Lug Nuts, Skid Plates, Gas Tanks, and Dozer Brakes

By Travis Dotson

The Winter 2018 issue of Two More Chains is out. You should stop reading this and go read the actual issue.


You are still here so I will keep going.

A quote from the intro:

“We at the LLC have been accused on more than one occasion of shouting at the masses from the comfort of soft chairs in the tallest of ivory towers. Fair enough. Although you really should invest in a climb up to our high point. The view is great from up here—good spot for a lookout.”

This refers to all those times we have tackled topics like culture, identity, risk, learning organizations, and all the other big picture type stuff we like to unpack, daylight, and question in pursuit of growth. This current issue of Two More Chains is an attempt to level out our approach – get some nitty gritty “get better” lessons circulated based on recent incidents. (I spew my spew about the “get better model” in the Ground Truths section. Read it to get context on the highlighted pull quote below.)

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In the main portion of this issue a few nuggets call for action. These are not new if you’ve been paying attention, but it doesn’t hurt to have them float to the top for a polish every now and then. Here they are:

When the Wheels Come Off

Can you guess what these images have to do with lug nuts?

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The Floor is On Fire

Yep – dry grass and twigs collect between the skid plate and floorboard of several UTVs – then we drive around in the giant ignition source we all love to fight.

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Fuel Geysers and Your Brain

22 fuel geyser incidents recorded in 2017 – it’s still happening folks.

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TSA Opens Firefighter’s Fire Shelter Case

TSA doing their job could impact the unexpected emergency moment you carry this thing for.

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Those are all the real Nuts and Bolts type stuff. And then there is this, the best part of the whole issue:

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This is an interview with this dude, veteran dozer operator Bryan Baxter from the San Bernardino National Forest.

While he has plenty of lessons for your plate, you should go read this because it explains the rest of the story around this:

“Gary had to quickly jump over the blade to prevent being consumed by the tracks.”

Bryan took that event and inspired large-scale learning about the placement of controls inside the cab of certain dozers.

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You’re still here.

Go read it, already: Winter 2018 Two More Chains.

What THEY Said

As our work on the 2017 Annual Incident Review Summary continues, we’ve got some more analysis to share with you.  Read this.  Do the Exercise and give us some feedback.  The final version of the 2017 Annual Incident Review Summary will be out soon!

By Travis Dotson

In 2017, the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center gathered information on more than 130 incidents. Most of these incidents have some sort of report. Many of these reports contain lessons from the perspective of those involved. Here are a few of those lessons – straight out of the reports. Click on the links to the reports if you want more context.

Fallers?Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 6.24.36 AM

“It’s always nice if fallers have an opportunity to assess and fell hazard trees in an area prior to other firefighters coming in. This is not always available or convenient.

When receiving your assignment, do you always ask if fallers have been through the area?

-What specific scenarios will trigger you to not work in an area until a full hazard tree assessment has been done?”

Tree Strikes Parked Engine

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Plan for Slow

“When establishing trigger points, considerations have to be made for the slow operational speed of heavy equipment (2-3 mph), the slow process for loading and transporting heavy equipment, and the length of the escape route.”

“Effective communications and lookouts ensured that personnel escaped prior to being overrun by the fire. However, there was little margin for error.”

Sheep Gap Heavy Equipment Burnover

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“ ‘Previous FLAs that I found on a quick Google search helped me make my decision to go to the ER. They were a good resource.’ Ricky cites the following document—created for Crew Leaders to carry with them and take to the hospital when presenting someone with a potential case of Rhabdomyolysis—as being especially helpful in his case: Rhabdomyolysis in Wildland Firefighters

IHC PT Rhabdo Case

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Get Gone or Look Up?

“Do you focus on escape and not pause to look back? Or do you take a few steps and pause for a quick glance back to make sure everything is good? You will have to make this decision for yourself. Use this incident as a way to discuss this ‘where to look’ dilemma with fellow sawyers.”

Sawyer Hit by Tree Top

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“When it comes to assessing fatigue, listen to your body and what it is telling you, not your mind. It may be necessary to accept low-quality rest in order to eliminate driving exposure when your body is tired. The lack of sleep adversely affects sound decision making.”

Return from Initial Attack Vehicle Accident

There you have it, just a few lessons from the front.

Remember, these are just words. YOU choose if they become action.

Circle up and do this simple exercise:

Do the exercise.



  • Identify one of these five lessons that is most important to you.
  • Write down two steps you can take to implement/practice your chosen lesson.


  • Share your top-priority lesson and implementation steps.
  • Discuss what you do with lessons that can’t be implemented until you’re out on the fireline…how can you improve the likelihood of remembering the lesson?



