Close Call Stories – Trusting Intuition

This post uses a video from:


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.


Burn Injuries – Wrong Hurts

By Alex Viktora

Wildland Firefighters receive burn injuries every season. Often times some sort of flammable liquid ignites resulting in a burn, like the rather common drip torch leg burn scenario mentioned in this NWCG memo. Other times we fall in stump holes and ash pits—sometimes up to our waist!

And then there is the plain old flame front scorching our elbows through Nomex or the super bad deal entrapment situations. Bottom line, it happens. So we need to know how best to follow through on medical treatment for these instances—because you can do it wrong, and wrong hurts!

Read these reports using the links below:

Rim Fire Burn Injury    Farm Fire Burn Injury    Mystery Fire Burn Injury

Information Collected from Multiple Burn Injury Incidents—Here are Some of the Most Important Reminders, Lessons and Tips

 First of all, if you or someone with you, gets burned, report the injury! Even if you think it’s a minor burn, even if you think you screwed-up somehow—let someone know about the burn. Chances are it’s worse than it seems and time untreated can be a bad deal all around—from paperwork to infections. It’s just better to let someone know and get the ball rolling toward proper treatment.


Go to the place that can help – It’s called Definitive Medical Care (Emergency Room, Clinic, etc.)

  • Burn injuries are often difficult to evaluate and may take 72 hours to fully manifest.
  • Burns are different. Not all doctors have experience with the types of burns that firefighters suffer. Burns require specialized experience to treat appropriately. This often means that the injured party will need to seek care at a Burn Center.
  • Burns must be kept clean. Therefore, the fireline isn’t a good place to try to manage a burn injury. If you’re treated and released, don’t go back to the line. Don’t go up on a lookout. Focus on taking care of your burn injury.

Nobody wants to hang out at the hospital, but make sure to run through this list before you are discharged:

  • Make sure your Agency Administrator is notified, especially if you’ll require follow-up treatment and referral to a Burn Center.
  • Agency Administrators should be involved if there is hesitation to refer to a Burn Center.
  • Referrals to Burn Centers are critical and must be in the patient’s hands before leaving the Emergency Room, clinic, or doctor’s office.
  • When there is any doubt as to the severity of the burn injury, the recommended action should be to facilitate the immediate referral and transport of the firefighter to the nearest Burn Center.
  • Physicians Assistants (PA) CANNOT write referrals for Burn Centers (or any other increased level of care). If a PA prescribes any follow-up, including Burn Center visits, it must be countersigned by a Doctor (MD).

Copy? Here’s the deal: Get your higher-ups involved. Have a discussion with your higher-ups about a Burn Center referral.

Burn Center Tips

  • Burn Centers have both in and outpatient services. If you think you might need to go to a Burn Center, ask to be referred—even if you won’t need inpatient treatment (hospital stay).
  • Burn Centers may prefer to consult via telemedicine (such as e-mailing photos or videos of the injury, video-calls, etc.), rather than transporting a patient to their facility.
  • Ask about the option to have a Nurse Case Manager assigned to the case.

OWCP Claimant tips

  • Your OWCP claim number is critical. Once you get this claim number, put it in a place you’ll be able to access when you’re on the phone with doctors, visiting the hospital, filling prescriptions, etc.
  • YOU—the patient and claimant—are ultimately responsible for your OWCP case. Get involved. Pay attention. Ask questions. If you’re not getting the answers you need, keep asking.

Call the Wildland Firefighter Foundation (208) 336-2996. They have experience dealing with folks who have received burn injuries in the line of duty.

Watch this video:

Socks Matter

By Alex Viktora

I used to work for the National Park Service. One of the sweetest things about working for the NPS was the official socks.

That’s right. Socks.

As a member of a wildland fire crew, I rarely had much need to be in official NPS uniform, so my annual uniform allowance was spent on socks. Brown wool socks. If you wear them with shorts, you look like…well…German?

