Underslung Heroes

By Travis Dotson

Remember the Cerro Grande Fire in May of 2000?

  • 230+ Homes Destroyed
  • 18000 People Evacuated
  • Nuclear Facility Threatened
  • Damage Cost – One BILLION Dollars
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Burned homes from the Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos NM.

Nothing too outrageous by today’s standards I suppose. But consider this:

It was an escaped prescribed fire.

That’s a huge deal.

So, who were these clowns playing with matches on the doorstep of a nuclear laboratory right in the middle of the southwest spring winds?

Well, here is one member of this lousy light-it, fight-it, and lose-it team—in fact, this goofball was in charge when the fire went over the hill:

Paul Gleason.

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Paul Gleason

Hmmmm . . . Paul Gleason. Why does that name ring a bell? I feel like there’s some sort of big-deal significance associated with that name. Oh, wait. Isn’t that the dude who came up with LCES?

How did this happen? Like any other tough day on the line, there’s one slop-over kicking their ass and the Burn Boss (Gleason) suggests they make the magic name change (convert from RX to Wildfire—the most oppressive game of semantics we play).

So, they convert it. Now it’s a wildfire and Gleason is the Type 3 IC. Next comes the most common of all common tactical decisions. Direct or indirect?

We all know the direct or indirect dilemma is a fairly standard operational decision that needs to be made, just like it was that day. In the context of what eventually happened, this particular direct/indirect decision has gotten quite a bit of scrutiny. I think you should let Gleason walk you through it himself – watch this video: (Go right to 11:30 – 15:00 for the direct/indirect decision)

 

Are You Really Willing to Go There?

The “Bad Apple”. There’s one in every bunch, right?

Are you really willing to go there? Are you willing to boil this entire series of events down to a simple case of: “They should’ve turned left”?

Are you willing to say you would have made a better tactical decision than Paul Gleason?

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The Bad Apple Theory

Paul Gleason said: “I had a preconceived bias against underslung line.”

I don’t like underslung line, either. Do you?

Crucial Decision Points

Yet, this is exactly the type of decision we love to crucify folks with using the perception-twisting kaleidoscope of retrospect omniscience.

As we look back at bad outcomes we create a story and in that story are critical turning points. Of course, these turning points are given significance only through reference to the eventual outcome. Who cares if they went direct or indirect if no houses burned down?

So now we have the story and identified the crucial decision points. We all love to customize these crucial points in our never-ending quest for the adoration of our peers via gaudy display of operational virility. Peacocks we are. We all want to be recognized for our “unique insight.” (In fact, I’m even on this quest myself right here within this article. But everything I’m saying has been said before. Damnit, now I have to find another route to self-esteem!)

What I’m really saying here is we love to parry the “They should have gone direct!” blow with the oh-so-clever “Well they never should have lit it!” mindset. Touchdown! The Monday morning quarterback brings home the bacon every single time!

Newsflash: That is not a clever insight. Neither is its simple sister: “Why were they even there in the first place?” Oh, how we love to toss that one out in relation to the latest entrapment, especially if it is related to structure defense. Again, not clever or even remotely insightful. We all know exactly how we get where we get because we all get there on every fire. We just walk away by the grace of Big Ernie.

The Comfort of Finding Fault

Let’s see here, where were we? Oh yeah, throwing rocks at Paul Gleason for making the wrong decision. Or not stopping the ignition. Or not listening to the weather service. Or listening to the weather service. Or not praying hard enough.

Maybe it wasn’t Gleason. Maybe it was somebody else.

Did you just feel the relief as we moved the crosshairs? Ahhhh, the comfort of finding fault—it feels so natural. I mean, who are we kidding? A prescribed fire that torches a town? SOMEBODY must have screwed-up. It’s not like that was the plan! Please feel free to pause here and let the comfort of that last sentence wash over you.

It should be unsettling to acknowledge how cozy that self-righteousness feels.

The Bad Apple, there’s one in every bunch.

Paul Gleason and Eric Marsh

Let’s time travel our target shooting session.

Hmmm, what year should we jump to? How about 2013? It’s so easy. Eric Marsh might not have been Paul Gleason, but he’d led his crew on a hike off a fire more than once. Bad Outcome = Bad Apple? Try giving Marsh the leeway you give Gleason.

Does it feel any different?

Apples and oranges, you might say. (Considering our current context, that’s kind of funny.)

But is it really that different? An operational decision with an unintended outcome. What if the personalities were reversed? What if Eric Marsh was the Burn Boss/ICT3 at the House Burner RX and Paul Gleason was hiking his crew to the ranch when they were overrun by fire?

Would you make sense of those outcomes differently than you currently do?

I’m guessing you would. You might try a little harder to see what you aren’t seeing, actively asking yourself: “What am I missing here?” But that Bad Apple bucket is enticing isn’t it? It’s a lot less work to just toss the bad operator in and move on. Especially if they are dead. Especially if they weren’t “Agency”. Especially if they didn’t have the right kind of buckle. Especially if, especially if, especially if . . .

Stand Accountable

We are all amazing firefighters. We are all bad firefighters. It just depends on the day and the circumstances. And the outcome.

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“I had to face the fact that there were times that I made decisions that led to the eventual outcome of this fire.” – Paul Gleason

I know the Bad Apple theory is appealing. And it might even be true sometimes. But don’t get lazy and use it without putting genuine heartfelt inquiry and introspection into the matter. Acknowledge the shifts where you were the Bad Apple. Acknowledge the future shifts where you will be the Bad Apple.

Everyone says: “We all make mistakes.” I think we all make decisions using everything we have learned and experienced to this point. I think we all care deeply about the people next to us. I think we all want to learn from tragedy and heartbreak. I think we can do better.


“There is no way to get around how uncomfortable it is to stand accountable for your decisions” – Paul Gleason


 

Listen to the related Lessons Learned Center Podcast:

Bad Apples

2 thoughts on “Underslung Heroes

  1. Paul, Right on, Anyone of us can do that same thing! Judgement is not for us, there are powers better qualified, We just Fight the Dragon! Thank you. 🙂

    Like

  2. Underslung Heroes hits very close to home. I currently work with John Maclean on a book about the Yarnell Hill fire, and I think the “bad apple” points between Mr. Gleason and Mr. Marsh are very interesting and relevant to the Yarnell Hill fire discussion.

    I was on the BAND Fire Use Module in 2000 and we lit the Cerro Grande fire. For me, one of the greatest gifts to come from this terrible tragedy was the opportunity to work with Paul Gleason. A lasting lesson and strong impression I have carried with me for 18 years is of Paul’s great character and integrity during and after the fire.

    It was clear to me that efforts were made to protect his level of involvement, but he would have none of it. He went on to teach and talk to as many fire folks as possible, about his role in Cerro Grande and his level of responsibility and accountability.

    Paul was a true fire manager and leader, with special qualities of honesty, transparency and a deep desire to make a difference. It takes a rare courage and wisdom to admit “There is no way to get around how uncomfortable it is to stand accountable for your decisions”, and then go out and actually do it, stand accountable. Mr. Gleason, you are missed.

    Liked by 1 person

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