Sorting the Lumps

As our work on the 2017 Annual Incident Review Summary continues, we’ve got some more analysis to share with you.  Read this.  Do the Exercise and give us some feedback.  The final version of the 2017 Annual Incident Review Summary will be out soon!

By Travis Dotson

Graph showing 2017 wildland fire incidents

There it is – the 2017 season boiled down to a few lines and numbers. These are all of the “outcomes” from reports submitted to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. (You can see incidents sorted by “Activity” in last week’s post: “Smokeless Danger“) I made up the categories and sorted them all. For this particular boring graph I tried to simplify everything as much as I could, lumping categories so I had fewer categories (like combining Hit by Tree, Hit by Straw, and Hit by Vehicle).

I’m a lumper…you may be a splitter. I’m ok and your ok (so I’ve heard), but I’ll go into a bit of detail for all you splitters out there. Let’s just go right down the list starting from the “top.”

Exertion – This was almost exclusively made up of Rhabdo and Heat Illness reports (28 out of 31) mostly because there is a specific reporting mechanism (Rhabdo/HRI) for those types of reports. This does not change the fact that the incidents did indeed occur, I just think it’s fair to acknowledge the reporting does seem to follow what we focus on. Nonetheless, HRI and Rhabdo will put you or your crewmembers in the hospital. Plan for it.

Fuel Geyser – Another specific reporting form (Fuel Geyser) helped us get more data on the danger of fuel in your face. So while it’s still happening, it’s fantastic to note that we are seeing significantly fewer injuries associated with the geysers. Is this the result of awareness and education actually working? We would like to think so. Either way, keep pointing that cap away from your vitals when you go to open the tank. Better yet – cover it with a rag, because the geyser remains a distinct possibility.

Entrapment – Big year for entrapments. Heavy equipment got caught the most. They get stumped and they move slow. Fire does not get stumped and it can go from slow to fast very fast. Firing Ops is the other time we often get entrapped – playing with fire is just that. One interesting note, in 2018, of the 20 reports that met the NWCG definition for “Entrapment”, only four chose to describe the event as an entrapment. Why do we avoid that term? (Get busy in the comments y’all.)

Vehicle Accident – Pretty standard. Driving is double-digit danger. We had a few rollovers and a chase truck vs power pole. But what stood out this year was the wheels coming off, or almost coming off. Three different instances of loose lug nuts. Go check your wheels right now (and get serious with those morning PM checks!)

Hit by Stuff – Mostly trees and branches from trees, but also straw from a helicopter. Most of the hit by tree instances involved chainsaw ops, but not always. Those trees will fall on you or throw their big branches at you randomly sometimes. Don’t hang out under them if you don’t need to.

Equipment Damage – Now there’s a broad category. This is usually vehicles being burned. This year there were three of those fire-damaged vehicles plus a couple big rigs (dozer transport and a skidgine) that rolled into trees – super close calls in both instances. Also, one engine’s light bar fell off on the way back to the barn. Check your brakes and the screws on your light bar.

Burn Injury – This bucket always shows up, but this year it wasn’t as full as in previous years. We had multiple instances of folks falling into hot ash, as we do every year. A fire-whirl rolled over an engine on a prescribed fire, someone grabbed a pump exhaust pipe in the dark, and one of those many fuel geyser’s did end up with a fuel ignition/burn injury. There was also one instance of a blown hose spewing hot water resulting in serious burns. In terms of burn injury lessons, this is the one you should read: Temple Fire Burn Injury

Medical Emergency – Super broad category, but it loses its umph when you take out the “exertion” events. What’s left is exactly what you would suspect – cardiac events, seizures, and other unpredictable, high stakes scariness. It might even happen while you are in travel status. Get ready.

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Uno Peak Boulder Near Miss

Close Call – I didn’t have enough room to call this the “No s#!t there I was” category – but that’s what it is. When you end up cartwheeling over a dozer blade. When you’re driving down the road and your brakes fail. When a boulder rolls between two trucks. That kind of stuff.  Random exists whether we want it to or not.

Chainsaw Cut – This is a super sneaky category. There were only three chainsaw cuts this year, but the significance cannot be overstated. Someone died from a chainsaw cut.

All the cuts were to swampers. And it’s going to happen again. Go slow. Be careful. Respect the spinning chain.

Other – There is always “Other.” This year it was a fall off a ladder during structure prep, hazmat exposure during mop up, and a PT session turned search and rescue. Don’t hate…you could be next.