I bought so many of these things, I still have a cache of unopened wool socks in my closet.

As most firefighters can attest, keeping your feet in good shape is super important. The NPS uniform socks—most of which are a milk chocolate-colored wool blend—were awesome socks on the fire line.

I’ve always known this.

But what I just now learned is this: These sock could save me from a serious burn. Come to think of it, they probably already have.

My Leg Had Fire Swirling Around It

In maybe my third season, I was on a prescribed fire somewhere in Utah. I’d been running a torch for days and days during our typical spring burning. I usually carry the torch in my right hand, and so my right pant-leg was, uh, pretty dirty. It wasn’t drenched or dripping, but it was certainly flammable—as I was about to find out.

On this particular shift, I was the guy way up the hill, with torches strung out down the hill below me.

We came to a place where we had to hold-up firing for a bit. For some reason, someone rang me up on the radio. I answered the call. As I did so, I moved maybe 10 feet downhill from the line of fire that I just laid in ponderosa litter. (If you’ve never burned in ponderosa needle litter, you’re missing out. Mmmm….Pondo litter!)

This line of fire backed slowly towards me. And as I yammered away on the radio, the fire inched closer and closer to my right leg.

Suddenly, I looked down. My leg had fire swirling around it.

I thought: “Wait—I’m on fire?” What a bizarre realization!

I put the fire out and I can’t say for sure how it all happened. One thing’s for sure: Putting that fire out took longer than I woulda guessed.

My Nomex turned that telltale yellow/brown. And I had some ‘splanin to do to the boss. My damaged ego was the worst of my injuries. My leg was barely as red as a sunburn.

Did my socks help prevent a serious burn injury? Turns out, they may have.


Tips on What To Do If Your Pant Leg Catches on Fire

The folks at the National Technology Development Program in Missoula have done some recently released great work to describe what happens when Nomex catches on fire. And it turns out, wool socks could be a key part of avoiding a burn injury.

Check out this new video for some cool tests:


Here’s a few specific tips on what to do if you find yourself with your pant leg on fire:

Testing Results and Accident Observations

  • Swatting at burning fuel can increase the fire intensity.
  • Stop, drop and roll does not readily extinguish fuel fires on clothing.
  • Fuel-soaked clothing burns hotter and for a longer duration than clean clothing.
  • Wool-blend socks provide significant protection to the wearer from thermal burn injuries caused by burning drip torch fuel.
  • Pouring water from a readily available water bottle onto the clothing is an effective way to extinguish the fire.
  • Dropping the pants to the ankles removes heat from next to the skin.

Next time you’re shopping for socks, consider some woolies that come up above your boots. Turns out, even the lovely brown ones might save your skin.

Do you have a story like this? Do you own any green Nomex pants that aren’t as green as they used to be?



Lessons from the Knoxville Mobilization Center

How Thorough and Creative “What If” Thinking Led to Safety Successes

SERBy the 2016 Fire Safety and Learning Teams, U.S. Forest Service Southern Region

 [Note: As part of the historic 2016 fall fire season in the Southeastern United States, the U.S. Forest Service deployed teams throughout the Region to capture learning opportunities.]

IMT personnel at the Knoxville Mobilization (MOB) Center during the 2016 fires in the Southeast were proactive.

Instead of saying: “We had an accident and then we changed our procedures,” they thought through intricate scenarios about how things might go wrong—so that they would go right.

The intent here is not only to share the specific lessons, but also to encourage this type of thinking.


Procedures and Innovations

  • High visibility vests were worn by all command and camp help for safety and to also ease recognition of leadership.
  • One-way traffic was established at ICP to streamline the mob/demob of crews.
  • Safety was emphasized during loading and unloading buses and boarding planes. They eliminated access to the active runway through the positioning of buses. 
  • Driving in the area was particularly dangerous. Crews were informed not to try to convoy.
  • They reduced the potential for off-duty incidents by having crews turn-in rental vehicles the night before they flew out and established hotel shuttles. They were also mindful of housing crews in areas that had restaurants and laundry facilities nearby.


