I Made a Key Flaw

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2017

In May I was honored to be allowed to go and participate in the staff ride with the Redding IHC for the South Canyon incident. After reading the books and all of the incident reports over numerous years I thought I would have an extensive grasp on the events and the strategies that took place on this incident. But, in fact, as I would soon come to find out, I was full of misinformation that I had derived from my readings. By this I mean that I thought the mountain was going to be steep and rough country due to the limited access and how thick the vegetation was. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Redding 2

 As I stood at the overlook spot looking out across the drainage toward the fatality site and then over toward the lunch spot I noticed what appeared to be a hill. It wasn’t a huge steep drainage with a giant mountain rising up and out of it. This sight made me stop and realize that all of my beliefs were in fact completely wrong. The biggest eye-opener for me was not the timeline or even the people involved, it was the geography.

 The lessons that I learned in May through this staff ride I am going to carry with me through my career. I learned to ground truth the fire and its access points. Like how the south drainage was supposed to be impassable but yet the day after the staff ride we went and walked up it from the highway with no problem. I also learned that they fought this fire the same way that I would have being that my career is in aviation. I would have started from the top and worked down just as Don Mackey and all of the others had done.

The best thing about this staff ride was actually getting to meet the survivors and learn with a hands-on walk through the events—from blowup to escape. It was a real informal and key learning strategy in that I was getting to hear firsthand from Eric Hipke and what he was seeing, what they were doing during their escape, and what was going through his mind.

I was shocked when I found out that there was no sense of urgency until they were near the top. It was amazing that they were only walking, they never ditched their packs, they never ran, and they never pulled out there shelters at the beginning. They just had a sense of bumping out. We are taught now in fire to ditch our gear, pull our shelters and run.

Well, it gets so chaotic that when we did the run from their beginning hike-out point I still took off running with my pack on. Then Tyler Harris yelled “drop your packs” four different times. It wasn’t until the fourth time of hearing him that it finally sank in to drop my gear. As I threw my pack I instantly took off.

It wasn’t until the top when I was hacking and coughing trying to catch my breath with my lungs burning that I realized I had made a key flaw. In my haste and the chaos of the moment I threw my pack but did not take my shelter with me. I’m going to remember this throughout my career. If I ever have to drop my pack I will grab my shelter because if it can be this chaotic during an exercise how chaotic is it going to be in a live scenario?

This all prompts me to ask the question: “When is the right time to ditch your gear, and to take off sprinting for your life?” This is something that is going to be answered on an individual basis based on your own PT, body type, and experience level.

The final Q and A while sitting on the top of the hill allowed for both Redding IHC and Horseshoe IHC to ask about situations going through our minds as well getting firsthand feedback and direct answers to our questions from the individuals who experienced it. It was a moment of tranquility and relaxation as both crews were learning from the answers and feedback from Eric Hipke, Bryan Scholz, and Kip Gray.

The staff ride was a huge success, an eye opener, an amazing opportunity to participate in, and a life event that I will hold on to and never forget. The lessons that I learned and the information gathered, I’m going to carry throughout my career and use them in everyday real-life situations.

I would like to thank the key personal who put in countless hours year after year for putting this on and improving it each year. I always wanted to go on this staff ride and now that I have it is safe to say it surpassed all of my expectations and will allow me to be a better firefighter, co-worker, leader, and human being.

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