This is Asheville IHC reaction #11 – part of the Asheville Hotshots written reactions to “The Big Lie.”
There are a lot of points that I agree with in “The Big Lie.” Things like fire is inherently dangerous, that a zero fatality goal is unattainable, and how much risk is acceptable. One of the major points that I’ve been hearing and talking about for the past couple of years is that fire is never truly safe. I’ve been lucky enough to have avoided going to a funeral of a firefighter that I know personally for 8 years now. But I can see that the day that I help lay a friend to rest is fast approaching. It’s hard to get any job done and be completely safe. You can do everything right and random things will still happen.
I don’t know if I just got lucky with my overhead or if the culture is truly shifting to one of accepting that fire is dangerous. Personally, I think it’s a little bit of both. But regardless, for the past few years I’ve had more and more discussions about acceptable risk and the fact that fire is really truly dangerous. The biggest eye opener was talking with my current captain about the Esperanza fatality incident. He worked on the Los Padres National Forest for a number of years and knows the fatality site well. When the event happened, he recalls his captain at the time saying something to the effect of “They did everything that I would have done, I wouldn’t have changed anything”. Hearing that from my captain and listening to his thoughts on the entrapment was a major event that cemented the idea that you can do everything right and you can still be killed in this job.
When I worked in California we had the U.S. Forest Service Safety Journey program that we were required to participate in. Numerous times throughout the event the presenters maintained that the goal of the agency was a zero fatality environment. This was rebuffed by the fire shop as a whole that that particular goal was unattainable. So it seems to me that the issue of the Big Lie is being more perpetuated at the Forest management level and above. The fire community as a whole generally accepts that fire is dangerous and that people will die.
One of the major issues on fire is that because of the public interest we get told that firefighter and public safety is the number one priority, and then turn around and tell a group of guys to go walk 1,000 plus feet into solid black to drop a candle because the public can see it from the road at night. But no one is able to tell me how much risk is too much. However, if I turn down an assignment because of safety or lack of experience concerns, no one bats an eye—so we have improved in that regard. But if fire managers are going to keep putting lives and personnel at risk to accomplish tasks that don’t make sense from a suppression standpoint—in order to let the public keep their warm and fuzzy ideas of the world—then I get the feeling that we are going to keep having accidents and fatalities no matter what we do.
So all in all, I’m seeing the Big Lie being perpetuated more at the managerial level than at the suppression level. I have a feeling that this is stemming from managers not understanding what it is that the suppression folks are doing and that most of the time the suppression folks are not wielding a brush, but a sledge hammer. There is an element of finesse in fire. But, for the most part, we use broad strokes and most managers don’t have the background or the experience to know that because generally they don’t deal with the fire side of things very often. If you go into any District office I guarantee that the fire shop is going to be run very differently and almost at odds with the rest of the departments. I have a feeling that this is what is creating the Big Lie because I’m sure in Range you can put up miles of fence and have zero fatalities, in Timber you can cruise acres of timber and have nothing happen, in Wildlife you can catalog hundreds of nests and not have an injury, but in Fire it’s hard to get a 0.01 acre fire to do what you want let alone have no injuries. I think that this is where the disconnect is occurring.