Continuing the Conversation: Getting Fire Science Research to the Boots-on-the-Ground

[The “One of Our Own” article in the Two More Chains Summer Issue featured Ted Adams, Assistant Supervisor on the Hells Canyon Wildland Fire Module, Payette National Forest. Entitled “Bridging the Gap Between Research and the Field,” the article focused on whether or not fire science research is being applied to decision-making on the fire line. The following quote from Ted was highlighted in the article’s opening: “We have all of this research that’s available to us and yet you could argue that a majority of individuals on the fire line are not reading peer-reviewed research and applying it to their decision-making, into their mental models.” After reading the article, Coleen Haskell contacted us. She asked if she could continue the conversation that we started with Ted. We said, please do.]

By Coleen Haskell, Communications Director for the Joint Fire Science Program

As a technology transfer specialist and fire meteorologist, I find that the Two More Chains “One of Our Own” feature in general and Ted Adams’ pull quote (above) in particular do a comprehensive job of describing the challenge of getting the latest fire science research into the hands of those who need the information—the boots-on-the-ground.

I concur with and echo Ted Adams’ “sincere and fervent quest for actively pursuing research to help improve the wildland firefighter’s challenging world.”

Adams also stated: “It isn’t that we have a shortage of research. We don’t have a shortage of information out there. What we have a shortage of is the translation of that information, in making that information relatable.” That is basically the same thing that I heard at the National Cohesive Strategy Workshop in May from Dr. Mark Finney, Research Forester with the Fire, Fuel, Smoke Science Program at the Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Those are absolutely correct assertions that peer-reviewed journal articles generally are not provided in a format that is digestible and easily applicable for managers to put into use. I suggest that a significant disparity exists between primary research and how it is applied operationally in wildland fire and fuels management, sometimes with dire consequences.

In all disciplines, these gaps are filled by technology transfer specialists, boundary spanners, science delivery experts, or whichever labels they identify with. Wildland fire and fuels management is no exception. This creates opportunity space for the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) (www.firescience.gov) and others to translate research findings into meaningful and useable results. Let’s face it, policy-makers, resource managers, and boots-on-the-ground fire practitioners can do their respective jobs more efficiently and more safely through sound and actionable science informing their decisions. And they should.

Another Perspective

Where I believe there is more story to tell is with the “One of Our Own” article implying that the fire and fuels community is not expending sufficient resources on the connection between fire science research and the translation of that science’s utility to fire practitioners and managers. This Two More Chains article doesn’t mention the success that JFSP and our 15-regionally focused Fire Science Exchange Network (FSEN) are making.

Picture1The JFSP’s science delivery efforts were recently highlighted in the July edition of the Fire Science Digest: “Bridging the Gap: Joint Fire Science Program Outcomes.”  This Fire Science Digest publication describes numerous ways that the JFSP science delivery efforts have made significant strides over the past 10 years to bridge the gap between research and the field primarily through the 15-member Fire Science Exchange Network and its efforts to deliver useful and actionable science to end-users in the fire community.

The boundary-spanning role of the Fire Science Exchange Network is indispensable because it fosters communication between practitioners and researchers.

How FSEN Strives to Bridge the Gap Between Research and the Field

The FSEN integrates the best available fire research with wildland fire, fuels resource, and land managers. It is a national collaborative network of 15 regional fire science exchanges. Each regional exchange provides the most relevant, current wildland fire science to federal, tribal, state, local, and private stakeholders within their respective regions. Regions are primarily organized by geography and ecology.

The 15 regional exchanges are all different in terms of their research focal areas, how they are organized, and even how they label themselves. For example, in the Northern Rockies, the exchange is called “The Northern Rockies Fire Science Network (NRFSN).” Some of the exchanges, however, refer to themselves as “consortia” which was an early name when the network was formed several years ago.

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JFSP’s Fire Exchange Network (FSEN).

