The Battle of San Pasqual Staff Ride

As a learning culture, this battle’s unintended outcome has valuable lessons to offer the wildland fire service.

By Rex Hambly, Engineer – Engine 8332, Southern California Zone, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


The “Californio”/Republic of Mexico marksman waited patiently in the cold, damp morning air. His hands were stiff, but his focus was lightning hot. He heard someone yell “CHARGE!” in the distance.

Long before any of the 12 advancing American Dragoons ever saw him, he raised his rifle and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit Captain Johnston square between the eyes, killing him instantly.

Chaos immediately descended upon the American Dragoons unit as they were outmaneuvered by their adversary.

This initial bout of confusion set the operational tempo for the entire Battle of San Pasqual.

The Bloodiest Battle

The Battle of San Pasqual took place in 1846, just outside of what is present day Escondido, Calif. Historians often refer to this fight as the bloodiest battle to ever take place on Californian soil. As a learning culture, this battle’s unintended outcome has valuable lessons to offer the wildland fire service.


Exploring the Lessons from this Historic Battle2

It is once again a cool morning, this time in early April, 2017—171 years later.

We are on the same ground where the Battle of San Pasqual between U.S. forces and the Californios/Republic of Mexico occurred.

Fifty men and women—representing local fire staff, United States Marines, and the Rio Hondo Wildland Fire Academy—have all come together to explore the lessons from this historic battle.

This day of learning begins when historian and retired U.S. Marine Colonel Stan Smith delivers his historically accurate and very intense “Warning Order.”

Wearing full battle dress from 1846, he quickly grabs all the Staff Ride participants’ attention:

“Mounted troops of Pico’s rebellion have encamped and taken-up positions in the eastern portion of this valley with the intent of attacking and destroying coalition forces of the American Republic, now in armed conflict with the Californios/Republic of Mexico.

You are to reconnoiter as to exact location of enemy forces and perform action using advantages of terrain and nighttime operations to beat-up the enemy camp, so as to achieve capitulation—while minimizing casualties to the extent possible.

They have the capability of eliminating U.S. forces available for action, given their ability to exercise superior local firepower and maneuverability. They can reinforce with organic and out-of-theater assets.”

First Stand: Decision Rock

The first stand on the Battle of San Pasqual Staff Ride is known as Decision Rock.

This granite promontory is located in a narrow canyon, just above the battlefield where General Kearny likely delivered his Leader’s Intent to the highly skilled, yet ill-fated American Dragoons. General Kearny’s intent has tremendous tactical significance. He wishes to have a controlled tempo of engagement with Johnston’s twelve Dragoons, thus giving time for the rest of the reinforcements to get into place. It also marks the “decision point” to engage the enemy.

One Staff Ride participant compared it to the Granite Mountain Hotshots decision to leave the relative safety of the burned ridgetop and descend toward the ranch house. Of course from hindsight, we have the luxury of knowing the outcomes for both the Granite Mountain Hotshots and Johnston’s Dragoons.

Similarities Between Firefighting and Warfighting

At this point, Sergeant Dan Bothwell, a U.S. Marine Scout Sniper Instructor, starts to inform the Staff Ride participants about modes of decision making, rules of engagement, and combat effectiveness. He relates this historic battle to modern-day wildland firefighting. We—significantly—learn that in both fire and warfighting, the enemy can often outperform our expectations.


After several hours of spirited discussion at Decision Rock, we move across the valley to the site of the actual engagement.

U.S. Marine Colonel Stan Smith now provides us a discussion on how to value and prioritize military objectives—which we relate to creating firefighting objectives.

Sergeant Bothwell talks about egress planning, and how a single casualty can completely alter the outcome of a mission.

Conclusion: Tactical Exercise

The Staff Ride concludes with a brief tactical exercise that is held in a dry riverbed.

We are all given explicit instructions to perform a very specific task.

When a target of opportunity suddenly arises, we must make a split-second decision: Follow instructions, or; Jump on and seize a novel opportunity—just like Captain Johnston did 171 years ago when he saw two enemy sentries in the early morning fog—and gave the order to “CHARGE!”.

Of course there were no lances, swords, or guns among us, but it was a great chance to test the ideas and concepts that we had studied throughout that day.

As the Staff Ride formally concludes, fire cadets and staff leave the battlefield with a newfound understanding of these historical events—and their relevancy today.

Any profound experience will always include follow-up questions. There was no shortage of such questions as participants said their goodbyes in the parking lot that day.



“What would you have done?”

“Would you charge given the same set of circumstances?”  

“Was Captain Johnston using analytical or recognition-based decision-making?”

“What would you do if the command structure broke down in your unit?”

Sometimes a question can be the best answer. On this day, and in the future, we can apply the new questions and lessons learned from the Battle of San Pasqual to our upcoming operations—both on wildland and all-risk incidents.

For more information on this Staff Ride contact Rex Hambly at:


If You Hang a Tree Up, Hand Over the Saw

By Travis Dotson

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

Yes, you read that title correctly.

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



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

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

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

We do this on prescribed fires.

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

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

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

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

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

Why is it you keep flagging in your pack?



Are Some IMTs Making Emergencies Harder to Manage?

By Jayson Coil, Battalion Chief Special Operations and Wildland Fire, Sedona Fire District, Arizona

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

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

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

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

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

Developing Good Checklists

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

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

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

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

I Don’t Understand Why

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuel Geysers: Take the Quiz, Hear the Latest

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

If you haven’t, watch this:

That’s a fuel geyser.

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

Think you know fuel geysers?  Prove it!

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

Tell us how you did in the comments below!

Next, listen up for the latest on fuel geysers:




More Resources:   

Report a fuel geyser                   National Fuel Geyser Awareness Campaign Website

Fuel Geyser Reporting Form Capture                                      Screen Shot 2017-06-02 at 12.23.23 PM

Are Fire Shelters Always Necessary?

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

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


Are Fire Shelters Always Necessary?

And other thoughts and questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Thoughts on Safety Zones

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pros and Cons of Fire Shelters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do We Really Learn Anything?

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

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

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

Discussion is How We Find Solutions

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

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

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

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


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

Be sure to read the report: Canyon Fire Entrapment