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

 

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

 

 

Old Boss Says…

The following letter is directly from the Redondo Escaped Prescribed Fire FLA

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TO: Current and Future Burn Bosses

FROM: An Old Type 1 Burn Boss

As an Old Type 1 Burn Boss, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a ton of great people and do what I believe is a lot of awesome work within our fire adapted ecosystems. This was my first time serving on Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) team. If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to participate on an FLA team. Please don’t wait as long as I did to get involved. Never stop learning, never stop communicating, and always strive to BE A STUDENT OF FIRE.

As a Prescribed Fire Burn Boss you operate in a very complex and ever changing environment. You spend months preparing for an event, and all along you need to be gathering situational awareness:

• Who will be on that hill at a specific time?

• Did I order enough blue houses?

• Will the food be on time?

• What piece of equipment will break down?

Oh, and don’t forget your day-to-day job requires a facility check next week and a hundred other things.

As a current burn boss, spend as much time as possible with future burn bosses. Teach new burn bosses to document everything, even if they think it is trivial. Why? Because to truly move forward with a learning culture, you have to be able to tell your story, and trust me, notes are golden.

As an Old Type 1, I want to share my experiences with you. Some learning was easy, some came the hard way. I’m sharing with you today with the hopes that you may learn from my scars.

• COMMUNICATION – COMMUNICATION – COMMUNICATION. Up, down, sideways. Never stop.

• Utilize the District as an ID Team to ensure your complexity analysis and burn plan is robust.

• Build an organization around yourself for support.

  •  This could be as simple as utilizing the type 3 militia.
  • Find the person that can locate anything, anywhere, and get them to assist with logistics.
  • Make sure you have plenty of drivers.

• Use an Incident Action Plan (IAP) and take the time to update all the blocks. The IAP will become your most critical piece of documentation.

• Invite overhead in at least two shifts prior to ignition. This will ensure everyone is familiar with the plan you’ve been working on for the past six months.

  •  Challenge these overhead resources to read the plan, to find what is missing, to poke holes in it – so that your plan becomes their plan, and is better for it.
  • Make time for a small command meeting before your first briefing. This will allow you to gauge the employees you have on hand and provide a chance to identify any resources/needs that are lacking.
  • CHECK RED CARDS.

• Partner with your dispatcher – they are extremely important to your success. Use ROSS to track assignment and qualifications of your people.

• Be in constant communication with your Agency Administrator (AA).

  • During the writing of the burn plan and complexity analysis, have meaningful dialogue with your AA. They are sharing the risk with you. If you can’t have a meaningful conversation or you don’t feel comfortable they are sharing the risk, STOP–THINK-TALK-THEN SIGN. Remember this is not about just checking a box.
  • If possible, have the AA on site for the entire event, or at a minimum during the critical shifts.
  • The AA is your partner during the burn; if you are not getting what you need, ASK – make some noise – get what you need.

• During the technical review process, ask for honest feedback and don’t take comments personally. Honest feedback helps you learn and makes for a better plan.

• Smoke is so very important, don’t just look at what the smoke is doing around the fire – look to where it will be that afternoon and where it will settle during the night.

  • Look at the area you could affect and double it.
  • Get the word out early and often.
  • Make sure you know who your smoke sensitive individuals are.

• Create a partnership with your district and/or forest PIO. Use the winter to provide information to the public and tell the good story about prescribed fire. Perhaps go with your AA and do some media interviews.

• Always look at ordering a FEMO for your prescribed fire events. This person is your weather and fire behavior documentation leader.

• Look at bolstering your fuels program. A strong fuels specialist will take your planning to a new level.

• REMEMBER:

  • BEING FLEXIBLE IS WAY TOO RIGID
  • YOU CAN ONLY BURN AS FAST AS YOU CAN HOLD
  • EVERYONE IS WILLING TO HELP, YOU JUST NEED TO ASK!

Thank you for all your hard work and never forget it is an honor to be a Burn Boss!

– Old Type 1 Burn Boss


Read the full report: Redondo Escaped Prescribed Fire FLA

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Crash and Burn

The following is an excerpt from the Sheep Creek Burnover Report


The Sheep Creek Fire occurred on August 18, 2018. A helicopter crash in a remote area near Battle Mountain, Nevada ignited a wildfire, resulting in a burnover of a Type 4 engine on a Search and Rescue mission responding to the helicopter crash.

