personnel? Is it for anyone who might need medical service? Depending on your perspective, this might be a simple question with a simple answer…or…not.
  3. Some folks would argue—I occasionally count myself as one of them—that all these improvements may actually be increasing (we sometimes say “enabling”) the types of risks we’re willing to engage our wildland firefighters with. Unless we’re very careful, these improvements—just like any safety or PPE improvement—could result in exposure to more hazards and different risks. Here’s my favorite apropos comparisons:
    • Does a better football helmet prevent concussions? Or does it allow football players to hit harder, and actually cause more long-term damage?
    • Is it a good idea to put your shroud down when you’re close to active fire? Or, does the shroud allow you to stand too close to fire for too long?

All of these improvements (and those sure to come) are good news. I’d way rather get hurt on a fire today than 10 or 20 years ago. As we continue to get better, we need to keep having tough conversations about risk and hazard. Sometimes it will make sense to put folks in steep, rugged country, and add in extra lookouts, a REMs Team and a Short-Haul helicopter. (See the 2018 “San Antonio Tree Strike FLA [Water Flowing Uphill]”: https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/san-antonio-fire-tree-strike-2018.)

In other situations, it might be best to get off the high ground and work where we’re closer to definitive care. Sometimes these situations align with operational objectives, but involve other trade-offs. The process of solving the dilemma of when, where and how to engage our firefighters should—every time—include this significant consideration:

Just as with any other safety measure, we must always be diligent in asking ourselves if our risk mitigation efforts enable, mitigate, or transfer risk.

High Visibility — More to the Story . . .

By Tony Petrilli

As the U.S. Forest Service’s National Technology and Development Program (T&D) Project Leader for firefighter clothing, I would like to address some of the history and decision-making criteria concerning Forest Service “spec” garments.

A recent Blog Post on this LLC site written by Charlie Palmer [https://wildfirelessons.wordpress.com/2019/04/16/high-vis/] referred to a proposal that he sent to us at the National Technology and Development Program four years ago requesting us to evaluate high visibility (HV) flame resistant (FR) garments. While this project proposal was rejected, most importantly, the concept was not. (Another Key Point: Project proposals to T&D are vetted through an interagency fire steering committee, not necessarily T&D itself.)

Many years ago, I asked FR fabric manufacturers here in the United States about HV. A couple years after that, one of the manufacturers had developed a new HV fabric.

Current Shirt

During the T&D firefighter shirt redesign project that resulted in the current (M2011) FS spec design, high visibility yellow color fabric was one of the many fabrics considered and was wear tested by firefighters in the field. Some resultant facts and findings:

  1. Flame resistant meta-aramid (Nomex IIIA) fabric does not bond well with high visibility colored dyes to American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) visibility standards.
  2. Flame resistant fabric made with modacrylic fibers can be dyed with HV colors.
  3. In order to meet the minimum radiant protective performance (RPP) requirements, modacrylic fabric needs to be heavier and thicker than current meta-aramid (Nomex IIIA) fabric.
  4. Wear test shirts made from HV modacrylic blend fabric received low ratings from firefighters in terms of heat stress and comfort due to lower air permeability and heavier weight of the fabric.
  5. Wear testers found that the high visibility dyes washed out with relatively few washings and leftover fire grime in the fabric left it rather dull and faded.

It seems most everything is a tradeoff in firefighter clothing. Balances therefore need to be scrutinized and discussed. Example: Garment/fabric radiant heat protection (from the fire) is very much inversely proportional to heat loss that is human generated. HV also comes with a tradeoff cost.


Firefighters run the risk of heat stress many days during a fire season. It was therefore decided that it was not worth increasing that risk (as slight as that may be) by wearing heavier/less breathable high visibility clothing. The traits of the normal yellow meta-aramid blend shirt was determined as the appropriate balance of all fabric qualities.

BLOG_Tony P_Photo 1

Retroreflective striping has been added to the 2011 FS spec shirt design. Depending on stocking levels, this new revision of shirts will arrive in orders within a year or two.

Any New Developments? Retroreflective Striping

Just last month, the NWCG Equipment Technology Committee agreed to a slight modification to the 2011 FS spec shirt design. The NWCG Risk Management Committee has also been briefed on this new revision. The shirt style has been wear-tested with firefighters in the field.

