This Hotshot Was Burned When His Saw Geysered – Listen to His Lessons.

By Travis Dotson

Nic bucked up the tree he had just put on the ground. Then he shut the saw off and sat with his saw partner for 15-20 minutes. Nic got up to cut another tree. The saw wouldn’t start.

He had heard all the stories.  He had talked about geysering in training. He had even experienced fuel geysers before.

Watch:

Nic is solid. Chances are you’re solid as well.

Solid does not mean accident proof.

Wisdom from Nic:

  • “It caught me off guard because it didn’t match up to any of the signs I’d recognized before. I’ve been surprised once, I can be surprised again.”
  • “I never thought I would get hurt by opening my fuel tank. It’s not one of those things you recognize as being a major hazard.”
  • “I definitely don’t feel like I can predict it anymore. I don’t think it’s worth betting on, just treat it like it’s always going to geyser and put yourself in a better place whenever you plan on opening the cap.”

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Now you know – do something different.

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

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

 

By Matt Holmstrom

Current – Superintendent Lewis & Clark IHC

Nuttall Fire – Squad Leader Lassen IHC

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the Most Terrifying Moments in My Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was in Disbelief—I Felt Tricked or Somehow Betrayed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

By Jayson Coil

Division Supervisor on the Nuttall Fire

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

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

A Potential Slow and Painful Death

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

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

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

I Would Be ‘That Guy’

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

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

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

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

I Wanted the Plan to Work

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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