Regardless of how different each of their local issues are, they all share the need to build partnerships and relationships to effectively share information. They all translate scientific information to fire and fuels managers. In many cases, the FSEN collaborate on projects with each other. For example, the California Fire Science Consortium (the five-region exchange for California) developed a wildland-urban interface webinar series that was applicable beyond their regional boundaries. The series profiled five urban areas across the region, including Austin (Texas), Boulder (Colorado), Flagstaff (Arizona), San Diego (California), and Santa Fe (New Mexico). Examples of the most compelling land use planning tools were summarized to show how urban areas in the West are increasingly becoming wildfire-adapted communities.

High Priority Research Questions

Three of the high priority research questions that members of the FSEN are collectively focusing on:

  • Effects and effectiveness of different prescribed fire and other fuel treatment strategies (such as variability in treatment timing, frequency and intensity).
  • Potential effects of changing fire environments on vegetation, fuels and fire regimes.
  • Impacts of smoke from prescribed fires and wildfire.Picture3

 

While specific topics vary, they include: fire and grazing, smoke management, fuels reduction, fire-restored landscapes, and invasive species. For example, improved seasonal and short-term weather, fire danger forecasting, and effective fuels management recently emerged as high priorities in Alaska. In the Northern Rockies, fire science related to firefighter safety is taking center stage. In other regions, such as California and the Great Basin, the focus may be on invasive species.

Peer-to-Peer Communication

The best way to get science information into the hands of the boots-on-the-ground practitioners is through active peer-to-peer communication.

Without a doubt, the FSEN is considered to be the “go-to resource” for translating fire science research results, which fosters relationships among scientists and fire managers and is essential to the flow of information between those parties.

Specifically, interactive workshops, field tours and conferences foster a direct and immediate feedback loop.

Because shrinking budgets and more restrictive travel policies make face-time challenging, one middle-ground solution to this dilemma is webinars. For instance, the Lake States and Alaska fire science exchanges recently co-hosted a webinar on the new changes to the fuel moisture estimates in the National Fire Danger Rating System.

Best Way to Connect

The next best way for fire managers to connect with the FSEN is to visit the FSEN website and select the exchange that covers their region using the map on our homepage. Their region’s exchange staff or advisory boards can then connect them with other managers, practitioners and scientists working in their area.

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The organizational affiliations of FSEN participants in 2016 are represented in this pie chart. Note that the category of organizations with the most people participating in FSEN science delivery activities is the federal fire service. This category represents most of the fireline-type positions, our boots-on-the-ground community. There are also more of these folks in the State and Tribal categories.

 

Also online are a host of tools and resources, including fact sheets and science briefs. For example, a series of topic-based, searchable fact sheets are available on the Great Basin Fire Science Exchange’s website. The Northern Rockies Fire Science Network has a searchable archive that includes more than 400 recorded webinars and videos from a variety of partners.

Fire and fuels managers interested in connecting with their regional exchange can also subscribe to their exchange’s newsletters for updates and upcoming event announcements.

Social media is yet another way to connect with research results through the Fire Science Exchange Network and JFSP. They all have Facebook and Twitter accounts. Some also offer online photo galleries and blogs.

Identifying Research Priorities

In addition, since the network’s inception, each of the regional exchanges have individually developed mechanisms for stakeholders to provide input on research needs to help identify research priorities. FSEN is piloting a more formal way to identify and develop new research topics in the form of a database. When completed, the database will enable JFSP to: track the wildland fire science community’s progress on addressing research priorities, assess the degree to which national and regional research priorities align, and determine the similarity of needed science across regions.

In future years, the database will provide a powerful tool for informing funding priorities, not just for JFSP, but for other research programs investing in fire science.

Another change in the works is increased outreach to new partners and stakeholders. Exchanges have recently connected with many new partners, including: extension professionals, regional ecology teams, prescribed fire councils, and Firewise groups. These partnerships are part of our strategy to connect with the next generation of fire managers, which the FSEN’s advisory boards and steering committees have identified as a priority.

 

 

Self-Extrication

By Bre Orcasitas

Looks can be deceiving

Surely, there are countless reasons why someone would “choose” to leave the fireline. People come and go in fire like a revolving door and it’s easy to make assumptions as they pack up their lockers or desks. Perhaps it’s a worthy effort to put focus on some of the most prominent reasons why people leave and examine how it looks from the inside.

