Honor The Fallen

By Travis Dotson

How exactly do we Honor the Fallen?

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It’s a tough question because it has a thousand right answers. One of the most important ways to honor is to learn. We are always in danger of squandering the bitter opportunity that tragedy affords us.

This video is a glimpse of what so many of us struggled with in the aftermath of the Yarnell Hill Fire. This is just a few fire folks walking the ground in January 2014 and grappling with how to advance our culture in the aftermath of devastation.

Take a look.

Making sense of bad outcomes is difficult, often impossible. But nobody wants the pain to be without benefit. Suffering without growth is tragic.

Let’s choose growth. One way to grow is to challenge long held beliefs. The window for genuine inquiry opens wide after disorienting circumstances – when we are shaken we struggle to re-balance. For many the re-balance means doubling down on long held beliefs, for others it requires a heart wrenching letting go of previous convictions.

What are some of your long held beliefs?

Are you willing to question them?

Are you willing to consider a new perspective?

And after all that, are you willing to actually alter your actions?

Growth is difficult.

Honor the Fallen

 

 

2 thoughts on “Honor The Fallen

  1. Thanks for this post. The most telling comment from the video was Travis Dotson’s observation that the conditions, situation, and outcome at Yarnell Hill was “normal.” The way he framed it, I have to agree. In the municipal fire service a certain firefighter mindset has been recognized and labeled: “The Duty to Die Syndrome.” That syndrome is all tangled up with cultural imperatives ranging from ancient vision quest myths to what movies you stream on your smart phone (“Only the Brave”, perhaps?), to the macho legends of frontier rugged individualism. It’s a by-product of the militarization of American culture, and of the emergency services in particular. It’s a residual effect of the body count of the 1910 “Big Blow-up” and philosopher William James proposing that conservation projects — including wildland fire suppression — be considered “the moral equivalent of war.” Is it an accident that the first heavy air tankers were B-17s? So we all became what Steven Pyne has so appropriately dubbed “pyromantics.” And why not? Since the pay was usually sub-par, there had to be some other motivation.
    For several years I was a sewage treatment plant operator in a small city. There is little doubt that it was the most important job I ever held. The chief reason most people may expect to live into their 80s, that their children won’t die before age three, and that horrific epidemics don’t regularly ravage our population centers is due to public sanitation — an order of magnitude more important than wildland fire suppression. It was also a hazardous job, but I never saw a sewage plant T-shirt, and if I had died in the line of duty I strongly suspect no one would’ve sanctified me as a “hero.” (“Dearly beloved, do you realize how many used condoms this hero snagged out of clogged pump impellers?”) That, I suppose, is the difference between human excrement and torching conifers. The latter is romantic and the former is not.
    Another of the people in the video clip mentioned that given the fire environment they were surprised that something like Yarnell Hill didn’t happen more often. I submit that the there are two reasons: 1. dumb ass luck, and 2. that the undeniable improvement in our training programs over the past two decades has made us just good enough to avoid most opportunities for mass carnage.
    Wildland firefighters are essentially blue collar natural resources laborers, less necessary than many other classes of blue collar workers, but we buy more readily into our own myths and “the moral equivalent of war.” So, if I believed (correctly) that sewage treatment is so important, why did I leave it? Because fire is more fun. Right?
    A crusty old battalion chief for the Fire Department of New York once said, “If you die on a fire you better have a civilian in your arms.” The subtext was that any fatality less sharp than that was useless or foolish — or, I might add, unlucky. How many times in your wildland career have you had “a civilian in your arms?” It happens, certainly, and perhaps just often enough to justify the T-shirts. So by all means carry on and do your best. It may not be the most important job in the world, but it is needful. Just remember it is not a shortcut to heroism and you have no duty to die. “Honor the fallen”? Only if they deserve it.