The biggest change is the addition of segmented retroreflective striping. It is limited to placement on the pocket flaps and the bottom edge of the elbow patches due to the small possibility of stored energy burns and the lack of air permeability. Placing a limited amount of segmented striping will decrease the possibility of unintended outcomes yet is a practical step toward being more visible.

Depending on stocking levels, the new revision of shirts will arrive in orders within a year or two.

In a few years, when the Product Review Life Cycle brings back the shirt project, high visibility fabric and other new technology with potential benefits will once again be considered. This year we are starting a project review for firefighter pants. Be looking for a product questionnaire coming out soon!

Any agency or department can perform their own Risk Assessment and Trade-Off Analysis. If the need for excellent high visibility qualities (instead of the very good qualities of a clean yellow shirt) outweigh the need for excellent heat loss and air permeability, investigate private vendors that sell HV garments. For buyer protection, make sure the garment label confirms certification to NFPA 1977.

Until New Shirts with Reflective Striping Arrive, What Can We Do to Optimize Firefighter Visibility with the Current Clothing?

  1. Many firefighters carry signal mirrors that coincidentally don’t work well in smoky and cloudy conditions or in the dark. Consider replacing or supplementing that signal mirror with a small (size of a marker) strobe flashlight. Some folks have reported that these flashlights are very effective. (See this “New Signaling Tools” RLS.)
  2. Trade in dirty clothing at incident Supply Units or come to a fire with a couple clean sets in your red bag.
  3. Follow The Red Book Chapter 7 direction for permanently stained or old, faded shirts—replace them.
  4. Leave reflective striping intact on helmets and fireline packs.

Besides Visibility is Dirty PPE an Issue?

Besides the lack of visibility qualities, soiled garments have been shown to offer less radiant heat protection, be flammable (if gas and oil soiled), less breathable, and may contain toxins that are harmful to the wearer. Anecdotally, I have noticed less and less super-dirty firefighters while on assignments lately. Even so, firefighters need to be educated on this issue and supervisors need to take measures to ensure relatively clean garments are worn.

Currently, T&D is working with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to test real-world soiled firefighter clothing for such potential hazards, then determine the risk as well as the appropriate cleaning practices.

BLOG_Tony P_Photo 2

A couple years ago… A Division Supervisor (me) on right in a clean yellow shirt next to a (former dirt-bag) hotshot (my son). As you can see, the soiled shirt has much less visibility quality than a clean one.

Many firefighters don’t want to be visible. They feel clean clothes and reflective striping somehow makes them look uncool. They subscribe to LCES—“Look Cool Every Second”. (Sorry, Paul G.) If someone gives you grief for wearing a clean or new looking shirt, tell them you wore out your old one. By the way, my son did not give me grief for being clean, he knows better than that. He did, however, say that I look good!

Comments or questions? Feel free to contact me at anthony.petrilli@usda.gov or 406-329-3965.

Slow and Steady

[Over the next several weeks we will feature content related to “Growth in the Wildland Fire Service.” The content published here will also be featured in the Spring 2019 Issue of Two More Chains.]

Military Supports firefighting Efforts on Umpqua National Forest

Military personnel training on how to properly use hand tools.

By Travis Dotson

Andrew Addey is a Forest Training Officer, a recent position he landed after ten years on the Sawtooth Interagency Hotshot Crew.

I chatted with Andrew a while back and our conversation covered a lot of ground in a meandering fashion. Kind of like following me on a hike. I’m not very efficient.

Although we wandered a bit, we seemed to circle around a general theme: Growth. Many aspects of our job are slowly but steadily improving.

Listen to the conversation. We chat about the following topics:

  • Growing our perspective on the job of a Line Officer.
  • Expanding our training beyond the “traditional” courses.
  • The San Antonio Fire Hit by Tree and Medical Extraction.
  • Preparing more than just radio drivers for emergency command roles.
  • Lessons from watching the military prepare for wildfire assignments.

Take a moment to plug in. You might run into something useful if you listen all the way through.


