Is the Wildland Fire Service Better Off than it was Ten Years Ago?

[This is an interview that Travis Dotson had with Mike Lewelling, Fire Management Officer at Rocky Mountain National Park. Mike manages a complex program and has an important perspective on growth and change in the wildland fire service to offer us.]

IMG_0555

Mike Lewelling – Fire Management Officer at Rocky Mountain National Park.

By Travis Dotson

TRAVIS: Is the wildland fire service better off than it was ten years ago?

MIKE:     I’m so divided on that question. I see positives and negatives. If we’re talking about medical response, yes definitely we’re better off than we were 10 years ago. But it doesn’t matter where I go, who I talk to, everybody is talking about HR and the difficulty in hiring and how that is diluting our pool of professional people that we want. And then there is budgets, changing priorities from the top, and other things like that. So, are we better off than 10 years ago? It depends on what angle you’re looking at it from.

TRAVIS: Give me an example of the good and bad.

Zion Regulars 2000

Mike with the Zion Regulars Crew.

MIKE:      One of the things as far as risk management goes is just the significant difference in perspectives and approaches between IMTs. There was a fire recently where the very first team got with the Agency Administrator (AA) and the AA said “We are not going into the timber. Trees are falling over for no reason. There is serious risk of people getting killed. We’re not going into the timber.”

Some hotshot crews looked at it and said “Oh man, if we can just dig this line right here, we can cut it off.” But the AA stuck to their guns. They said “No, it’s OK if it burns, it’s going to come out. We’ll wait for it.”

So another team comes in and it’s the same. A subsequent team was more aggressive and said “You know what, we can get through this and put this out.”

There is story after story of just the differences in teams and how critical it is for AAs to maintain consistency in team transitions. Two or four months into a fire, the home unit gets tired of the fire and eventually gets a team who says “We can put this thing to bed.”

TRAVIS: Yeah, we don’t control what team shows up in the rotation. The aggressive team could have shown up first. And it’s totally fair that local units get tired of dealing with a fire. That variation in styles might not be something we can eliminate, but we can improve how it is we prepare our workforce, including Agency Administrators.

MIKE:     I am impressed with how our involvement with AAs is changing. I was able to be a part of the M-582 (Fire Program Management; Leading Complex Fire Programs) cadre as a table coach and it’s very interesting to see the different levels of Agency Administrators that are coming up. There’s some that have absolutely no fire experience and some that have a ton—and I don’t know which one’s better!

Agency Administrators also need their own team of people helping to make these risk management decisions so they don’t just hand the fire and all the decisions to the IMT. The concept of “Shared Risk” is vital to the decision-making.

TRAVIS:  Is that progress? The way that we acknowledge the Agency Administrator’s role and our efforts to educate both our fire workforce and Agency Administrators on the process?

MIKE:     Absolutely. I would definitely say that I’m real impressed with the new M-582. They include a Cerro Grande site visit. The Agency Administrators come out of there going “Wow, that was actually worth it for a week.” You try to get an Agency Administrator to go to a week-long training—it better be good.

TRAVIS: That feels like progress—we have Agency Administrators going on site visits!

But getting back to the areas that we can’t put in the “progress” pile. Do you have hope for us getting better at things like hiring?

MIKE:     Honestly, no. I don’t have much hope. It’s been five years of “Oh, it’s going to be better.” And yet every year, it gets worse. We’re eating ourselves from within.

Whether it’s how we have to reconcile our credit cards to how we do travel to how we hire, each of these processes operate as a silo and there’s no consideration of how they impact each other or the whole. We are supposed to hire the best and brightest for a more professional, educated workforce that can make better risk decisions. It’s becoming more and more difficult to make that happen. And it is connected to risk!

TRAVIS: Sure. Say a bad thing happens on the fireline. Someone gets hurt. People often ask: “What risk decisions were made prior to and at what capacity do those decision-makers operate? What kind of training do they have?” and so on. Seems like you can draw a pretty straight line to hiring.

MIKE:      Absolutely. One of the foundational considerations when evaluating a high-risk mission is team selection. You want the best team that you can get. If you don’t have much to pick from, you might be in trouble.

