Finest Learning Experience of My Life

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2016

There are a number of aspects I consider key in becoming a proficient, knowledgeable, and accomplished wildland firefighter. Some help with professionalism or presentation, others focus on safety or cohesion. The list is as long as it is diverse.

Redding 9a

Some of the more beneficial skills are those that directly relate to the tasks performed and conditions experienced by firefighters. These are best attained from real in-field situations and observations; however, such authentic conditions usually aren’t readily available. Given this circumstance, firefighters must substitute another method of acquiring experience and knowledge. This is where training, both tangible and literary, plays a major role.

A large portion of a wildland firefighter’s knowledge and experience comes from training scenarios, notably more so to the newer the firefighter. Because of this, not only should proper training be considered fundamental, it demands to be taken seriously. This is supported by the undeniable fact of how inherently dangerous the career of wildland firefighting will always be. Many lives have been and continue to be lost in this career. While tragic, each lost life brings with it a wealth of information. The more details that are available about the tragedy, the more the situation can be analyzed. Truths and facts can be determined, decisions and observations can be re-traced.

While a good amount of information can be gained from simply reading a summary, each enhanced level of material adds significance: the addition of images, survivor interviews, video footage, etc. A couple of the most impactful incorporations involve walking the grounds where the fatalities occurred and talking with first-hand survivors.

The South Canyon Staff Ride is a perfect example of a quality staff ride and all that can be gained from the study and examination of a fatal tragedy. Firstly, there is a substantial amount of information the attendee must be competent in prior to the actual staff ride. This assures that those attending will fully understand the event beforehand, allowing greater focus on learning points and direct interactions.

Next, during the staff ride, attendees hike out to the fire grounds and encounter firsthand the topographic conditions specific to that event. This takes perceptions to a higher level. Rather than estimating scale, steepness, or ruggedness from a grainy photograph, people walk the ground and can physically comprehend the conditions presented by the terrain.

Lastly, there is the interaction with survivors. A book or report can only contribute so much insight, a photograph or video so much detail. Having persons who were present during the event can grant personal observations and provide direct answers to questions otherwise unnoted or unanswered. This does not just add another level of resources for information, but presents a degree of connection to those involved and the events that occurred.

I strongly believe that accident reports, whether fatal or not, are great learning points that are rich in information. Humans adapt and survive by learning what not to do, starting from infancy. Whether from personal experience or human history, we learn from our mistakes and take corrective action. This is exactly how accident reports should be handled. We cannot learn from the past if we choose to ignore its events. South Canyon is a solid learning experience and has provided vital knowledge and policy changes to back this claim. This is further strengthened by the inclusion of the staff ride.

After reading and watching all of the required materials before the staff ride I had a strong general understanding of the event. I knew people’s names, fire spread rates and patterns, timelines, the terrain as seen from images. But it was nothing more than a good learning case, much like all the other reports that can be read; there was no tangible connection. That connection occurred over the course of the entire staff ride. I walked the ground that all involved walked. I felt the effects of the elevation, terrain, and weather. I ran the same handline as those who perished. I felt the isolation of the mountain. I engaged in scenarios on the mountainside. I stood where lives were lost. I imagined the hopeless struggle for survival and fears manifested by all that day. I fully immersed myself on that mountainside to maximize my understanding and education.

Helping me along my journey, during the field day on the mountain and the many Q&A sessions throughout the staff ride, were the actual survivors from the tragedy. They provided multitudes of additional information and insight I would have never known from just the literary resources. They described what they saw, thought, and felt—how it affected their lives and what they learned. By hearing their first-hand experiences, having them answer sensitive questions, and clearing-up any confusion I had about the events, there was an emotional connection I captured that allowed me to walk in their shoes and feel what they felt as best I could.

In its entirety, the South Canyon Staff Ride was an event I will never forget. Walking the ground, talking to the survivors, engaging in scenarios, made it one of the finest learning experiences of my life. It was an event I took very serious and gained plenty of knowledge and understanding as a result. And I feel confident in stating that all other attendees, present, past, and returning, feel the same.

The South Canyon Staff Ride is an experience that others should be able to participate in. It perfectly combines the literary transcription of events and lessons learned with the firsthand insight from survivors and onsite field exercises and scenarios. It is something not to be forgotten or overlooked for its value and importance concerning the career and safety of wildland firefighters. Nothing is to be gained from not studying our past tragedies. It was a significant learning experience for me and I wish the same for others in the future.

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