Link to podcast in Podbean: https://wildfirelessons.podbean.com/e/dotsonaddey/

Is the Wildland Fire Service Better Off than it was Ten Years Ago?

[This is an interview that Travis Dotson had with Mike Lewelling, Fire Management Officer at Rocky Mountain National Park. Mike manages a complex program and has an important perspective on growth and change in the wildland fire service to offer us. In addition, Mike is being featured as the “One of Our Own” in the forthcoming Spring Issue of the publication Two More Chains, which will also highlight this interview.]


Mike Lewelling – Fire Management Officer at Rocky Mountain National Park.

By Travis Dotson

TRAVIS: Is the wildland fire service better off than it was ten years ago?

MIKE:     I’m so divided on that question. I see positives and negatives. If we’re talking about medical response, yes definitely we’re better off than we were 10 years ago. But it doesn’t matter where I go, who I talk to, everybody is talking about HR and the difficulty in hiring and how that is diluting our pool of professional people that we want. And then there is budgets, changing priorities from the top, and other things like that. So, are we better off than 10 years ago? It depends on what angle you’re looking at it from.

TRAVIS: Give me an example of the good and bad.

Zion Regulars 2000

Mike with the Zion Regulars Crew.

MIKE:      One of the things as far as risk management goes is just the significant difference in perspectives and approaches between IMTs. There was a fire recently where the very first team got with the Agency Administrator (AA) and the AA said “We are not going into the timber. Trees are falling over for no reason. There is serious risk of people getting killed. We’re not going into the timber.”

Some hotshot crews looked at it and said “Oh man, if we can just dig this line right here, we can cut it off.” But the AA stuck to their guns. They said “No, it’s OK if it burns, it’s going to come out. We’ll wait for it.”

So another team comes in and it’s the same. A subsequent team was more aggressive and said “You know what, we can get through this and put this out.”

There is story after story of just the differences in teams and how critical it is for AAs to maintain consistency in team transitions. Two or four months into a fire, the home unit gets tired of the fire and eventually gets a team who says “We can put this thing to bed.”

TRAVIS: Yeah, we don’t control what team shows up in the rotation. The aggressive team could have shown up first. And it’s totally fair that local units get tired of dealing with a fire. That variation in styles might not be something we can eliminate, but we can improve how it is we prepare our workforce, including Agency Administrators.

MIKE:     I am impressed with how our involvement with AAs is changing. I was able to be a part of the M-582 (Fire Program Management; Leading Complex Fire Programs) cadre as a table coach and it’s very interesting to see the different levels of Agency Administrators that are coming up. There’s some that have absolutely no fire experience and some that have a ton—and I don’t know which one’s better!

Agency Administrators also need their own team of people helping to make these risk management decisions so they don’t just hand the fire and all the decisions to the IMT. The concept of “Shared Risk” is vital to the decision-making.

TRAVIS:  Is that progress? The way that we acknowledge the Agency Administrator’s role and our efforts to educate both our fire workforce and Agency Administrators on the process?

MIKE:     Absolutely. I would definitely say that I’m real impressed with the new M-582. They include a Cerro Grande site visit. The Agency Administrators come out of there going “Wow, that was actually worth it for a week.” You try to get an Agency Administrator to go to a week-long training—it better be good.

TRAVIS: That feels like progress—we have Agency Administrators going on site visits!

But getting back to the areas that we can’t put in the “progress” pile. Do you have hope for us getting better at things like hiring?

MIKE:     Honestly, no. I don’t have much hope. It’s been five years of “Oh, it’s going to be better.” And yet every year, it gets worse. We’re eating ourselves from within.

Whether it’s how we have to reconcile our credit cards to how we do travel to how we hire, each of these processes operate as a silo and there’s no consideration of how they impact each other or the whole. We are supposed to hire the best and brightest for a more professional, educated workforce that can make better risk decisions. It’s becoming more and more difficult to make that happen. And it is connected to risk!

TRAVIS: Sure. Say a bad thing happens on the fireline. Someone gets hurt. People often ask: “What risk decisions were made prior to and at what capacity do those decision-makers operate? What kind of training do they have?” and so on. Seems like you can draw a pretty straight line to hiring.