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The helicopter was on a reconnaissance mission conducting a chukar survey. With a pilot and two biologists on board, the helicopter crashed in a draw, igniting the wildfire and injuring two of the passengers. They self-extricated from the helicopter and climbed up on a rock outcropping to take refuge from the rapidly spreading fire.

Firefighting and rescue resources were dispatched from Lander County Dispatch, including Battle Mountain Volunteer Fire Depart, local EMS services and a medical helicopter.

Meanwhile, Elko Interagency Dispatch Center was coordinating with Central Nevada Interagency Dispatch Center on a response to the rapidly spreading wildfire.

Two firefighters responding to the helicopter crash in a Type-4 engine were burned over soon after the occupants of the crashed helicopter were evacuated.

The Facilitated Learning Analysis Team worked to make sense of the event focusing on command, communication and accountability; qualifications, equipment and training standards; communication between dispatch centers; and key decision points along the way. Through facilitated dialogue with those involved, the Team shared lessons learned and recommendations.


Read the full report:

https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/sheep-creek-fire-entrapment-2018

Pinched Bar, Broken Fibula

This is an excerpt from the “Coconino Felling Accident RLS


The assignment for the day was to prep dozer line, cut a canopy break along a handline, and continue with prepping a road that the handline tied into.

The saw prep primarily consisted of limbing, bucking, removal of small diameter trees, and felling any snags that would impact the control lines or affect the safety of personnel.

The Sawyer’s upper body was brushed by the bole of the tree as it came down from swinging in the air. The tree then landed on the ground and pinned the Sawyer’s lower left leg as the individual attempted to use his escape route.

Cutting Procedure

The tree that caused the injury was a ponderosa pine snag approximately 50 feet in height and 26 inches DBH. After completing a “size-up,” under the direct supervision of a qualified C Faller, the Sawyer began his face cut on the right side of the tree in relation to the direction of the fall. The individual then moved to the left side of the tree to finish the face cut as the diameter of the tree was longer than the chainsaw bar and required a “double cut”. At this point, the Sawyer was on the uphill side of the tree when the back cut was started. This required the individual to get on one knee to put the back cut at the appropriate height in relation to the face cut.

The Sawyer began his back cut, but noticed it was sloped and began another back cut under the original attempt. While working the back cut, the Sawyer also attempted to bore the heart wood and unintentionally cut through all the intended holding wood.

While the saw was still in the tree and the Sawyer was still working on the back cut, the nearby C Faller yelled “It’s Going!” and the Sawyer began to stand and attempted to pull the saw from the stump and access the escape route. However, the tree was already hitting the ground as the Sawyer attempted to flee the stump.

Tree Lands on Sawyer’s LegScreen Shot 2018-06-28 at 1.56.51 PM

As the tree’s top brushed another tree, it made the bole rise into the air and roll off the stump onto the Sawyer’s leg before he was able to vacate the cutting area.

The Sawyer was on the uphill side of the tree when the back cut was started. This required the individual to get on one knee to put the back cut at the appropriate height in relation to the face cut. The C Faller immediately ran to the pinned Sawyer, grabbed the chainsaw, and bucked out the section that was trapping the Sawyer.

Two EMTs were shortly on scene to assess the patient. They determined that the patient was stable. The Supervisor made the assessment that self-transport to a medical facility was the quickest and most appropriate action.

A cell phone call was made to the Duty Officer to keep them apprised of the situation. The Duty Officer made other notifications at the Forest level.

The Sawyer’s injuries were all sustained to the lower left leg. Those injuries included a fibula break, a puncture wound, and a torn muscle.


Rather than a bunch of hindsight fueled “should haves

Share your personal lessons in the comments


Read the RLS document here:

https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/coconino-felling-accident-2018

Engrained into My Thoughts and Actions

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2016

The South Canyon Staff Ride was without a doubt one of the most influential experiences of my wildland fire career. It is one thing to sit in a classroom and learn about a tragedy fire from PowerPoints and write-ups. However, talking to the individuals involved, putting yourself in their shoes, and walking on the same ground they walked on, provides for a completely different level of involvement. The South Canyon Staff Ride engrained me with lessons that I will have for the rest of my life.

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Many people can read the book “Fire on the Mountain” and look at what happened on those days and say things like: “This could have been done different,” or “Why didn’t they (those involved) do this instead of that?” But, until someone actually gets up on the hill, works through facilitated scenarios with people of varying backgrounds, and hears what firsthand survivors saw and felt, they will not be able to fully grasp exactly what happened.