  • The Emergency Phone Number for the airport ambulance was conspicuously posted around the MOB center so that people would NOT call 9-1-1. Calling 9-1-1 would have sent an ambulance from the city, which was much farther away.
  • Intake materials were printed in Spanish and English.
  • They also set up a text message system and email account to communicate with crews about departure times.
  • To enhance and ensure optimum communication between the IMTs and airport, one person was assigned as a single point of contact.
  • This liaison was extremely important in working with airport personnel to get access to secure areas. For example, the secure snow bay was used to keep crews dry during loading and unloading, which helped with safety and morale.
  • The liaison formed relationships with the pilots and flight crews, which allowed the opportunity to weigh-in early and fly when ready instead of sticking to a rigid schedule.
  • The liaison worked with the rental car company and the airport to identify alternative parking options to accommodate the high volume of rental vehicles being returned at the same time.
  • The National Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation spoke to incoming crews on the apron which provided a clear boost in morale, and emphasized Life First.


Adaptive ICS

  • IMT personnel were flexible about roles and tasks. When it was time to load or unload, everyone in the ICP, except for Finance, would put on a vest and go help.
  • They weighed crews in the night before they were scheduled to fly and allowed them to shed excess weight in a less stressful environment.
  • They assisted fire victims by donating excess items that had been shed to the Red Cross.
  • They ordered a 10-person module for the MOB center specifically to streamline loading and unloading of cargo and personnel.

Fuel Geysers: Take the Quiz, Hear the Latest

You’ve heard the term “fuel geyser,” right?

If you haven’t, watch this:

That’s a fuel geyser.

Even if you’re familiar with the term, there’s a high likelihood you’ve fallen victim to some falsehoods, myths or half-truths surrounding what a fuel geyser is and what it isn’t.

Think you know fuel geysers?  Prove it!

Take the quiz below. Then hear a great conversation with a real-life engineer who’s been trying to crack the fuel geyser code. He’s Ralph Gonzales, U.S. Forest Service Engineer, surfer, mountain biker and all around cool dude.

Tell us how you did in the comments below!

Next, listen up for the latest on fuel geysers:




More Resources:   

Report a fuel geyser                   National Fuel Geyser Awareness Campaign Website

Fuel Geyser Reporting Form Capture                                      Screen Shot 2017-06-02 at 12.23.23 PM

Who Mixed the Fuel?

3:1, 1:1, 3:2? What’s the right ratio for burn juice?  If you don’t have an opinion on drip mix you must not be very cool.  The more adamant you are the more likely you are to talk loud about how everyone else does it wrong – no matter the topic.  Wait…what were we talking about?  Oh yeah…drip mix.  Amanda Stamper shares her view on the matter, and gives us a bit of a history lesson as well.

Torch Mix

By Amanda Stamper – Oregon Fire Manager, The Nature Conservancy

A recent podcast about drip torch leg burns got me thinking about drip torch fuel mix ratios. It is no coincidence that I make this association. Last October my pants caught on fire while I was burning gamble oak in New Mexico. After having learned during briefing about how to properly extinguish Nomex on fire by grabbing your pants with a gloved hand and pulling them away from you to extinguish rather than smothering the burning fuel against your skin, and just before my pants combusted, we engaged in lively debate about the proper drip torch mix ratio. And I thought the mix was too cool!



So what is the proper drip torch mix ratio? Does the likelihood of one’s pants catching fire change with different fuel mix ratios? Have you ever wondered how bio-diesel might work in a drip torch? How were burns ignited before the various combustible liquids were at our disposal? These and other questions arise the further one probes.