MIKE:      Absolutely. One of the foundational considerations when evaluating a high-risk mission is team selection. You want the best team that you can get. If you don’t have much to pick from, you might be in trouble.

Medical Emergency Response

TRAVIS:   Getting specific on the medical emergency response, tell us a little bit about your experience and background with that element.

MIKE:      Here in the Park we have always had some sort of plan. Like “OK, if somebody gets hurt, we’re going to get them out of there.” But we never really dialed-it in—like exactly what are we going to do? Being able to answer the questions that got put in the IRPG after the Andy Palmer incident [https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/dutch-creek-tree-fel]:

  • What will we do if someone gets hurt?
  • How are we going to get them out of here?
  • How long will it take to get them to a hospital?
Itent into Action

Mike Lewelling

On the Big Meadows Fire in 2013, we ordered an Incident Management Team and we were all trying to figure out the “Dutch Creek Protocol” together. We did all kinds of stuff that probably never would have happened in the past as far as EMTs, Paramedics on-site because it’s a very remote fire.

And you wouldn’t expect it, but we had a hotshot go down with sudden cardiac arrest! They were hiking to the line from spike camp and boom! They had an AED to him within minutes and they successfully restarted his heart and brought him back to life. 10 years ago, we would not have had an AED on the fireline.

And there’s nothing like sitting in ICP, hearing a call come in saying “no pulse, not breathing” and instantly, I know what that means. And I know that person is not going to survive and sure enough, “Paramedic on scene”—with AED. And they brought him back to life and he fought fire the next year.

That was an absolute life saved, no question. And no question it was attributed to changes made after the Andy Palmer incident.


I remember hearing about that incident and what I kept saying to anybody who would listen was “They had an AED in spike camp!” When I’m loading up for spike camp, I’ve never to this day said “Make sure the AED is in there.” I just don’t think that way.

MIKE:       Yeah, no kidding. And really, I mean even to this day, it’s very common to NOT have an AED in spike camp.

I think about risk a lot. I was recently thinking about the term “luck”. The definition of luck is very similar to risk. And I wrote it down: “Success apparently brought on by chance rather than one’s own actions.”

I don’t think we’re going to be studying “luck management.” But, thinking ahead and positioning yourself in a way that has the most potential of being lucky. That’s very similar to risk management. Louis Pasteur said: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

TRAVIS:  “Are you good or lucky?” A lot of people lean on that. I think it’s a great parallel to draw between luck and risk. It comes into play with blame as well. If something goes bad and we are thinking about “risk” it is somehow easier to assign blame. Whereas with “luck” we are more able to accept as is—whether good or bad.

MIKE:     Yes, absolutely.

TRAVIS:  Do you have any other personal experiences that have shaped your perspective on this?

MIKE:     Yes. The San Antonio Fire [https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/san-antonio-fire-tree-strike-2018]. I was the lead for the FLA. What really stuck out to me for that one was: “How do you choose between multiple unsafe options?” The Type 3 Incident Management Team, the two Agency Administrators, hotshot crews, they all got together and looked at options for this fire and there was not a safe option to be had.

Every fire has some kind of risk. But this fire had high risk no matter what choice you took. Going direct, you’re going down in a hole, in timber, super steep slopes—not ideal. But going indirect was way worse. A lot more people at risk.

TRAVIS:  And they’re also doing that in the shadow of a community that has some pretty vivid memories of big bad fires—the Cerro Grande Fire and the Los Conchas Fire (both located outside Los Alamos, New Mexico).

MIKE:     Absolutely. So on the San Antonio Fire, some weather came in and it kind of parked the fire for a bit, giving them a chance to catch it small. But in doing so, when they decided that they were going to do a high-risk operation, they were like “OK, how can we mitigate some of the risk?”

They had four hotshot crews. They ordered a REMS (Rapid Module Extraction) team. They had the helicopter with short haul capabilities. They got prepared. Then two guys get hit on the head by a limb!

Those 60 hotshots packaged both patients and got them out before the REMS even had time to set up. They prepared because they knew they we’re going into a risky situation.