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  1. Injuries

There you are out on the fireline minding your own business when WHAM! One of a thousand scenarios takes you out. Not completely though, just enough to significantly alter your life. Maybe the injury pushes you out of the jump world; maybe it forces you out of fire completely. With either scenario, there is a sense of loss. You chose a certain avenue of fire because it was where you fit-in. Now you get to “choose” a different avenue of fire or get off the fireline entirely.

It’s less than desirable, but you know you shouldn’t complain because there are so many others who were banged-up to the point that they couldn’t come back at all. You are counted as one of the “fortunate” ones. Those who couldn’t return to fire after their catastrophic injuries but nevertheless, managed to survive are counted in the “lucky to be alive” category, which leaves little room to express anything but gratitude for their altered existence. An existence filled with chronic pain, doctor appointments, therapy sessions, and tracking of medical paperwork. When you’re “lucky to be alive” people give you the “yeah, but…” if you muster up the courage to tell someone how you really feel.

I am so sick of dealing with OWCP that my head is going to explode.

“Yeah, but you could be taking a dirt nap right now! The paperwork is probably better than the alternative right?!”

  1. Starting a family

There seems to be a constant panic about keeping women in fire. There are even committees dedicated to the retention of women. So what’s the problem? Although women (just like men) leave for countless reasons, starting a family is a heavy hitter. So let’s scratch beneath the surface, shall we?

First, let us recognize the ratio; for every 20 men in fire, there is approximately 1 woman. Just using statistics alone it’s easy to see that most male firefighters have a spouse who is not in fire, whereas most female firefighters have a spouse who is in fire. Why is that? As a woman, often times it’s much easier to have a relationship with someone who “gets it” rather than someone you have to explain your profession to. “What are you doing out there in the woods with 20 dudes?”

Since most female firefighters are married to fellow firefighters it makes starting a family exponentially more difficult because you don’t have the non-fire spouse with bankers hours to fall back on. Although a woman is no less dedicated to her career, she has no choice in carrying, birthing, and feeding her child; that’s just biology. Since there has been no smart career pathway created to navigate this circumstance within the firefighting community, the woman’s career is adversely affected and/or demolished, whereas the male experiences no career strain for the exact same situation.

While supervisors of the dad-to-be often times don’t even broach the subject of their upcoming parenthood, women hear statements from their supervisors such as, “well we could lateral you over into dispatch”, “family is the most important thing so if you need to leave fire to start a family that’s okay”, “so what are you going to do?” It’s being supportive without being supportive at all. But what else are the supervisors supposed to do exactly? There’s no flow chart for this because we haven’t collectively decided that it matters enough to figure it out.

Women are essentially forced into choosing between having a family or fighting fire, but men aren’t. Men don’t get placed in dispatch because they became a parent. There’s an overt assumption that if a woman becomes a parent she will be leaving fire which, often times ends up being true, but it’s because there is no support system not because she caught an uncontrollable case of baby fever. Because let’s be honest, fighting fire is a hell of a lot easier than the 1st year of parenthood.

To put the focus back on identity, how easy do you think the transition from fire culture to mommy culture is? You trade in your fire boots for a cutesy diaper bag and give up your nomadic lifestyle for a groundhog’s day existence. Having the firefighter’s stereotypical can-do attitude now leaves you feeling like a failure because as hard as you tried, you couldn’t figure out how to be a firefighter and a parent at the same time. And on top of that, you miss the fireline because it’s where you belong.

If you happen to find yourself on the fireline with a woman who is also a parent, stop and shake her hand because she made miracles happen in order to be there.

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  1. Saving your family

It’s no secret that there are high rates of divorce amongst the fire community for obvious reasons. During the fire season, work-life balance simply does not exist. The off-season used to be a time to reconnect with your family and try to make up for lost time, however, there has been an increase in meetings, trainings, and hiring obligations over the last several years that keeps fire folks away from home semi-regularly during the winter as well.

People want to spend time with their family and this career is not conducive to maintaining healthy relationships, so firefighters sacrifice positions on their beloved crews to ensure that their child will be able to recognize them when they walk through the door.