Ask Ten Fire Managers

Ask ten fire managers from across the country for the ratio of diesel to gasoline in drip torch or slash fuel mix, and you are bound to get at least two if not three or four different answers. Not sure about the ratio of agreement vs disagreement, but suffice to say that drip torch mix ratios depend on the fuels, burning conditions, and perhaps nothing more than past practice of the organization or local area.

Where longevity of combustion is more important than temperature, as in pile burning or broadcast burning for reduction of larger diameter fuels, a higher percentage of diesel may be desired. More diesel than gasoline is perhaps the only cardinal rule when it comes to mix ratio, with somewhere between 3:1 and 4:1 being the most common. The most volatile mixture, according to the U.S. Forest Service, is 3:1, and is recommended for use only in appropriate fuel types (such as grass) during periods of high humidity.


A 5:1 fuel mix ratio is reported to have been used on the Saddle Prescribed Fire, where a burn injury associated with pants igniting occurred in 2012. My pants caught fire with the 4:1 ratio being used on the burn in New Mexico, that I had deemed cool given that I had long been using 3:1. Is longer-burning fuel a contributing factor? Does gasoline vaporize more readily and thereby contribute less to pants igniting? More research to this end may be needed.

More on Bio-Diesel

As for bio-diesel, it works just fine with drip torches and has been utilized in both hand pile burn and broadcast burn situations since early 2006. The Medford District BLM has used over 1,200 gallons of bio-diesel in slash mix during prescribed fire operations to date. The mix is made by using 99% bio-diesel and regular unleaded gasoline in a 3:1 slash fuel mixture. Bio-slash fuel burns similar to regular petroleum diesel/gas mix, but with less toxic wick smoke, with more of a cooking oil smell instead of sulfur or diesel fumes. The liquid is also less toxic for personnel and the environment during mixing and handling. The cost when using the “off road” discount is comparable to diesel #2. Bio-diesel has a solvent effect on the slash tanks and drip torches and seems to prevent sediment build up, as well as a slightly higher flashpoint than regular diesel.

Other Firing Devices

Before flammable liquids were being used in wildland fire operations, fire was ignited using materials largely obtained from the same environment being burned. Among the most notable in North America is the fatwood from longleaf pine, from which the fat lighter used for setting the woods on fire is made. The rich and resinous smell of its smoke only adds to the pleasure of burning.

Fire-stick farming refers to the burning practices of Australian Aboriginals to enhance the productivity of the land., Many wooden matches have been struck and tossed by sheep herders on their way down from the mountains to rejuvenate meadows for grazing. Recreational burners everywhere use lighters if that’s all there is.

Would you feel comfortable throwing matches instead of dot firing? What are some other traditional or unconventional firing devices that we could and should be using?

Bad Refreshers

By Travis Dotson


We have all been there.  The seated refresher.  All day in a chair.  Even if the videos are good, the process gets old.  The set up is not conducive to learning – it’s more likely to result in drowsiness and habitual Facebook scrolling.

So why do we do it?

We all know most folks get told “you need to put on the refresher this year.”  Then that person just replicates what they have sat through in the past.  We are not professional educators so what we get makes sense.  I happen to think there are a few small steps we can take to make our yearly tune up just a bit better.


1. Be Relevant: Use this: Annual Incident Review Summary I know – shameless plug for LLC stuff, but this thing is purposely built for injecting relevancy into curriculum.  It’s what happened last year.  It’s what those in the bulls eye had to say about what happened to them.  It has exercises you can do.  Modify them to suit your situation.

2. Go outside:  There are so many ways to do this.  Do a classroom section on driving and then load everyone up and drive to a field site for the next section.  That is real deal theory/application right there!  You could even design your own Staff Ride that meets refresher requirements!  If weather does not allow, replace outside with stand up and move around.

3. Prepare:  Use this: Wildland Fire Safety Annual Refresher Training  Again, it’s purpose built.

4. Be honest:  Talk about real stuff.  Authenticity matters.

5. Look to experts:  Be inspired by TED talks.  Show one and discuss it, we love relating non fire stuff to fire.   Go further.  Make presentations look like TED talks.  Don’t talk for more than 20 minutes – ever.  If you have a screen, don’t put lots of words on it – use pictures.