This is what makes the South Canyon Staff Ride so amazing and why it is one of the (if not the most) standout lessons of my fire career. Being able to hear the things the survivors have to say will stay with me forever.

As part of Redding Interagency Hotshots, I went through and did the preliminary staff ride work of reading “Fire on the Mountain”, the South Canyon Investigation Report, and the South Canyon Fire Behavior Assessment. We also prepared small briefs, which we (both as a crew and individually) presented to over 80 people. I first read “Fire on the Mountain” during my first year of fire back in 2008. I have gained a fair amount of fire experience and knowledge since that time. Reading “Fire on the Mountain” a second time brought about an entirely new meaning to me and how I look at and how I operate in the fire environment.

We also had the integration portion of the staff ride in which we were able to go around the room and hear over 80 different take-a-ways from more than 80 different people. It didn’t matter if someone was in their second year of fire or have been fighting fire for 30-plus years, every person had a varied take-a-way. Being able to share these points-of-view with each other was invaluable.

By far the most standout aspect of the South Canyon Staff Ride is being able to listen to the survivors of the South Canyon Fire. Being able to put myself in their shoes and hear exactly what was going through their heads is something that will be engrained into my thoughts and actions for the rest of my career in fire. All in all, I feel that any firefighter who has the chance to participate in the South Canyon Staff Ride will without a doubt benefit personally and professionally.

 

Finest Learning Experience of My Life

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should Be Mandatory

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2015

The South Canyon Staff Ride, as well as any other staff ride, is a tool every firefighter can benefit from. I feel it’s a valuable experience that should be mandatory. What you get out of a staff ride is so much more than what you get from any book, case study, or from watching a documentary. Walking on a hill where something tragic took place really puts things into perspective. It gives an understanding that I feel no other form of learning material can offer.

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The South Canyon Staff Ride can directly impact anyone as a leader. After reading the required material and hearing about the fire for years, hiking on the hill put you in a leadership role. Going over strategy, tactics, and decisions in your head as well as verbally were a valuable learning experience for me.

The tactical decision games kept you thinking and kept your head in what was going on throughout the hike up. I know we didn’t have the usual stresses that come with the job like fatigue and an extreme fire environment, but it put us in the moment as best as it could.

The staff ride made you think and think some more. For instance, what would you do if you were a superintendent? Or if you were a crew member? Where would you be as a lookout? Would you use multiple lookouts? What would you say with what you were seeing and when would you speak up if the situation made you uncomfortable? Dozens of questions and concerns kept the mind moving.

The staff ride created a mental slide that you will never forget, a slide you can hopefully refer to in a later situation. As a future leader, I have a tragic experience I can play off of without having a tragic experience, to lead a crew and make appropriate decisions if the occasion arises.

This experience will benefit the crew members I will work with in the future because after being at the site, I will be able to help paint a clear picture when we discuss the events that took place at South Canyon.

The passion the Subject Matter Experts displayed was amazing. It kept me completely locked into everything that was being said by them. The SMEs showed strength, guts, and courage to relive and share their experience. How they all come together to strongly encourage the message of safety and influence firefighters to be students of fire, year after year, is a great reason to be a recipient of the Paul Gleason Award. It was somewhat of a star-struck moment for me as I watched and listened to the very same individuals I’ve read about, watched on documentaries, and heard people talk about.

It was truly an honor to be part of this staff ride. It’s a proud moment that I can share with others throughout my career.

It’s an unfortunate event that changed the way we think as firefighters and the outcome is so sad. But it makes me feel safer in what I do knowing I can reflect on this event and it will allow me to make appropriate decisions in the future. Staff rides are important for firefighters and I hope we continue to make sound decisions with an emphasis on firefighter safety. I can’t thank enough the facilitators, the SMEs, and all the personnel involved in making this staff ride possible. It’s something I will never forget. With that being said, continue the great work, stay safe, and thank you again.

 

 

The Beating Heart Within Us

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2016

Being a Redding Hotshot is an incredible training opportunity. That is the priority reason that I endeavored to become one. I am now into July of the 2016 fire season. I have performed training now as a firing boss (t) and as a crew boss (t). I have received a multitude of classes that otherwise would have placed me firmly in the lower half of a wait list on my home unit.

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Of all the training and all the experiences that I will take with me from this season on the Redding Hotshots, I believe that participation in the South Canyon Staff Ride is the most valuable and precious. Earlier in the training season, we also attended the Rattlesnake Fire Staff Ride; it was a very good precursor to South Canyon.