TRAVIS:  Compare that scenario to a similar one pre-Dutch Creek (And Palmer’s tragedy incident). I feel like that looks different.

MIKE :      Yes, I think it would be more like: “Hey, let’s go direct on this and we’ll just get after it.”

And the hotshot superintendents I know, they’re all for it. It’s not “Oh man, we’re being forced to put this ‘mitigation’ in place.” It’s more like “Hey, if one of my people gets hurt, I want to know that I can get them out.” Sometimes you get policies or procedures in place and people are kind of negative about it. But I haven’t heard too much negative chatter on this. We all want to take care of our people.

TRAVIS:  Some folks debate the process, whether we should be using a military style “nine line” or the current “eight line” version. Should it be geared toward treatment or transport? Should it be standardized or let IMTs each have their own? That is the stuff folks nitpick. But I think you are right. Everybody is on the same page about if we’re going to put somebody out there and ask them to do the dangerous work, let’s be prepared to support them when the bad thing happens. And to me, one of the big changes is using the word when rather than if the bad thing happens.

MIKE:     Absolutely. We had a fire this summer and I was flying over it. It was kind of a “peninsula of fuel” and there’s only about a quarter mile of line that needed to be cut.

If we didn’t cut that quarter-mile line, it would have turned into a rest-of-the-summer fire because it was going into an area that there is no way we could send people. And so during the briefing, we acknowledged this situation. We only have a quarter mile to cut but there are snags. There’s beetle-kill through there and it is a high-risk situation.

I trust the people who are going to be up there making the final decision. So once you get up there, make the decision about whether you can go for it or not. But just know that by this one high-risk operation, it’s going to save two months of additional high-risk operations and a lot more people at risk.

And we got some good feedback from the people who went up there. They said: “Thanks for setting the stage for us.”

TRAVIS:  Sure, enabling them to make an informed decision with support and the capacity to respond. And acknowledging that, yes, somebody could get bonked out here and everybody is on the same page about that. I think that is difficult for some managers.

MIKE:     Yes, absolutely. For managers to fully appreciate the risk and if the folks don’t want to do it, they’re fully supported.

TRAVIS:  Yeah, on the operator end, if you decide not to go in, it’s almost like knowing you will have moral support. But if you DO decide to go ahead with the mission, it’s like having physical support: knowing we have a dialed-in medical plan and the capacity. There’s a ship on call and we know the phone number and we know the helicopter is actually sitting there on the pad, that kind of stuff.

MIKE: Yes, Absolutely.

TRAVIS: In the past, it was more of “Let’s go for it”. And it feels like a lot of that was just based on hope. Let’s hope no one gets hurt. Let’s hope nothing bad happens. I mean, it wasn’t exactly like that, but a lot of the attitude was just like, hey, man, that’s what we do. We deal with the unknown and if the bad thing happens to be somebody gets hurt, trust us, we’ll deal with it. We’ll improvise. And we did good a lot of times.

MIKE:       Until we didn’t. Until it took two hours to get someone onto a helicopter.

TRAVIS: Unfortunately, that’s kind of how the fire service tends to do its learning.

So what are some other ways that we still need to improve in this area?

What We Still Need to Improve

MIKE:       Well, I think just an overall support of the medical and evacuation mission. We kind of piecemeal it together right now. When hiring, our hotshot crews may think “Oh sweet, this person’s an EMT!” Or we say “Hey, let’s order a REMS module” or something along those lines. We don’t have actual positions, not like “We’re going to hire you and you’re going to be a GS six instead of a five because you’re an EMT” or be able to provide that kind of training. As a whole, the firefighting machine does not support it. It’s not funded or incentivized.

TRAVIS: Yes, hiring by hope: “I hope an EMT applied this year.”

MIKE:       Right. And beyond that, maybe even improving the whole REMS. I’m not sold on that whole concept yet. But I think it’s good to invest in it and give it an honest try.

TRAVIS: On the REMS, I feel like we are at the beginning and it needs time to improve. It’s still more of an “idea” and people are adapting gear that was meant for other stuff to fit our situation. Eventually, we’re going to get to the point where we’re making situation-specific gear and protocols—that stuff just takes time.