Medical Emergency Response

TRAVIS:   Getting specific on the medical emergency response, tell us a little bit about your experience and background with that element.

MIKE:      Here in the Park we have always had some sort of plan. Like “OK, if somebody gets hurt, we’re going to get them out of there.” But we never really dialed-it in—like exactly what are we going to do? Being able to answer the questions that got put in the IRPG after the Andy Palmer incident [https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/dutch-creek-tree-fel]:

  • What will we do if someone gets hurt?
  • How are we going to get them out of here?
  • How long will it take to get them to a hospital?
Itent into Action

Mike Lewelling

On the Big Meadows Fire in 2013, we ordered an Incident Management Team and we were all trying to figure out the “Dutch Creek Protocol” together. We did all kinds of stuff that probably never would have happened in the past as far as EMTs, Paramedics on-site because it’s a very remote fire.

And you wouldn’t expect it, but we had a hotshot go down with sudden cardiac arrest! They were hiking to the line from spike camp and boom! They had an AED to him within minutes and they successfully restarted his heart and brought him back to life. 10 years ago, we would not have had an AED on the fireline.

And there’s nothing like sitting in ICP, hearing a call come in saying “no pulse, not breathing” and instantly, I know what that means. And I know that person is not going to survive and sure enough, “Paramedic on scene”—with AED. And they brought him back to life and he fought fire the next year.

That was an absolute life saved, no question. And no question it was attributed to changes made after the Andy Palmer incident.

TRAVIS:  Wow.

I remember hearing about that incident and what I kept saying to anybody who would listen was “They had an AED in spike camp!” When I’m loading up for spike camp, I’ve never to this day said “Make sure the AED is in there.” I just don’t think that way.

MIKE:       Yeah, no kidding. And really, I mean even to this day, it’s very common to NOT have an AED in spike camp.

I think about risk a lot. I was recently thinking about the term “luck”. The definition of luck is very similar to risk. And I wrote it down: “Success apparently brought on by chance rather than one’s own actions.”

I don’t think we’re going to be studying “luck management.” But, thinking ahead and positioning yourself in a way that has the most potential of being lucky. That’s very similar to risk management. Louis Pasteur said: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

TRAVIS:  “Are you good or lucky?” A lot of people lean on that. I think it’s a great parallel to draw between luck and risk. It comes into play with blame as well. If something goes bad and we are thinking about “risk” it is somehow easier to assign blame. Whereas with “luck” we are more able to accept as is—whether good or bad.

MIKE:     Yes, absolutely.

TRAVIS:  Do you have any other personal experiences that have shaped your perspective on this?

MIKE:     Yes. The San Antonio Fire [https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/san-antonio-fire-tree-strike-2018]. I was the lead for the FLA. What really stuck out to me for that one was: “How do you choose between multiple unsafe options?” The Type 3 Incident Management Team, the two Agency Administrators, hotshot crews, they all got together and looked at options for this fire and there was not a safe option to be had.

Every fire has some kind of risk. But this fire had high risk no matter what choice you took. Going direct, you’re going down in a hole, in timber, super steep slopes—not ideal. But going indirect was way worse. A lot more people at risk.

TRAVIS:  And they’re also doing that in the shadow of a community that has some pretty vivid memories of big bad fires—the Cerro Grande Fire and the Los Conchas Fire (both located outside Los Alamos, New Mexico).

MIKE:     Absolutely. So on the San Antonio Fire, some weather came in and it kind of parked the fire for a bit, giving them a chance to catch it small. But in doing so, when they decided that they were going to do a high-risk operation, they were like “OK, how can we mitigate some of the risk?”

They had four hotshot crews. They ordered a REMS (Rapid Module Extraction) team. They had the helicopter with short haul capabilities. They got prepared. Then two guys get hit on the head by a limb!

Those 60 hotshots packaged both patients and got them out before the REMS even had time to set up. They prepared because they knew they we’re going into a risky situation.

TRAVIS:  Compare that scenario to a similar one pre-Dutch Creek (And Palmer’s tragedy incident). I feel like that looks different.

