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.

We 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.

Fire-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,, 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 high 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, saw1something 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,, 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.



“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 or (801) 320-0524.


Qualified doesn’t mean capable. Got humility?


Screen Shot 2017-06-02 at 1.42.36 PM

If you are Division qualified does that mean you should be able to handle ANY Division ANYWHERE in ANY conditions?  What happens when our abilities don’t line up with the situation – regardless of quals?

How do you react when you see someone hesitating?  How should you react?  Here’s a tip, be kind.  There is most likely a reason for the hesitation.  Find out what it is, then you can discuss if it’s warranted.

Do you know enough to hesitate?  This is called humility – try it.

Consider all this while reading this piece.

Experience vs. Qualified vs. Skills vs. Ability

By Kipp Morrill – State Aviation Manager & Fire Program Safety, BLM California

We are firefighters. We are doers. We make things happen.

It’s why we became firefighters.

We are a “can do” group of people. So when someone asks us to do something, our first reaction is “When, where, how far, let’s go”.ict3

Are we qualified? Do we have that on our red card? Am I a trainee?  These are all common questions that run through our mind.

But what happens when we are “qualified” to do a particular task but really haven’t performed that task? Maybe you have but it’s been a really long time or in a different fuel type? Fire people don’t like to turn down assignments they are otherwise qualified to take on so it takes some serious self-reflection and honesty to let that Division Sup know that maybe the assignment isn’t the best fit for you and your crew.

It takes checking ego at the door sometimes to admit that maybe you might be biting off more than you can chew. But the good news is there are ways to mitigate and really make it a win-win situation.

Maybe you can shadow for a couple of shifts before taking over that division? How about watching that “C” faller take out that monster snag. Or maybe ask if a couple of your folks can work with the firing crew to get an idea of how the fuels are burning?

Just because you can doesn’t always mean you should.

Really being honest about the skills you and your crew bring to the fire takes confidence and professionalism.

Humility – Try it.

Don’t be a shark

By Travis Dotson

It’s 11 minutes long.  Watch it.

So…?  What is the break down?  How much time do you spend learning vs performing?  Obviously when we are out on fire assignments we need to spend most of our time in the performing zone.  But we don’t spend all our time at work on fire assignments.  Even on assignments, there is usually plenty of time for each zone.

The point is, doing things well doesn’t make you better – it’s pretty much a plateau.  So what does this say about how much we value “experience”?

Experience is the best right?  We value it so much we robotically announce it at every training or meeting requiring an introduction: “Hello – I’m Billy Big Shot and I’ve been in fire for 3 eons.”  Well, chances are 2.9 of those eons were spent performing rather than learning – so it’s really not that big a deal Billy, sit down and try doing something outside your comfort zone.

In the video he talks about the importance of low stakes environments for learning.  Most of us have designed high stakes environments for each other.  We have created “social risks” where it’s a bad deal to fail.  Does working on your crew feel like this:


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Yeah…not good for learning.

How can you influence the learning environment?

  1. Don’t be a shark.  Encourage folks to try and support them when they fall.
  2. Be the example – fall and get back up.  Be intentional about getting outside your comfort zone.
  3. Talk about this concept, get everyone on the same page.

That’s all.  Go learn.