As is necessary for all staff rides, preliminary study was undertaken to best understand the facts and sequence of events. Unlike South Canyon, however, the Rattlesnake Staff Ride takes place over a single day. In that single day we walked the ground, discussed decisions and actions that occurred, and performed tactical decision games.

The final element of all staff rides is the integration. This is where you coalesce all that you have learned and distill it all into a “take away” message. For the Rattlesnake Staff Ride I distilled a message derived from the results of the tactical decision games. This message was that when a sudden change is observed and a call to action is obvious, it is appropriate, prudent, and necessary to take the time to engage your mind, and others, before you engage physically. It is also at this time that you can go to the crosses and make peace with the memories of those who have passed away, and the terrible fate that has become your lesson. I certainly remember the 15 fallen firefighters who perished in 1953. To the extent that is possible, as an emotional being, I reached back into that time and tried to be there with them. It is not easy.

The South Canyon Staff Ride transpired over three highly organized and orchestrated days. On the evening of arrival we convened in a room where time was conscientiously allotted to allow the participants, group leaders, and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to create an abbreviated cohesion. This was invaluable as, unlike anything I had ever experienced, the SMEs were survivors of the tragedy.

1994 is still recent history to today’s wildland firefighter. Those living breathing people in that room and eventually on that same mountain with us, where 14 brothers and sisters died, were actually there. It was astounding. They wore the same PPE, carried similar fire shelters, and used the same radios, helicopters, hand tools, and chainsaws that we carry today. They used the same procedural approaches, Incident Command Structure, and safety protocols that we use. They were real and they felt real. There were questions. Everyone had questions and there were answers. I heard some of the most visceral and vulnerable answers to tough questions that will ever be heard.

My mind was awash with the events of July 6, 1994. A connection was established and reinforced in a way that cannot be replicated by anything less than the full force of what that program is. At the end of the field day we regrouped in a dining hall were the integration of the experience occurred. The range of experience levels in that room was all the way from entry-level firefighters to seasoned fire managers. And everyone had a novel and insightful contribution to the integration ceremony. Normally, one would not use the word “ceremony” with staff rides. But this was more than a staff ride.

I distilled the experience into this message: That a lesson cannot be truly assimilated into the core of one’s being so as to influence thoughts and actions unless there are strong emotional underpinnings. In the future it would be smart of us to try and behave, teach, and listen to the best of our abilities with attention paid to the beating heart that we each have within us. Make an emotional and intellectual connection to the messages you want to matter.

 

This Has Been Me Before

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2013

Participating in the Redding IHC South Canyon Staff Ride was a definitive moment of my career both in fire and with the U.S. Forest Service. In spite of all that has changed after the South Canyon Fire and over the past two decades, firefighter fatalities continue to occur every year. Firefighting is still an inherently dangerous job with many unpredictable and unforeseen hazards that sometimes result in tragedy.

We strive to see everything and anticipate all possible disasters but to say that we can foresee and mitigate every single pitfall we encounter on a daily basis is to believe that we can predict and control the future.

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In this dynamic and dangerous environment, my best defense against disaster is knowledge—knowledge of myself, my crew, and the environment around me as I build and constantly reevaluate my situational awareness. A great deal of the training to recognize situations, develop self-awareness and knowledge that we use from the first day we take Basic 32 came from the South Canyon Fire and studying human factors that played a role for every firefighter on Storm King Mountain on July 6, 1994.

While we may gain intelligence about fire behavior and modeling or advances in technology to aid our efforts in the future people are still people, imperfect and capable of mistakes, and many lessons learned from the South Canyon Fire are timeless.

If I fail to learn from the lessons fought and paid for by those before me then I am destined to repeat their fate. I will never forget after walking that mountain that it can so easily be me when I’m tired or stressed that misses important information or just a seemingly small detail that may turn out to be a crucial misstep later when time is compressed and decisions must be made quickly.

As we walked the West Flank Fireline with Eric Hipke he recalled that many firefighters had serious misgivings about constructing that line. Walking the line back from Lunch Spot Ridge toward Zero Point, I thought—as I had many times that day—“This could have been me. This has been me before.”

As we hiked, my crewmates and I discussed how many times we have been on fires like this and been nervous, had that gut feeling or hair rising on the back of the neck, and we just put our heads down and kept digging. Or we voiced our opinion which was ignored, or mocked as weakness and fear. So we put our heads down and dug or laid hose.