MIKE :      Yes, I think it would be more like: “Hey, let’s go direct on this and we’ll just get after it.”

And the hotshot superintendents I know, they’re all for it. It’s not “Oh man, we’re being forced to put this ‘mitigation’ in place.” It’s more like “Hey, if one of my people gets hurt, I want to know that I can get them out.” Sometimes you get policies or procedures in place and people are kind of negative about it. But I haven’t heard too much negative chatter on this. We all want to take care of our people.

TRAVIS:  Some folks debate the process, whether we should be using a military style “nine line” or the current “eight line” version. Should it be geared toward treatment or transport? Should it be standardized or let IMTs each have their own? That is the stuff folks nitpick. But I think you are right. Everybody is on the same page about if we’re going to put somebody out there and ask them to do the dangerous work, let’s be prepared to support them when the bad thing happens. And to me, one of the big changes is using the word when rather than if the bad thing happens.

MIKE:     Absolutely. We had a fire this summer and I was flying over it. It was kind of a “peninsula of fuel” and there’s only about a quarter mile of line that needed to be cut.

If we didn’t cut that quarter-mile line, it would have turned into a rest-of-the-summer fire because it was going into an area that there is no way we could send people. And so during the briefing, we acknowledged this situation. We only have a quarter mile to cut but there are snags. There’s beetle-kill through there and it is a high-risk situation.

I trust the people who are going to be up there making the final decision. So once you get up there, make the decision about whether you can go for it or not. But just know that by this one high-risk operation, it’s going to save two months of additional high-risk operations and a lot more people at risk.

And we got some good feedback from the people who went up there. They said: “Thanks for setting the stage for us.”

TRAVIS:  Sure, enabling them to make an informed decision with support and the capacity to respond. And acknowledging that, yes, somebody could get bonked out here and everybody is on the same page about that. I think that is difficult for some managers.

MIKE:     Yes, absolutely. For managers to fully appreciate the risk and if the folks don’t want to do it, they’re fully supported.

TRAVIS:  Yeah, on the operator end, if you decide not to go in, it’s almost like knowing you will have moral support. But if you DO decide to go ahead with the mission, it’s like having physical support: knowing we have a dialed-in medical plan and the capacity. There’s a ship on call and we know the phone number and we know the helicopter is actually sitting there on the pad, that kind of stuff.

MIKE: Yes, Absolutely.

TRAVIS: In the past, it was more of “Let’s go for it”. And it feels like a lot of that was just based on hope. Let’s hope no one gets hurt. Let’s hope nothing bad happens. I mean, it wasn’t exactly like that, but a lot of the attitude was just like, hey, man, that’s what we do. We deal with the unknown and if the bad thing happens to be somebody gets hurt, trust us, we’ll deal with it. We’ll improvise. And we did good a lot of times.

MIKE:       Until we didn’t. Until it took two hours to get someone onto a helicopter.

TRAVIS: Unfortunately, that’s kind of how the fire service tends to do its learning.

So what are some other ways that we still need to improve in this area?

What We Still Need to Improve

MIKE:       Well, I think just an overall support of the medical and evacuation mission. We kind of piecemeal it together right now. When hiring, our hotshot crews may think “Oh sweet, this person’s an EMT!” Or we say “Hey, let’s order a REMS module” or something along those lines. We don’t have actual positions, not like “We’re going to hire you and you’re going to be a GS six instead of a five because you’re an EMT” or be able to provide that kind of training. As a whole, the firefighting machine does not support it. It’s not funded or incentivized.

TRAVIS: Yes, hiring by hope: “I hope an EMT applied this year.”

MIKE:       Right. And beyond that, maybe even improving the whole REMS. I’m not sold on that whole concept yet. But I think it’s good to invest in it and give it an honest try.

TRAVIS: On the REMS, I feel like we are at the beginning and it needs time to improve. It’s still more of an “idea” and people are adapting gear that was meant for other stuff to fit our situation. Eventually, we’re going to get to the point where we’re making situation-specific gear and protocols—that stuff just takes time.