“Choosing” to take a lesser position, or leaving primary fire in an attempt to create some semblance of work-life balance looks good on paper but the reality is bittersweet, because it’s nearly impossible not to harbor feelings of loss. By taking that “lesser” job you traded in your passion for a steady paycheck that meets the need and nothing more. Your sense of purpose fades away as discontent slowly seeps in to take its place. You’re more or less leaving your fire-family for your family-family. One family takes a hit either way.

  1. Retirement

Retirement should be a time of celebration, a time when you can transition into the “choose your own adventure” part of life. But for many ground-pounders, their mandatory retirement date hangs over their heads like a guillotine. This is what you know, these people are your family; how are you expected to simply walk off into the sunset with a smile on your face? It’s just not that simple. “You have dedicated your life to this profession, congratulations! You’ve done it long enough that we are now forcing you to stop.” So the retirees give a courtesy chuckle to the youngster’s comment about how lucky they are to be done, while at the same time feeling slightly lost about what they’re supposed to do next. Where’s the IAP for this?

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Assumptions are salt in the wound

As it turns out self-extrication is jarring, whatever its form, in fact, it’s more like involuntary separation because it doesn’t feel like a choice at all. It takes time to come to terms with the loss of part of your identity; some people may never come to terms with it.

From the outside it’s easy to make the assumption that people who didn’t get killed in an accident are lucky, that all women want to have babies and are less committed to the job, that if you left your position to be closer to home you’re happy about it, or if you’re up for retirement you must be stoked. To assume these things would leave out the heart of the matter; being a wildland firefighter is more than just a job. The longer you’re in it, the more entwined with your identity it becomes until you can no longer recognize yourself without it, and then what?

So maybe it’s worth asking a follow-up question to those folks who are packing up their desks and/or lockers. You never know if that follow-up question could end up altering the outcome of someone’s situation, or at the very least, it can help them to feel valued as they walk out the door.

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It’s Going to Happen Again

By Mike Lewelling – Fire Management Officer – Rocky Mountain National Park

The Safety Officer stated that the purpose of our review was to learn from this accident and to ask ourselves: “How could this accident be prevented?” A good goal, and a good question. But, even so, it is a question that bothered me.

I recently had the unfortunate job of completing an accident review on one of my Hotshots who had received a very serious chainsaw cut wound to a finger.

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By policy—and good practice—we convened an accident review panel. This group included the Hotshot Superintendent; my Supervisor; the Park Safety Officer; the injured Hotshot; and me, the Park Fire Management Officer.

The Safety Officer stated that the purpose of our review was to learn from this accident and to ask ourselves: “How could this accident be prevented?” A good goal, and a good question that we should always ask. But, even so, it is a question that bothered me.

Important Sideboards

It seems to me that to even frame such a question, some sideboards and assumptions first need to be made. These include:

  • Unwanted wildland fires will continue to occur.
  • Line Officers/Agency Administrators will continue to request that firefighters suppress wildland fires.
  • Wildland fires will continue to occur in uneven, steep, rocky terrain with countless physical and environmental hazards.
  • Firefighters will continue to utilize direct and indirect strategies and tactics to achieve the mission.
  • Hotshot crews will continue to be asked to accept potentially higher-risk assignments.
  • Firefighters will continue to utilize chainsaws to effectively and safely accomplish their mission.
  • More? What other high-risk duties do we ask our firefighters to accomplish—that aren’t going to change as long as we continue to ask them to operate in the wildland fire environment?

Removing the Non-Realistic Mitigations

These sideboards/assumptions prevent the “Root Cause” seekers from recommending non-realistic mitigations such as:

  • Not being near wildfires,
  • Not walking on steep uneven ground,
  • Not going near physical and environmental hazards,
  • Not using dangerous tools like chainsaws.

The fact is, we made a personal choice to work in wildland fire, and that choice of employment carries with it inherent risk. The sideboards/assumptions (listed above) come with accepting this job. As public servants, the very nature of our employment comes with risk—meaning if you don’t want to be exposed to risk, you can choose another line of work.