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  2. As a former Hot Shot Superintendent, I confidently weigh in with Travis Nelson about the GMHS Superintendent’s decisions and actions on June 30, 2013, and with Joy A. Collura on this one. You all need to visit the website: ( http://www.yarnellhillfirerevelations.com. ) I took the time to rewatch the video in detail and transcribe the respective commentaries of these featured supposed “leaders.” Their comments are in regular font and my comments will be in all CAPS below. The subtitle of the video states: “This video was captured on site of the Yarnell Hill Fire in January 2014. The participants spent the day walking the ground and discussing the challenges facing the wildland fire service as a whole.” THERE IS NO “DISCUSSING THE CHALLENGES FACING THE WILDLAND FIRE SERVICE AS A WHOLE” FROM WHAT I HEARD. ONLY THE OPINIONS OF THESE OSTENSIBLE “LEADERS.” I ALLEGE THAT THIS WILL DEFINITELY MISINFORM THE MANY WFs AND FFs THAT WILL GO ALONG TO GET ALONG BECAUSE OF WHO THESE PROFESSED “LEADERS” ARE AND WHO IS PROVIDING THE VIDEO AND THE ALLEGED “LESSONS LEARNED.” AND I ALLEGE THAT THIS WILL DEFINITELY MISINFORM THE PUBLIC THAT DOESN’T KNOW ANY BETTER. Student of Fire – Hallowed Ground – Sense-making – Self reflection – Learning THE VIDEO BEGINS WITH THESE WORDS STREAMING ACROSS THE TOP. THE “SENSE-MAKING” AND “LEARNING” AS DISCUSSED IN THE VIDEO ARE INDEED INACCURATE BECAUSE THESE SUPPOSED ‘LEADERS” ARE DISINGENUOUSLY ATTEMPTING TO CONVINCE YOU THAT YOU ARE AT THE MERCY OF NATURE, NOTHING YOU CAN DO WILL SAVE YOU, EXCEPT LUCK, AND THAT THE LONG-ESTABLISHED VIABLE WF RULES AND GUIDELINES (10 & 18) “CANNOT KEEP US SAFE … WHATEVER THEY ARE.” HOPEFULLY, THIS VIDEO WILL ANGER YOU AND COMPEL YOU TO CALL BS ON ALMOST ALL OF IT.

    Travis Dotson (Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, NPS – Analyst, Former Hot Shot and Smokejumper) “… and everything about this fire, the communication, the situation with the weather; Resources, number of resources, lack of resources; Nothing on the next step to that is that if that stuff’s all normal, including the decisions, which I say that they are, then this outcome is normal and I don’t think we’re willing to make that leap but that’s that’s what logically that’s where that goes to and I hate that, but I think that’s what’s been staring us in the face for years and we’re not, we’re not willing to go there. It’s scary, you’ve got ten of us in violent agreement just …” MR. DOTSON, I TOTALLY AGREE THAT THIS FIRE, THE COMMUNICATION, THE SITUATION WITH THE WEATHER, RESOURCES, NUMBER OF RESOURCES, LACK OF RESOURCES, IS ALL NORMAL, INCLUDING THE DECISIONS. THEN THIS OUTCOME IS NORMAL BASED ON THE DECISION-MAKING HISTORY OF THE GMHS. AS DOCUMENTED, ONE SOUTHWEST HOT SHOT SUPERINTENDENT STATED ON AN OCTOBER 2013 YH FIRE SITE VISIT: “THIS WAS THE FINAL, FATAL OUTCOME OF A LONG CHAIN OF BAD DECISIONS WITH GOOD OUTCOMES, WE SAW THIS COMING FOR YEARS.” THERE ARE MANY OF US WHEN THIS FIRST OCCURRED, AND TO THIS DAY, THAT READILY MADE AND STILL HOLD TRUE TO THAT LOGICAL LEAP. YES, IT HAS BEEN STARING US IN THE FACE FOR YEARS AND IT’S UNFORTUNATE THAT YOU ARE NOT WILLING TO GO THERE. SCARY FOR YOU MAYBE. WHAT IS SCARY FOR ME IS THAT YOU ARE AFRAID TO ADMIT IT AS THE LEADERS THAT YOU CLAIM TO BE. YOU CLAIM THAT THERE ARE TEN OF YOU “IN VIOLENT AGREEMENT” YOU SAY. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO BE IN “VIOLENT AGREEMENT” – FOR THOSE OF YOU WITH THE STONES TO FOIST THIS VIDEO ON US?

    Curtis Heaton (USFS – Director Safety, Fire and Aviation Management – R2,RO, Renewable Resources; former Hot Shot and NIMO OPS) “… just focus on, on perception and how hard it is to see what you need to see, no I’m saying how easy it is to see what you want to see, and no one person or one unit can do that; it takes the whole collectiveness of the organization, whatever it is Type 4, Type 1 to bring all those different perceptions into something that looks like reality, and we really have to revisit who we are, why we do what we do and how we prepare people exactly what we do you …”

    MR. HEATON, YOU START OFF SO WELL, MAKING YOUR CASE ABOUT PERCEPTION, THEN YOU FALL STEEPLY INTO THE FALSE CHASM WITH THIS ASSERTION THAT “No one person or one unit can do that; it takes the whole collectiveness of the organization … to bring all those different perceptions into something that looks like reality.” THERE ARE COUNTLESS INFORMAL AND FORMAL CASES OF INDIVIDUALS AND UNITS DOING JUST FINE IN THIS MATTER FOR YEARS. AND WHAT IS EVEN WORSE, I CONTEND THAT YOUR COMMENT HERE ALIGNS QUITE CLEARLY WITH THE INSIDIOUS GROUPTHINK, ONE OF THE MANY ACKNOWLEDGED AND DOCUMENTED CASES OF HAZARDOUS ATTITUDES IN OUR IRPG AND ELSEWHERE.