I mean, five or eight years ago you could literally say the words “Rapid Extraction Module” and most people would ask: “What are you talking about?”

On the EMT and Paramedic front, there’s a lot of people feeling like “Hey, if we’re going to step into this realm and we really are going to take care of our own out there, then where is the agency sponsored EMT and Paramedic training?”

MIKE:     Yes, absolutely. And then comes the debate: Are we a wildland fire service, or are we an emergency response service? Everything is complicated.

Biggest Positive Changes?

TRAVIS: Overall, what would you say are the biggest positive changes you’ve seen in our culture during your entire career?

MIKE:     I think we are more mindful about how we manage fires now. I saw a map side-by-side of all the fires from the early 80s into the 90s and it’s all these little pinpricks of fires. And then you go into the 2000s to now and the footprints are a lot bigger. There’s a lot that goes into that. But I think part of that is not always throwing everything at every fire. Mother Nature uses fire to clean house and it doesn’t matter what we do, she’s going to do it eventually. So whether we put ourselves in the way of that or let it happen is an important decision. I think that, overall, risk management—how we respond to fires—is a significant advance.

TRAVIS:  For sure. I’ve seen research showing that the best investment we can make is big fire footprints. That is what ends up being both a money saver and exposure saver down the line as well as an ecological investment, obviously. For so long, large fire footprints were only being pushed from an ecological perspective and now we’re talking about the risk benefits of changing our default setting away from just crush it. There is often an immediate and future benefit on the risk front (less exposure now AND a larger footprint reducing future threat).

MIKE:      Yes. Absolutely. And every fire is different. Every day on every fire is different. And so you can’t make a blanket statement. And it’s tough. Around Rocky (Rocky Mountain National Park) we’re trying to set the stage with the public that, we’ve got beetle-killed lodgepole that goes right up to the Park boundary and we have communities down the gun barrel where we frequently have 70 mile-an-hour winds. As the Fire Management Officer, we have got to think outside the box about preparing. It’s no different than preparing for a hurricane or a tornado or a volcanic eruption. If you live where the natural event happens, you need to be prepared for it.

TRAVIS:  Do you feel you have the capacity and the support to get better at that kind of planning?

MIKE:      Certainly for fire response, getting the word out there that we are not going to be able to send firefighters into the middle of a beetle-killed forest. I’ve got a couple photos that help sometimes. I compare a green healthy lodgepole forest in which I wouldn’t hesitate to send people hiking three or four miles into that forest to put a fire out. And then I’ve got a current picture of this jack straw nasty mess. Imagine sending people through that when trees are falling for no reason? And so we’re slowly telling the story.

 

 

 

Your Goofiest Story

TRAVIS:  Alright, that is all super good perspective and information. Now for the most important: What is the goofiest fire-related event you can recall?

MIKE:     Oh man, there have been a few. This one sticks out:

I was dropping ping-pong balls at Whiskeytown. I was front seat. Before we took off, I was joking about getting airsick. I said: “I got my puke bag!” So I had my puke bag in my pocket and we’re flying and we’re dropping ping-pong balls and the pilot goes, “Hey, you got that puke bag?” I looked at him and I kind of laugh. I’m like, “Well, yes, but I’m good.” He’s like, “No, give it to me!” And I’m like, OK.

And so I gave him my puke bag and he starts hurling as we’re flying. You know how your body kind of convulses when you puke? He somehow bumped the controls and we just come screaming out of the unit. And thankfully, the PSD operator stopped dropping balls in the back. But yeah, he puked all over the place and then of course my puke bag had holes in it and so he hands it back to me and his pukes drip all over my legs. We ended up flying back over the fire and dropped the puke into the fire.

So, that was kind of goofy.

TRAVIS:  You cannot make that stuff up.

MIKE:      And it wasn’t that he was airsick, it was food poisoning or something. I don’t know how you can puke and fly at the same time. I’m glad we didn’t crash.

TRAVIS:  Dropping ping-pong balls when the pilot gets sick—classic.

Do you have anything else on this whole topic of “growth” that you had other thoughts on?