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Here’s What Happened that Day

Having framed this accident with sideboards, here’s what actually happened that day on the Clark Creek Fire on Colorado’s White River National Forest.

The Sawyer and Swamper were asked to take care of a 3×3-foot spot across the fireline that was smoldering in the duff under a tree.

This spot was on a steep slope. The Sawyer, working the bottom side of the tree, had moved to the tree’s high side. The Swamper was clearing brush that had already been cut below the tree.

The Sawyer and Swamper were approximately 10 feet apart.

The Swamper slipped and fell toward the tree—putting his hands out in front of him to break the fall. At the same time, the Sawyer reached out with the chainsaw to limb the tree. Both of those movements closed the gap. The tip of the chainsaw made contact with the Swamper’s right ring finger, cutting through his glove lacerating the finger from his main knuckle to the tip of his finger.

A well-orchestrated medical treatment and evacuation occurred. The Swamper was transported by the Superintendent’s vehicle off the fire and transferred to a waiting ambulance who got the Swamper to the hospital emergency room in an hour.

Key Factors in this Accident

In reviewing the accident, we looked at several key factors:

 Risk Management

The crew has chainsaw JHA’s that they go over at the beginning of the season and periodically review, as well as tailgate safety sessions each day based on the day’s work.  These processes identified potential hazards as well as mitigations of Sawyers and Swampers working together.

Mission Drive

There was no sense of urgency. The spot fire was not posing an immediate threat. The crew was just beginning work for the day to complete handline and the fire was not moving.

Team Selection

The Sawyer and Swamper have been working together all year. Each person had two years on a Hotshot Crew. Prior to being on the Hotshot Crew, the Swamper had six years of fire experience. He is certainly well aware of risks and is proficient in moving over steep, uneven ground. The fact of the matter is, as a Hotshot Saw Team, these two are as experienced as it gets.

Training

The Sawyer and Swamper have had basic saw training, years of crew experience snagging, cutting hotline, bucking, felling, etc. In addition, the entire crew spends a great deal of time on Sawyer and Swamper operations as a standard operating procedure. 

Team Fitness

This accident occurred first thing in the morning. Both employees had good rest. They had just eaten, were warmed up, and were very situationally aware. Both of their physical fitness levels are outstanding. The crew was toward the beginning of their third assignment of the year.

Environment

This was a typical fireline environment that you would find on any fire in mountainous terrain. Cannot be avoided.

Work Complexity

Limbing and brushing-out around a tree is a skill that both of these employees were very proficient at. They had done this countless times this fire season. 

Complacency

The Sawyer and Swamper were situationally aware and are on their game when the saw is running. Although brushing and limbing are a task frequently done, when the saw is running, these two pay extra attention.

History

Looking back at this IHC’s history, this is the first reported chainsaw cut accident in more than 20 years. This is an astonishing feat given the countless hours of exposure and technical difficulty of their chainsaw operations.

These two employees were doing the job they were asked to do. And they were doing it in a way that was professional, competent and how they were trained to do it. The Swamper simply slipped and tried to arrest his fall by putting his hand out in front of himself. I do not know of anyone who has not slipped, tripped or fell at some point.

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My True Answer: “I Don’t Know”

My empathetic mind—as a leader of employees who are real people with real families and loved ones—cannot process that there is an acceptable level of accidents/injuries or fatalities in our line of work. However, the practical part of my mind has to acknowledge that once we agree to an acceptable level of risk, do we not also—at the same time—accept a certain level of loss? It’s a simple mathematical equation; probability and consequences.  If we accept that we have a 99% chance of success, that also means we accept the 1% chance of loss.

As leaders, we ask our employees to accept risk by completing assignments for us. If we ask them to accept this risk, did we just make a subconscious decision to accept the potential for loss should something go wrong?

I do not say “accept loss” as some flippant resignation that by accepting this concept that people getting hurt or killed is ok.  I want the people I lead to know this is a possibility, and in some part of their brain they will take that extra look, take an extra second, make a different decision that makes a positive difference in the future.

Therefore, my true answer to “How could this accident be prevented?” is: 

I don’t know.