I mean, five or eight years ago you could literally say the words “Rapid Extraction Module” and most people would ask: “What are you talking about?”

On the EMT and Paramedic front, there’s a lot of people feeling like “Hey, if we’re going to step into this realm and we really are going to take care of our own out there, then where is the agency sponsored EMT and Paramedic training?”

MIKE:     Yes, absolutely. And then comes the debate: Are we a wildland fire service, or are we an emergency response service? Everything is complicated.

Biggest Positive Changes?

TRAVIS: Overall, what would you say are the biggest positive changes you’ve seen in our culture during your entire career?

MIKE:     I think we are more mindful about how we manage fires now. I saw a map side-by-side of all the fires from the early 80s into the 90s and it’s all these little pinpricks of fires. And then you go into the 2000s to now and the footprints are a lot bigger. There’s a lot that goes into that. But I think part of that is not always throwing everything at every fire. Mother Nature uses fire to clean house and it doesn’t matter what we do, she’s going to do it eventually. So whether we put ourselves in the way of that or let it happen is an important decision. I think that, overall, risk management—how we respond to fires—is a significant advance.

TRAVIS:  For sure. I’ve seen research showing that the best investment we can make is big fire footprints. That is what ends up being both a money saver and exposure saver down the line as well as an ecological investment, obviously. For so long, large fire footprints were only being pushed from an ecological perspective and now we’re talking about the risk benefits of changing our default setting away from just crush it. There is often an immediate and future benefit on the risk front (less exposure now AND a larger footprint reducing future threat).

MIKE:      Yes. Absolutely. And every fire is different. Every day on every fire is different. And so you can’t make a blanket statement. And it’s tough. Around Rocky (Rocky Mountain National Park) we’re trying to set the stage with the public that, we’ve got beetle-killed lodgepole that goes right up to the Park boundary and we have communities down the gun barrel where we frequently have 70 mile-an-hour winds. As the Fire Management Officer, we have got to think outside the box about preparing. It’s no different than preparing for a hurricane or a tornado or a volcanic eruption. If you live where the natural event happens, you need to be prepared for it.

TRAVIS:  Do you feel you have the capacity and the support to get better at that kind of planning?

MIKE:      Certainly for fire response, getting the word out there that we are not going to be able to send firefighters into the middle of a beetle-killed forest. I’ve got a couple photos that help sometimes. I compare a green healthy lodgepole forest in which I wouldn’t hesitate to send people hiking three or four miles into that forest to put a fire out. And then I’ve got a current picture of this jack straw nasty mess. Imagine sending people through that when trees are falling for no reason? And so we’re slowly telling the story.




Your Goofiest Story

TRAVIS:  Alright, that is all super good perspective and information. Now for the most important: What is the goofiest fire-related event you can recall?

MIKE:     Oh man, there have been a few. This one sticks out:

I was dropping ping-pong balls at Whiskeytown. I was front seat. Before we took off, I was joking about getting airsick. I said: “I got my puke bag!” So I had my puke bag in my pocket and we’re flying and we’re dropping ping-pong balls and the pilot goes, “Hey, you got that puke bag?” I looked at him and I kind of laugh. I’m like, “Well, yes, but I’m good.” He’s like, “No, give it to me!” And I’m like, OK.

And so I gave him my puke bag and he starts hurling as we’re flying. You know how your body kind of convulses when you puke? He somehow bumped the controls and we just come screaming out of the unit. And thankfully, the PSD operator stopped dropping balls in the back. But yeah, he puked all over the place and then of course my puke bag had holes in it and so he hands it back to me and his pukes drip all over my legs. We ended up flying back over the fire and dropped the puke into the fire.

So, that was kind of goofy.

TRAVIS:  You cannot make that stuff up.

MIKE:      And it wasn’t that he was airsick, it was food poisoning or something. I don’t know how you can puke and fly at the same time. I’m glad we didn’t crash.

TRAVIS:  Dropping ping-pong balls when the pilot gets sick—classic.

Do you have anything else on this whole topic of “growth” that you had other thoughts on?