More of a Learning Environment Now

MIKE:      I guess just the whole learning process. Moving away from punitive, how that circles back around to risk management. I’ll never forget one of our NPS leaders throwing all of my friends under the bus during Cerro Grande and just how ugly that was. And from experiencing that to now, being able to be involved in some of the FLAs. I know that it’s definitely more of a learning environment now. For me, that’s been huge.

TRAVIS:  Yes, for sure. In terms of progress, in general, I feel like we treat people better, specifically those who have been involved in some sort of really bad outcome.

MIKE:      I agree. I feel like sometimes you wake up and you have the best intentions for the day and the bad thing happens and it changes your career—and even your life.

TRAVIS: And when that day happens to someone other than us, man, wouldn’t we want to be supportive and try to get some good out of it? Because that’s going to happen to them no matter what, their career/life is going to change. Now, what are we going to do to treat them and ourselves as “brothers and sisters” since we’re so fond of using that term?

MIKE:     Yes. You’ve got to mean it.

 

All The Good

[Over the next several weeks we will feature content related to “Growth in the Wildland Fire Service.” The content published here will also be featured in the Spring 2019 Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Travis Dotson

Who has been to this operational briefing?

“Alright, listen up folks. Over here is a bunch of open line that is gonna bite us in the ass if we don’t deal with it, and over here is all the good work we have already done that I’m feeling pretty good with. FBAN says today should be pretty chill but there is a decent chance for active fire tomorrow. So I want to get out there and aggressively patrol that section that is looking good. Let’s take some time today to admire all that good work we have already done! On that other piece, the open back door, let’s just wait and see what happens. We can always hope things turn out OK. That’s the plan! See you at DP 13—right there where the WishInOneHand Road and CrapInTheOther tie in.”

Nobody has been to that briefing!

Well, maybe a few of us have. But, hopefully, that is an outlier because that is not how we roll. We focus on where the work needs to get done and we get to work when we have the window. So why am I even talking about this?

I feel like I’m about to give a version of that briefing, and it feels kind of awkward.

It’s no secret that I tend to focus on the bad stuff. The stuff we need to get better at—our cultural shortcomings. I love to point out fire service blind spots and the overabundance of hypocrisy. I feel I have to zero in on that stuff because that is where the work is.

I also recognize that reading my rants with regularity one could come away with the wrong impression. One might think I view the fire service as a giant mob of dirtbags collectively digging an ever deeper echo chamber to bumble around in chanting meaningless catch phrases to no one in particular. This is not the case. I need to acknowledge that. WE need to acknowledge that.

trend

Upward trend graph

The wildland fire service is incredible. We are a collection of high-quality individuals working to create and maintain high-quality teams and organizations. We do amazing work and we make ourselves better all the time. Here is a short list of relatively recent self-induced growth:

  • We can use Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).
  • Our boot diversity has exploded.
  • Radios are smaller.
  • Lunches have improved.
  • Our maps are more functional and accessible (although they don’t fold up as well).
  • We are better at planning for and dealing with medical emergencies on the fireline.
  • We are better at recognizing and dealing with the impacts of trauma on our workforce.
  • We have improved the way we treat firefighters when reviewing accidents.
  • We have almost started to wrestle with outdated cultural norms around gender and power.

And then the caveat. Remember this is a list of improvement—progress does not mean perfection. Trust me, I have had plenty of bad lunches in the past few years. But a bad lunch in 2018 is a far cry from a bad lunch even five years ago (and they get worse the further back we go).

Why am I so hesitant to point to good stuff? Why does it feel a little awkward?

Maybe I’m afraid it will be interpreted as permission to stop working on whatever is mentioned. Maybe it feels a bit Pollyannaish—like I’ll be accused of rockin’ rose colored goggles. Maybe I’m just a pessimist.

Or maybe I am the product of a culture that encourages a pre-occupation with failure. I think there is some research out there that says that is a good thing. I can’t remember exactly what it’s called but I think it somehow involves the words “High” and “Reliable.”

Whatever it is that makes me focus on the areas needing work and hesitant to tout success, doesn’t matter. The fact is we get better. That is what we do.