Do You?

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Hotshot Was Burned When His Saw Geysered – Listen to His Lessons.

By Travis Dotson

Nic bucked up the tree he had just put on the ground. Then he shut the saw off and sat with his saw partner for 15-20 minutes. Nic got up to cut another tree. The saw wouldn’t start.

He had heard all the stories.  He had talked about geysering in training. He had even experienced fuel geysers before.

Watch:

Nic is solid. Chances are you’re solid as well.

Solid does not mean accident proof.

Wisdom from Nic:

  • “It caught me off guard because it didn’t match up to any of the signs I’d recognized before. I’ve been surprised once, I can be surprised again.”
  • “I never thought I would get hurt by opening my fuel tank. It’s not one of those things you recognize as being a major hazard.”
  • “I definitely don’t feel like I can predict it anymore. I don’t think it’s worth betting on, just treat it like it’s always going to geyser and put yourself in a better place whenever you plan on opening the cap.”

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Now you know – do something different.

We Made it Out, But it Was Very, Very Close – Reflections From The Nuttall Fire.

Everyone was moving in slow motion. On our intercrew I could hear our Lookout giving us updates calmly but forcefully: It was time to be gone.

 

By Matt Holmstrom

Current – Superintendent Lewis & Clark IHC

Nuttall Fire – Squad Leader Lassen IHC

There are so many impressions and recollections that I have from that day, July 2, 2004. Some of them are lessons I tried to learn and pass on to my guys, some that, even now, I’m not sure that I have fully processed. I do know it was very, very close.

And I do know that this is in contrast to the official record.

I was a young Squad Leader that day. One Foreman was detailed away and the other was in a large-scale lookout. So it was the Superintendent, another Squad Leader, and myself running the crew.

I remember that during the previous shifts we had been burning across these ridges and for at least one night shift. The slop-over on the Division that day wasn’t too large and certainly wasn’t very active. I thought it would be a good transition day from nights to days.

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We were cutting direct line and making good progress with the other crews. On our initial scout that morning we had identified the same “safety zone” that everyone else did. This would become the safety zone that the Flagstaff IHC ended up deploying in.

The fact that 80+ people all thought that a SZ that 20 people later deployed in looked good should give a good indication of our mindset. The Augusta IHC ended up in a nearby aspen grove with our Superintendent. Lassen and Plumas IHCs ran uphill back to the road system.

One of the Most Terrifying Moments in My Life

On that run, at the start, I was impatient to get going. I was trail, making sure that everyone had been accounted for and was together moving up the line.

Plumas was ahead of us and it seemed to take forever for the hike to start. Everyone was moving in slow motion. On our intercrew I could hear our Lookout giving us updates calmly but forcefully: It was time to be gone.

As we started up slope, the gaps started almost immediately. The Squad Leader leading our crew out was very tall and was striding it out, gapping the slower guys at the back. I was annoyed and was trying to close up those gaps. That’s when I had one of the most terrifying moments in my life.

I looked back below us to gauge the distance between us and the fire—fire that we could now hear. What I saw made me almost physically ill: one lone blue hardhat at the bottom of our line, looking around, obviously confused.

At first, I thought that I had miscounted. That I had missed one of my guys. I immediately started another head count. I was turning around to go back and shouting down at them to hurry when the two overhead from Plumas thundered past me downhill on the run.

Because both crews wore the same color hats, I couldn’t tell that this person was a Plumas firefighter, and not one of mine.

Of course, we all made it out that day, but that was a powerful reflection in leadership that I have always carried with me.  Those two guys ran down at fire coming uphill at them to help a slower teammate who somehow just got separated in the retreat. I got to see leadership and bravery exemplified, and tempered with humility.

Mike Sherman and Pete Duncan, my hat is off to you both for your courage and leadership. Again, none of this is in any official records, mostly because those guys are humble. They’ll probably be mad at me for mentioning them here.

I was in Disbelief—I Felt Tricked or Somehow Betrayed

Our Lookout, my Captain, later asked me why we didn’t leave when he first told us about the activity below us. He had eyes on the entire Division, gave us plenty of advance warning, and we could’ve left far earlier.