    Steve Gage (USFS – Assistant Director – Operations for Fire and Aviation Management – Boise, Idaho Area – NIMO Incident Commander (May 2008 – Oct 2012) NIMO Incident Commander – (2008 – Present) Department of Homeland Security (FEMA) – USFS – NIMS Liaison – Department of Homeland Security (FEMA) (2005 – 2008) – Kern County Fire Department (Fire Chief) (Sep 1973 – Dec 2003) “… you know when we were standing up there you know and coming back down my perception of what I envisioned was going on in my mind’s eye was I’d have been right there, I’d have been coming down this road. I’d have been trying to fall off there and find a good sweet spot to get to, and that you know that whole concept of but for the Grace of God. You know how many times have … I been know that close and just barely got by and Mike’s about minutes you know cuz I was a minute ahead of it I was a minute behind it, whatever that was and you know my reality sometimes is I don’t understand why this didn’t happen more often, because the enemy, the force of nature that we’re dealing with is not as predictable as we think it is. We think we know it but we truly don’t.”

    MR. GAGE, YOUR COMMENTS ALIGN WELL WITH THE INSIDIOUS GROUPTHINK WITH YOUR “I’d have been coming down that road. I’d have been trying to fall off there and find a good sweet spot to get to …” AND WHAT WAS WRONG WITH THE “SWEET SPOT” THAT THE GMHS HAD IN THEIR PERFECTLY VIABLE SAFETY ZONE? IT’S QUITE DISTURBING TO KNOW THAT YOU HAD BARELY MADE IT TO SAFETY ON NUMEROUS FIRES, NUMEROUS TIMES “a minute ahead of [the fire] and a minute behind it, WHATEVER THAT WAS” COMMENT IS VERY PERPLEXING BECAUSE EVEN YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU MEANT OR EVEN EXPERIENCED “in [YOUR] mind’s eye.” IT’S DISTURBING THAT YOU ARE IN THE POSITION OF AUTHORITY AND PROFESSED “LEADERSHIP” YOU ARE IN WITH THESE COMMENTS.

    Matthew Carroll (USFWS Assistant Fire Management Officer at North Country Fire Management – McCall, Idaho – Project Lead, Office of Innovation and Organizational Learning (2014 – Jan 2017) – R4 Fire Program Outreach and Recruitment Coordinator (2010 – 2015) McCall Smokejumper Base, McCall, IDA Group designed to foster a resilient workforce, advance innovation, and promote a culture of learning at the individual, group, and organizational levels within the USDA Forest Service YOU STATED: “… anytime we, we begin to interact with a force of nature this time, this forest fire that there .. it is complex enough that no matter what we throw at it process wise or intelligence wise or leadership wise that it will always outpace us, and I don’t know, I don’t that then backs us up to a conversation with the public we serve, it backs us up to a conversation with [the Agency we’re part of] and it’s a bad uncomfortable conversation scripted over a 100 plus years.”

    MR. CARROLL, YOUR’S, AND ALL THE OTHERS REGARDING THE COMPLEXITY OF THE “force of nature” AND HOW “it will always outpace us” AND OVERWHELM US AND ALL THE OTHER FATALIST COMMENTS ARE QUITE BAFFLING BECAUSE THERE ARE COUNTLESS WFs AND OTHERS THAT HAVE BEEN SAFELY AND SUCCESSFULLY FIGHTING FIRE FOR MANY YEARS IN SPITE OF IT ALL.

    Heath Cota (USFS – Director Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program – S&P-WO, Fire & Aviation Mgmt) “How complex our environment is … and the truth is that we try to put it into these little boxes in these rules and the 10 and 18 that cannot, they’re not gonna keep us safe, that’s been proven time and time again, we can’t follow our own rule, you know, these rules whatever they are, this environment, it’s way too complex. We’re really lucky, we do a good job at it and I think that to that was luck, the, the whole luck decision conversation, like ah, how often is it luck … ten minutes, five minutes earlier in a departure … we wouldn’t be standing here [like Mike said] um, truth is that it’s … this is gonna happen again next year, this Summer … somewhere, maybe not to this magnitude, right? But as long as we’re engaging in wildland fire I think we need to take the honest look and evolve how we’re dealing with it and take a look at ourselves, our culture, our organization, all those things. How we’re doing. The gravity of walking down that, I mean it, that’s where it hit me like a ton of bricks up there; looking down seeing it, how close it looks and how far it is, scurrying through that is, that’s where it hit home for me. And ah we can all see the … the path, the friction, the uncertainty, the fluidity in the environment and how it just shapes it to the point where this is absolutely feasible and possible like it’s at that time .. it was good … until it wasn’t.”