We should take a moment every so often to look back at all the good line we have put in, do a few fist bumps and have a snack (from our high calorie snack-packed lunch). And then get back to work.

Strong work, Toolswingers!

Ground Ignition Equipment Standards?

By Paul Keller

torch1

You now have an excellent, super-comprehensive “one-stop shopping” resource for insights and information on all ground ignition equipment standards and procedures.

Released this February, the 134-page “NWCG Standards for Ground Ignition Equipment” publication (https://www.nwcg.gov/publications/443) discusses everything from the advantages and disadvantages of using ATV/UTV torches to how to best transport flares and flare launchers.

Got a question about gelled fuel blivets, power torches, or terra torches? You’ll no doubt find your answer here. This 2019 document is an updated revision of the last 2011 version that now includes additional details for new equipment and manufacturer points of contact.NWCG Ground Ignition Cover

As stated in the publication’s introduction, its ground ignition standards include:

  • Ensure that all ground ignition operations are performed in a safe and efficient manner.
  • Provide a framework within which areas, regions, states, and local units can provide their own supplemental, site-specific guidance.
  • Provide the minimum standards and specifications for ground ignition equipment.
  • Provide basic information for each type of commonly used ground ignition equipment to aid with safe operation and to help with selecting proper equipment for the desired ignition results.

Publication’s Organization

“NWCG Standards for Ground Ignition Equipment” is divided into nine chapters: “ATV/UTV,” “Drip Torches,” “Flares and Flare Launchers,” “Fusees,” “Gelled Fuel Blivets,” “Plastic Spheres and Launchers,” “Power Torches,” “Propane Torches,” and “Terra Torches.”

Each of these chapters includes: an equipment description, operational advantages and disadvantages, sources of equipment, situations favorable for use, safety requirements, qualifications, equipment inspections and fuel mixing methods, operating (normal and emergency) procedures, maintenance and storage, and resources.

If you’re going to be implementing firing operations, this publication provides a great reference resource!


Here is some context related to this topic:

Ice Canyon RX Burn Injury

“The Terra Torch wand was leaking burn mix near the trigger. The operator got some burn mix on his right pant leg around the calf area, which ignited.”

Drip Torch Leg Burns

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 12.26.08 PM

“It happens often.  Second and third degree burns on the calf associated with using a drip torch.”

 

 

Who Uses Lessons?

By Travis Dotson

If you haven’t seen it yet, please look at the 2018 Incident Review Summary.

Cover

We compile this 10-page report every year. It’s kind of a big deal to us here at the Lessons Learned Center because, well, it’s the lessons (pretty much what we do). It for damn sure is not ALL the lessons from the past year. But it’s the topics we chose to highlight based on reviewing incident reports all year (year after year).

We get it wrong sometimes. That happens when you try to simplify complex things.

But, so what, imperfect tools are still useful (ever used a McLeod?).

Please answer the four questions below:


Thank You!

Please use the lessons.  We care about all of you.

Drawing the Line of Duty

This is from the 2018 Incident Review Summary.


By Travis Dotson

We recorded the work-related death of 19 wildland firefighters in 2018.

lineDuty

But not everyone is on the same page about which ones should be considered a “Line of Duty Death.” Everyone agrees that if you are overrun by fire or get hit by a tree on the fireline—that is death in the line of duty. But what if a fire crew member doing project work begins convulsing, goes unconscious, and is pronounced dead at the hospital? What if a fire crew member gets home from a fire assignment and dies the next day due to complications from pneumonia? Tough questions. But for us here at the Lessons Learned Center we list them all because we are concerned with LESSONS—not numbers. Each of these tragic instances provides an opportunity for collective and individual solemn introspection.

Flag


Exercise

In small groups discuss these topics:

  • What does the term “Line of Duty Death” mean to you?
  • What are the lessons from a non-typical firefighter death?
  • Should we honor people differently based on how they died?

Random?

Here is more from our forthcoming 2018 Incident Review Summary.