I couldn’t answer then and I would struggle to answer now.

I reflect back to the confidence that I felt that morning. The idea that this would be a good shift to transition over from the night burns we’d been doing and into the day shift. I remember being extremely convinced that The Plan was solid. After all, it was developed by guys who had been fighting fire longer than I’d been alive. If they weren’t concerned, why should I be?

I remember even once we were pulling out, I was in disbelief. I felt tricked or somehow betrayed. The fire had not done what it was supposed to, what we had planned for it.

I had completely forgotten that there is a home team, and we were not it. Looking back, I would say that we got head-faked by our earlier work. We were victims of our own making – through several successful shifts and the corresponding over confidence.

So, what did I take away from the Nuttall Fire?

  • Every day is a new day. Don’t be overconfident.
  • All transitions are tough and may be dangerous.
  • Listen to your Lookouts, you put them there for a reason.

Always remember that the fire gets a vote on your plan—Mother Nature always bats last.

 

 

When You’re the Division Supervisor and Fire Shelters Come Out

“I try to cultivate relationships and build trust so I can create an environment where people feel safe telling me that my idea is a bad one.”

By Jayson Coil

Division Supervisor on the Nuttall Fire

When I reflect on the events surrounding the entrapment and subsequent shelter deployment on the Nuttall Fire there is one main lesson that continues to resonate with me. Along with this lesson comes the acknowledgement of the cost of this lesson.

When I refer to “cost,” I am not referring to the cost for me personally, but the impact the event had on others that day. Like any other fire, there are firefighters who depend on us (leaders) for their safety. This is not to say that individuals are not accountable for their own safety. But the actions that those of us in leadership positions advocate for can most certainly influence the risks that a firefighter faces. This is the “cost” I am referring to here.

A Potential Slow and Painful Death

For some of the people on H-4 that day, it was their first big fire. For them, it was not just smoky, it was the scariest thing they had ever experienced. For others, it was another one of too many close calls.

After this incident, some people left their careers for other professions. And, there may be other impacts to folks that I am unaware of.

The conditions that afternoon were bad. When the fire whirl crossed the helispot, it would have been a slow and painful death if anyone had inhaled those superheated gases.

I Would Be ‘That Guy’

I am certain somewhere in my own thoughts, along with the concern I felt for the other people, I was also troubled about the personal impact if we deployed our shelters. This was my Division. I would be “That Guy”.

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Of course, I know it should not be that way. Such a concern should not influence one’s decision. However, I know that it can.

I try to remember the potential of a given consequence when I consider a course of action—to help myself remember that the actions you take early in an incident can impact your options days down the road. I find this sort of assessment beneficial because it prevents me from anchoring into false assumptions.

But if I minimize this incident’s impact on others, what message would I be sending?

I Wanted the Plan to Work

So, what did I learn on July 2, 2004?

 

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I learned—and I have attempted to remind myself of this on every subsequent incident—that the effort you put into a plan and its implementation should not taint your assessment of risk on a given day.

Many people had worked hard on that line. They were invested. I was invested. I had just arrived at the lookout when everything started to pick up. I am thankful for the leadership many provided that day.

I do not look at this incident with the notion of how I could have changed things that day. Rather, I look at it from the perspective that I was invested more in that line because it was mine and because of the hard work crews had put into constructing it. I wanted the plan to work. I wanted the line to hold.

I felt accountable for the slopover. It was my Division. So, I wanted it fixed and the line to hold.

However, I would suggest that this is the wrong way to look at it. We deal with uncertainty and variables outside our control all the time. Often, these variables lead to unintended consequences. Today, I try really hard to recognize that and continue to reassess the quality of information I have received.

I try to declare my biases and invite others to challenge my assumptions. I want them to help me calibrate because I know self-assessment is not the solution. I try to cultivate relationships and build trust so I can create an environment where people feel safe telling me that my idea is a bad one. From my perspective, that is essential to effective leadership.

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In Honor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots

By Brit Rosso – Director of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.