More of a Learning Environment Now

MIKE:      I guess just the whole learning process. Moving away from punitive, how that circles back around to risk management. I’ll never forget one of our NPS leaders throwing all of my friends under the bus during Cerro Grande and just how ugly that was. And from experiencing that to now, being able to be involved in some of the FLAs. I know that it’s definitely more of a learning environment now. For me, that’s been huge.

TRAVIS:  Yes, for sure. In terms of progress, in general, I feel like we treat people better, specifically those who have been involved in some sort of really bad outcome.

MIKE:      I agree. I feel like sometimes you wake up and you have the best intentions for the day and the bad thing happens and it changes your career—and even your life.

TRAVIS: And when that day happens to someone other than us, man, wouldn’t we want to be supportive and try to get some good out of it? Because that’s going to happen to them no matter what, their career/life is going to change. Now, what are we going to do to treat them and ourselves as “brothers and sisters” since we’re so fond of using that term?

MIKE:     Yes. You’ve got to mean it.


All The Good

[Over the next several weeks we will feature content related to “Growth in the Wildland Fire Service.” The content published here will also be featured in the Spring 2019 Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Travis Dotson

Who has been to this operational briefing?

“Alright, listen up folks. Over here is a bunch of open line that is gonna bite us in the ass if we don’t deal with it, and over here is all the good work we have already done that I’m feeling pretty good with. FBAN says today should be pretty chill but there is a decent chance for active fire tomorrow. So I want to get out there and aggressively patrol that section that is looking good. Let’s take some time today to admire all that good work we have already done! On that other piece, the open back door, let’s just wait and see what happens. We can always hope things turn out OK. That’s the plan! See you at DP 13—right there where the WishInOneHand Road and CrapInTheOther tie in.”

Nobody has been to that briefing!

Well, maybe a few of us have. But, hopefully, that is an outlier because that is not how we roll. We focus on where the work needs to get done and we get to work when we have the window. So why am I even talking about this?

I feel like I’m about to give a version of that briefing, and it feels kind of awkward.

It’s no secret that I tend to focus on the bad stuff. The stuff we need to get better at—our cultural shortcomings. I love to point out fire service blind spots and the overabundance of hypocrisy. I feel I have to zero in on that stuff because that is where the work is.

I also recognize that reading my rants with regularity one could come away with the wrong impression. One might think I view the fire service as a giant mob of dirtbags collectively digging an ever deeper echo chamber to bumble around in chanting meaningless catch phrases to no one in particular. This is not the case. I need to acknowledge that. WE need to acknowledge that.


Upward trend graph

The wildland fire service is incredible. We are a collection of high-quality individuals working to create and maintain high-quality teams and organizations. We do amazing work and we make ourselves better all the time. Here is a short list of relatively recent self-induced growth:

  • We can use Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).
  • Our boot diversity has exploded.
  • Radios are smaller.
  • Lunches have improved.
  • Our maps are more functional and accessible (although they don’t fold up as well).
  • We are better at planning for and dealing with medical emergencies on the fireline.
  • We are better at recognizing and dealing with the impacts of trauma on our workforce.
  • We have improved the way we treat firefighters when reviewing accidents.
  • We have almost started to wrestle with outdated cultural norms around gender and power.

And then the caveat. Remember this is a list of improvement—progress does not mean perfection. Trust me, I have had plenty of bad lunches in the past few years. But a bad lunch in 2018 is a far cry from a bad lunch even five years ago (and they get worse the further back we go).

Why am I so hesitant to point to good stuff? Why does it feel a little awkward?

Maybe I’m afraid it will be interpreted as permission to stop working on whatever is mentioned. Maybe it feels a bit Pollyannaish—like I’ll be accused of rockin’ rose colored goggles. Maybe I’m just a pessimist.

Or maybe I am the product of a culture that encourages a pre-occupation with failure. I think there is some research out there that says that is a good thing. I can’t remember exactly what it’s called but I think it somehow involves the words “High” and “Reliable.”

Whatever it is that makes me focus on the areas needing work and hesitant to tout success, doesn’t matter. The fact is we get better. That is what we do.

We should take a moment every so often to look back at all the good line we have put in, do a few fist bumps and have a snack (from our high calorie snack-packed lunch). And then get back to work.

Strong work, Toolswingers!