By Travis Dotson


Strange things do happen out there on fire assignments. Some of them are certainly outlier occurrences, some of them are not. Either way, these instances often provide an opportunity to re-frame and think about hazards we may not have recognized.

randomrandomrandom

Check these events out – then do the exercise at the end.


Shooting

“The incident personnel watched with binoculars as one of the two individuals put a scoped rifle on a bi-pod and looked up the mountain toward them.”

Miriam Fire Shooting Incident


 

SepticTank

North Spring Fire Septic Tank Incident


 

BlastCaps

Blasting Caps Discovered During Mop-Up


CansExplode3

Owyhee Fire Can Explosion

Davis Fire Can Explosion


Exercise (30 minutes)

Study these incidents.

Individually think about a time you were surprised on a fire.

Tell each other your “surprise stories.”

Discuss this question:

If we blame all surprises on “poor SA” –

what lessons are we missing out on?

How We Roll

Here is more from our forthcoming 2018 Incident Review Summary.

By Travis Dotson


In 2018 we collected 17 reported Rollover Incidents. Mostly Water Tenders and Dozers (5 each). The others were chase vehicles, an Engine, a UTV and an ATV.

Almost all of the rollovers involved slipping off the road shoulder.

We move big heavy things around on dirt roads under difficult conditions while stressed and tired.

We sometimes slip off the road.

Rolls

Got a Dozer or a Water Tender in your Task Force?

Heads up.

5n5


Here are a few clips from reports:

“…he began to feel the back of the Tender pulling him sideways as the Tender began to slide off the road.” Cougar Creek Fire Water Tender Accident

“…dozer slipped off the edge of a logging road and tumbled down end-over-end…” Sugar Pine Fire Dozer Rollover

“…passenger side front wheel traveled off the edge of the road, and the engine departed the roadway, and rolled.” Fawn Fire Engine Rollover

“There were three slip locations, spread over several hundred feet, where Dozer 1 left the trail prior to the rollover.” Ferguson Dozer Fatality

“…it left the road on the downhill side and rolled over.” Miles Fire Water Tender Rollover

“…he became distracted and the truck drove straight off the road.” Ferguson Fire Water Tender Rollover


This is from the 2016 Incident Review Summary:

2016_Rolls


 

Exercise (30 minutes)

Study the quotes above.

Individually write down your answer to this question:

What are all the reasons you can think of why we might “slip off the road”?

Compare your list with others.

Discuss ways to prepare for and prevent rollovers.

 

 

 

 

Tree Trauma

By Travis Dotson

“Hit by Tree” events are a difficult topic. We have had a series of tragedies in recent years. We’ve endured eight fatalities in the last four years.

We’ve had one hotshot die in “Hit by Tree” incidents each summer for the past three years.

Each instance is heartbreaking. These events are sometimes difficult to process because there is often a feeling of inevitability around the issue of wildland firefighters being struck by trees.

How do we make these events matter?

8in4

Eight “Hit by Tree” Fatalities in four years.


Not every time a firefighter gets hit by a tree results in death. In 2018 we received reports of 16 non-fatal incidents. Each instance is terrifying.

How do we make these events matter?


TaylorCreekRLS

“The butt end of the tree hit the faller as it jumped backwards off the stump and swung uphill almost 25 feet.”
Taylor Creek RLS


 

SanAntonio2

San Antonio Fire FLA

From the FLA:

The limb struck Joel on the left side of the hard hat at an “angle smearing the hard hat off his head.” The branch also hit Memo hard on the back, knocking him to the ground.

The story here is a description of several hotshot crews engaged in direct attack on a fire in extreme terrain with numerous snags, and steep slopes with rocks rolling down the hill like a bowling alley.

Why were they exposed to such risk? Why were they even there? What happened? Did someone mess up cutting a tree? Did someone walk under a bucket drop? Did they lose situational awareness?

What do we learn when there is no glaring mistake made?
No “Human Error” that caused the accident?

After a thorough review of this incident, the FLA team has come to a potentially confounding conclusion: That in the case of the San Antonio Fire accident, Line Officers, IMT members and on the ground firefighters did just about everything right.

But wait, firefighters got hurt really bad…WHY?