Ok, there’s all the dirty details you pesky splitters. Please do something with all of this information, at least do this exercise:

Do the exercise.


  • Get with two other firefighters and write down which category above means the most to you.
  • Talk with each other about why the category matters to you.
  • Take turns describing what kind of incident you are most likely to experience based on the numbers and your brand of exposure.
  • Write down three ways to prepare for your bad day.



Smokeless Danger

At the beginning of each year we summarize and analyze incident reports from the previous year.  Check out these previous summaries.  This year we will post individual topics here as we complete portions of the analysis.  Take a look, engage with the exercises, and give us some feedback.  The complete 2017 Annual Incident Review Summary will be out soon. 

By Travis Dotson

This is a graph of incidents reported to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. This particular graph separates the incidents by Activity (what were they doing when the incident occurred).

There are lots of interesting things to talk about in this graph, please show it to someone who cares and have a nice little talk about what it means to you both. Maybe even circle up with a few others and do the exercise at the end.


2017 Incidents by Activity Graph

I’m sure we all have plenty to say about the “top 3.” They consist of:

  • Chainsaw Ops
  • Driving
  • Physical Training

These are all things we do on a regular basis. Just these three activity types account for 58% of the total. That means in 2017, whenever a report was created and sent to us, more than half the time it was related to someone running a saw, driving, or doing PT.

Take note that none of these activities require a fire. For many of us these are activities we do every day. That’s telling. It means things we do a lot are things that bite us in the ass.

What am I getting at? It’s pretty simple. The “danger” isn’t necessarily hiding on the fireline, it’s stitched right into your daily activities.

Are the briefings before PT different than the ones before the big burn show on Division Delta? Of course they are. They are different activities. Plus, none of us could tolerate a big deal briefing every day before PT.

Maybe I should reframe it: which operation is more likely to go bad? That, of course, is a loaded question. You can slice and dice the exposure, frequency, risk, danger, possibility, hazard pie all kinds of crazy. You could make this a spicy dish with whatever flavor your over analysis happens to be. You could also use math, but I think you might need other numbers to do that. I don’t have the numbers or the math mojo to tackle it.

But I do know that I don’t think of PT as dangerous. Turns out I’m wrong. Imagine that.

Get together with the people you PT with and do this simple exercise:


Exercise (15 minutes) In small groups discuss the following questions:

Is PT really more dangerous than Firing Ops?

What is the danger of NOT doing PT?

Is your medical plan equally good for both operations (PT and Firing Ops)? – Should it be?

That’s all.

Now go PT.


Fatal Attraction

As our work on the 2017 Annual Incident Review Summary continues, we’ve got some more analysis to share with you.  Read this.  Do the Exercise, and give us some feedback.  The final version of the 2017 Annual Incident Review Summary will be out soon!

By Travis Dotson

We love to know how many firefighters died. It’s the only number anyone has ever frantically demanded of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center – all other numbers inspire no urgency.

Why do we want to know? What is this morbid fascination? Is it morbid?

The highly esteemed Urban Dictionary has a definition for the term “Fatal Attraction” –

“An attraction between an individual and someone/something that is so strong, the individual lacks reason and logic in their thinking when dealing with their attraction.”


Does our fascination with firefighter fatalities fit this description? Do we lack reason and logic when dealing with our attraction? The most basic line of thinking goes something like this – if we pay attention to dead firefighters there will be fewer dead firefighters in the future. That feels reasonable, but is it?

Here are the basics from 2017.

2017 Wildland Firefighter Fatalities

Vehicle Accident: 4

Medical Emergency: 3

Hit by Tree: 3

Entrapment: 2

Hit by Straw: 1

Chainsaw Cut: 1

Total: 14

Now what?

How will you use logic and reason when thinking about this topic?

Is this year any different? Here are the numbers from the past ten years:




We can go past ten years as well. The average number of fatalities over the past 30 years is just under 17. In case you are wondering, that’s 500 deaths since 1988.

Now what?

I don’t know – and I’m the analyst at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.

What if we just thought about how we talk about Line of Duty Death?

Gather up with your fellow risk-takers and do this:

Exercise (30 minutes)Wheel

Part 1 (5 mins)

  • Individually list as many “sayings” as you can about Line of Duty Deaths – for example, “we haven’t found any new ways to kill firefighters” or “all our lessons are written in blood.”

Part 2 (25 mins)

  • Take turns saying one to the larger group. Discuss what these sayings really communicate.
    • Are they true?
    • Are they useful?


I have no idea if that exercise includes any logic or reason, but it does get us to examine the words we use and why.

Maybe we should try changing our words – or at least know exactly why we say them.