June 30th 2017 – The fourth anniversary of the Yarnell Hill fire, where we lost 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. A few weeks back I was asked if I could write something about Yarnell Hill to post on the fourth anniversary. I’ve been struggling ever since to come up with the right words to honor our fallen.

After some deep thought about this opportunity, I’ve decided to share a letter with you that was sent to me a few weeks after Yarnell Hill. I used to work with this letter’s author before coming to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. He was not a firefighter. He is now retired, out enjoying life. At that time, he asked me to share his letter with the families of our fallen Hotshots. I, in turn, shared his letter with a member of the Prescott Fire Department to pass on to the families.

Here’s a condensed version of this man’s letter. In honor of our fallen, I now share his words with you:

This is an open letter to the families of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew—all twenty members.

I am a biker. On June 3, 2013 I was camping on some U.S. Forest Service land near Happy Jack, Arizona.

After sleeping on the ground beneath the stars, I’m looking forward to a hardy breakfast at a nearby small café. I think it is called the Long Valley Café. But I’ve always called it “Happy Jack.”

Long Valley Cafe

The fire trucks parked out front do not register in my mind. I am only thinking of coffee and hot food. As I walk into this little restaurant, I see a whole bunch of firefighters. I see one waitress moving quickly and I can only imagine how long it will take for my breakfast to arrive. I whisper to myself: “This is a big mistake.”

The waitress is very fast. The next thing I know, coffee and water is on my table. Time is on my side, so I relax. I begin to look at the young men next to me. They appear to be very well fit, happy, and enjoying their breakfast with enthusiasm. Secretly, I hope there are a few eggs left over for me. They all look like they could be movie actors. They remind me of my son.

When the waitress hears my order—eggs over easy, hash browns, with corn beef hash—she writes it down and pours more coffee. The young firefighter next to me says: “That’s what I ordered. It was very good.”

I see this as an opportunity to make small talk. “What fires are you coming from?” Many of these firefighters quickly begin to talk at once—informing what, where, and how they left the last fire.

I am impressed. “Where are you going now?”

“We’re going to fires in New Mexico,” they say. I tell them that I just came from New Mexico and that two days ago there was severe lightning and rain. I tell them that I like their shirts with the words “Granite Mountain Prescott Fire.” This image sticks in my mind. I wish them well and say: “Be safe.”

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The firefighters get up, move toward their trucks, and are gone. But a young man comes back into the cafe and simply says: “Thank you, sir.” At the time, I thought he must be a bit homesick. I appreciated his comment immensely.

On July 1, 2013, the headlines immediately caught my attention. Nineteen firefighters die in Yarnell, Arizona. They are the elite Hotshot Crew from Prescott, Arizona. I read slowly knowing that the guys I met earlier were part of the Granite Mountain crew. Maybe this tragedy involved another crew?

The words became harder to read, but I continued. Toward the article’s end, my eyes see the words: “The elite firefighters are known as the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew.” They are the same guys I had breakfast with at the café. Tears fill my eyes. My wife comforts me, but does not really know why I’m so upset. I tell her about my connection to these young men.

Even now, days later, I cannot stop seeing those young firefighters in my mind having breakfast at that small cafe. To their family, my tears do not stop and I send to you my most heartfelt condolences.

To the survivor of the twenty-person Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew, “Thank you. I am so proud of you and your service.”

Make sure you find a way to Honor the Fallen every day.

Close Call Stories – Trusting Intuition

This post uses a video from:

THE SMOKEY GENERATION: A WILDLAND FIRE ORAL HISTORY AND DIGITAL STORYTELLING PROJECT

The Smokey Generation is a website dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing the stories and oral history of wildland fire.


By Travis Dotson

“I still kick myself for this…”

Ever felt that way? We all have. That is called hindsight. When we look back it’s easy to see what we should have done.

How do we take a “bad feeling” into pro-active mode?

“It’s so hard to put your finger on that bad feeling.” Yes.

“Talk about it, get it out in the open…maybe you’re not the only one.” Action.

Be able to say this: “Here’s my worst case scenario for the day and it’s sure going that way right now, maybe it’s time to talk about it.”  Bam.

Thank you for the wisdom Dan.