During a chainsaw training session, a Fire Captain who is an Advanced Faller (C-Faller) Cadre Member was struck by a grounded tree limb that was under tension. The Fire Captain remained unconscious with agonal respirations as they completed an assessment of his injuries. The Fire Captain suffered significant injuries to his head, neck and chest that required hospitalization.


Exercise (30 minutes)

Study the events above.

Identify what has the most meaning for you.

Write down a few notes on WHY your selection has meaning.

Compare your answers with others.

Discuss these Questions:

What makes an event have meaning for us individually?

What makes an event NOT have meaning?

Chainsaws and Drip Torches

We are working on the 2018 Annual Incident Review Summary.  As we compile the summary we’ve got some highlights to share with you.  Read this.  Do the Exercise. (Maybe include it in your Refresher Training.)  Give us feedback.  The final version of the 2018 Annual Incident Review Summary will be out soon!


By Travis Dotson

The list of things we get hurt doing is pretty much just a list of things we do. So, is what we do dangerous? Or is what we do safe and it’s the way some people do it that brings on the danger?

OR is black and white, all or nothing, either/or, no middle ground thinking ridiculous and especially problematic on the fireground?

In 2018 we collected 16 different reports of incidents related to Chainsaw Operations.

Is that:

  • Proof of the numerous poorly trained operators out there?

OR

  • Flat out amazing that the number is so low given the amount of time we spend running saws?

Didn’t we just talk about false dichotomies?

At least we get to choose the perspective we take.

So here are some numbers, lessons, and an exercise.

Make them mean something.


 

SawOps

2018: Out of 16 “Chainsaw Ops” incidents, 10 were “Hit by Tree” and 6 were “Saw Cuts”

 


chaps

“The poison oak vine grabbed the chain and pulled the cut tree down into the chainsaw bar, pushing the bar into the sawyer’s leg about four inches below the left knee. The saw’s teeth grabbed the sawyer’s saw chaps and rolled them from the outside inward.”

Taylor Creek Chainsaw Cut


FiringOps


“During the burnout operations, a sudden wind shift and explosive fire growth happened and at about 1733, personnel were cut off from their escape routes. Most of the firefighters were able to move back to their vehicles to exit the area. However, six individuals farther down the dozer line were forced to run in front of the advancing flame front, through unburned fuels to a nearby dirt road for approximately one mile…”

Mendocino Complex – Ranch Fire Burn Injuries and Vehicle Damage


CrewBurn2

“I hurdled over the fence, the tool in my pack caught the fence, I fell face down.”
Camp Fire Entrapment Burn Injuries


BurnedPack3

While conducting firing operations a hand-throw firing device ignited in a pouch on the firefighter’s web gear.
Edison RX Firing Device Incident


Exercise

Write down your answer to these two questions:

1. What makes chainsaws dangerous?

2. What does “Playing with Fire” mean to you?

Discuss your answers with the next firefighter you see (hopefully you know them).

Has Nothing Changed?

By Travis Dotson

SameOld

You should probably just go read this article:

What We Learned from the Yarnell Hill Fire Deaths

It’s written by Kyle Dickman.

The subject matter is of great interest to us here at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.

It has to do with wildland fire. It has to do with learning.

It has to do with a monumental trauma in danger of being rendered inconsequential.

Here are a few quotes from the article:


“Over time, the relationship between tragedy and rulemaking sewed into the culture the belief that firefighters die only when they break rules.”

“While these rules are well intentioned and do indeed save lives, he says they also impose a false sense of control in a wildly chaotic environment.”

“…there’s a relatively high probability that a tree eventually crushes you, you step on a bee nest, grab the business end of a chainsaw, or get burned. Yet somehow, most firefighters Smith polled believe they work in a low-risk environment—something more like a factory floor.” 

“..if the Forest Service admitted the incredibly high chance of death their people are exposed to, their firefighters—or maybe their families—might demand fair compensation.” 


You should probably go read it.

You need to think about this stuff.

We are spending lives every summer yet we are not clear on what we are buying.

Check it out:

What We Learned from the Yarnell Hill Fire Deaths