    MR. COTA, AS A FORMER HOT SHOT SUPERINTENDENT AND THE WASHINGTON OFFICE USFS DIRECTOR OF THE WF APPRENTICESHIP PROGRAM, THE ENTITY THAT TRAINS THE INCOMING, NEW USFS EMPLOYEES, YOUR COMMENTS ARE ESPECIALLY DISTURBING, ESPECIALLY YOUR OPINION ON THE “truth” ABOUT THE TRIED-AND-TRUE WILDLAND FIREFIGHTING RULES, THE 10 & 18. “… the truth is that we try to put it into these little boxes in these rules [sic] and the 10 & 18 that cannot, they’re not gonna keep us safe, that’s been proven time and time again, we can’t follow our own rules you know, whatever they are, this environment, it’s way too complex” AND THEN YOUR SPEW ON “luck” AND “luck decision conversations.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME? AND WHAT WERE YOU AND YOUR HS SUPERVISORS TEACHING YOUR YOUNG WFs AS A HOT SHOT SUPERINTENDENT”LEADER?” I AGREE WITH YOU – IN PART – WHEN YOU STATE: “… that’s been proven time and time again that we cannot follow our own rules.”

    HOWEVER, THAT STATEMENT ONLY APPLIES TO THOSE THAT REFUSE TO FOLLOW THE BASIC WF RULES. TENS OF THOUSANDS OF WFs AND FFs SAFELY AND SUCCESSFULLY FIGHT WILDLAND FIRES EVERY YEAR BY UTILIZING THE 10 & 18 AND LCES. I CHALLENGE YOU TO PROVIDE ME EVEN ONE FIRE WHERE WFs OR FFs WERE ENTRAPPED, BURNED OVER, DEPLOYED FIRE SHELTERS, OR DIED BY FOLLOWING THE BASIC WF RULES AND LCES. THEN YOU SNAP BACK TO REALISM AGAIN – TEMPORARILY – AND CORRECTLY POINT OUT THAT WE NEED TO “take a look at ourselves, our culture, our organization, … ” I COMPLETELY AGREE. THE “evolve how e’re dealing with it” LOST ME AGAIN IN THE FOG OF YOUR REASONING. SO THEN, IF SOMETHING “EVOLVES”, THEN IT CREATES ITSELF AND WE CAN JUST LEAVE IT ALONE AND IT WILL FIX ITSELF, RIGHT? MY FAVORITE IS THIS GEM: “… it was good … until it wasn’t …”

    REALLY? WTF DOES THAT MEAN? I HOPE AND PRAY THAT YOU ARE NOT INDOCTRINATING OUR NEW WFs WITH FECULENCE LIKE THIS. THE VIDEO CLOSES WITH THESE WORDS STREAMING ACROSS THE TOP OF THE SCREEN: “Honor the Fallen – Learn.” I ALLEGE THAT YOU ALL ARE DISRESPECTING THE FALLEN AND THE LIVING WITH THE STATEMENTS AND CLAIMS YOU HAVE MADE AS SUPPOSED “LEADERS” IN THIS VIDEO YOU MADE. AND TO LEARN WHAT? PONTIFICATING – NOT “DISCUSSING” – YOUR OPINIONS THAT DO NOT ALIGN WITH “THE CHALLENGES FACING THE WILDLAND FIREFIGHTING SERVICE AS A WHOLE.”

    THE WILDLAND FIRE LESSONS LEARNED CENTER CLAIMS: “A Lesson is Learned When We Change Our Behavior.” THIS IS A TRUE STATEMENT, HOWEVER, I ALLEGE THAT WITH THE STATEMENTS MADE IN THIS VIDEO BY THESE PROFESSED “LEADERS,” THAT THE MAJORITY OF THE WF SERVICE WILL FOLLOW LOCK-STEP WITH WHAT YOU ALL HAVE PRESENTED HERE AND CHANGE ITS BEHAVIOR TO ALIGN WITH THE ERRONEOUS AND UNSAFE PRACTICES STATED HEREIN AND THE REST OF THEM – THOSE THAT TRULY KNOW BETTER – WILL FALL BACK TO WHAT WORKS – THE TRIED-AND-TRUE AND TRUSTED – BASIC WILDLAND FIREFIGHTING RULES.

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