As we approached the last stretch of line on the staff ride, an incredibly steep pitch dotted with clusters of crosses, Hipke stops to point out a spot he remembers and give us more context of what happened as he hiked up that last stretch with the fire on his heels. He talks again of the gut feelings people had expressed earlier that day and pauses, recalling that Roger Roth was standing almost exactly where his cross stands and said earlier that day that this line wasn’t safe and they shouldn’t be there.

I will never again ignore my gut, put my head down and dig. Intuition is often the recognition of what I can’t quite put my finger on logically but somehow innately know is true. I will always listen to that feeling in the future. As a leader, I will also strive to foster an environment for others to express their misgivings and opinions as they may see something I have missed.

I have also learned during the Redding Hotshot training season that sometimes the simplest things are the most impossible to achieve, while those that seem the most impossible are actually the easiest goals to accomplish.

The South Canyon Fire, a seemingly small fire in plain sight of a neighborhood where homeowners constantly wanted action taken, was actually a complicated situation. The fire was challenging to access through the East Drainage, in terrain difficult even for smokejumpers to jump, and the apparently straight-forward task of cutting line on the West Flank was fraught with difficulty and struggle with rugged terrain, complex topography, and heavy fuels.

This situation was another lesson for me that walking away from a strategy becomes infinitely more difficult with every hour of work and every drop of sweat we invest in a piece of ground. I must always be willing to take a step back, look at the big picture objectively and reevaluate tactics and strategies. If a plan is no longer viable because of changing conditions or simply isn’t working, sometimes the best thing to do is walk away and make a bigger box. As Don Mackey said the morning of July 6, 1994: “No piece of line is worth dying for.”

On the first night that engines scouted to find access to the fire, someone shined a headlamp up the West Drainage and decided it was impossible to hike. Brian Scholz, Captain for the Prineville Hotshots in 1994 and gracious enough to recount the experience for us on the staff ride, had even asked if he could take half the crew waiting to be flown to the fire and hike up the West Drainage. But he was told that route was impassable.

Our second day hiking into Storm King, we followed a trail up the West Drainage that took less than half an hour at an easy pace. This path even seemed much safer to me than traveling up the East Drainage, which took hours for the local crews hiking into the fire. The seemingly impossible was actually the simplest answer. Even a small detail such as how we arrive at a fire can shape our perception and tactics.

The resources for the South Canyon Fire all arrived at the top of the fire whether they had hiked, jumped or been flown in and their plan was thus to cut downhill and underslung line to get around the fire. This is a lesson for me in the future to consider all options and again be willing to change tactics when considering the big picture, as well as to find out if something is really impossible or simply hasn’t been done before.

Our last morning in Colorado was filled with the hustle and bustle of 20 people coordinating for a single purpose. Check-out of rooms, get the buggies ready, and be ON TIME so we can leave. We loaded up, hoping for a call on our drive home to our dream assignment out of region somewhere exotic like New Mexico. Not long after leaving we took an unexpected exit and the quiet buggy was suddenly full of whispered speculation. We unloaded at a park with a dedicated memorial for the firefighters who lost their lives on the South Canyon Fire.

After weeks of planning and days of driving and intense training on Storm King Mountain, taking the time to stop and look at the faces and read the biographies of each life lost was one of the most poignant moments of this experience. Each person on those plaques reminded me of a fellow firefighter. They were a lot like my fellow crewmembers—athletic, some with a passion for firefighting and the Forest Service, all with a strong love for the outdoors and genuinely good people, men and women that I would like to have met.

After studying them and talking about them for weeks I feel like they are old friends who I haven’t seen in a while, people that had potential to be the future leaders and trainers of my generation and though they are gone, they continue to lead through training like this staff ride.

I have learned so much and been heavily impacted by what they went through on that July day. For me, safety means that we firefighters are the highest values at risk—these names and faces—every time we head to a fire.

On our last night as a large group each participant at the staff ride shared one thing that they had learned and taken away from this experience. One comment that a few people repeated stuck with me: Know your stuff, be the best at your job, and above all take care of your people because those are real lives and my son or daughter might be on the crew that you are leading.

I will never forget the lessons learned from participating in the South Canyon Staff Ride. They will continue to influence my development as a leader and a person for the rest of my life. Thank you for the time, effort, and support that you have contributed to make this invaluable experience possible.