That’s all.  Just five things that could help.  Maybe just do one of them.  I’m sure you have ideas of your own – share them in the comments.



Drip Torch Leg Burns

By Travis Dotson


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.  Thats all.  Just letting you know.  You are now armed with awareness.

Is that all?  Did the Lessons Learned Center just do it’s job?  Think it will work?

Of course we get leg burns from drip torches!  We’re slinging gasoline around hot stuff right next to our legs…it’s gonna happen.  What’s amazing is how good we are at NOT catching ourselves on fire.  We scramble across crazy complex terrain with stupid heavy packs while carrying an unwieldy hand tool in addition to the 15-pound fire maker with a pig-tail brush catcher – that’s a great recipe for self-ignition!

So if we know that, what can you do to increase the odds of not being the person in the burn unit?

Listen to this 7 minute podcast:


Now what?

Talk about it.

“Leadership is an inch wide and a mile deep” – National Staff Ride Workshop

By Persephone Whelan



What is a staff ride workshop and what will I learn?

I wasn’t quite sure, but I seized the opportunity to attend the Shiloh Battlefield Staff Ride with both hands and didn’t let go. I knew we were going to revise the Mack Lake Staff Ride for the Mio Ranger District on the Huron Manistee National Forest and if this was part of the process, count me in! I had no expectations and really wasn’t quite sure what would happen.

The first part of the workshop we were definitely not part of “the gang.” Two interagency hotshot crews were present. I felt like an ice cube floating in an IHC punch bowl.

That first evening we had a briefing and a brief sketch of how the next day would be conducted. I hope I am not dating myself too badly here, but do you remember a Shilo3children’s show when we were younger with the song, “One of these kids is doing his own thing…” and you looked at the pictures and it was obvious which one was different? Well, during that first night, that song was drifting through my head as I looked around the room at the audience. The staff ride developers were there but were definitely not like the others! They divided us into four groups, intermixing the staff ride teams with the hotshots—diluting the ice cubes, if you will. Our purpose was to exercise the decision-making skills of wildland fire leaders against the historical background of the Battle of Shiloh.

Learning that is Intoxicating

The next day exposed a diversity of thought and an exposure to a type of teaching and learning that is intoxicating.

We were immersed in a cli
mate designed to “create conditions of success.” We were exposed to skilled facilitators who were focusing on what was happening in the group dialogue and weren’t forcing their own agenda or what they felt SHOULD happen. They maintained a light hand on the steering wheel of guided discovery and adapted to allow us to discover what we didn’t know. The point wasn’t the choices made by leaders during the Battle of Shiloh or the historical context of those choices. The point was to get us to think, to talk, and to listen. Utilizing questions with no definitive answer but designed to provoke and sprinkling quotes like the one in the title, that were reflective of the difficulties inherent in developing leadership qualities. “Leadership is an inch wide and a mile deep” was Shilo2thrown around multiple times by our group facilitator. Leadership is a simple little word thrown around by a lot of people but to define it, to teach it, or to live it is to dive a mile deep into the worlds of philosophy, rhetoric and life.

By the end of the day we were no longer ice cubes floating in that IHC punch bowl, we had melted together into a group of practitioners.

Sharing the Learning

The following day we left the IHCs to finish the staff ride and dove into the process of creating o
r revising staff rides. While there were groups from many different agencies, we all had a common purpose. There were events and resulting outcomes in our respective areas that we felt were important to share this learning with the entire tribe.

After a day of grinding out our staff rides’ framework we joined back up with the IHCs to reflect upon the day’s events and share everyone’s perspectives about what they had learned. Many of us felt remiss about missing the second half of the staff ride but we understood that we were there to taste the tenets and then practice them.

Excellent Mentors

The OMNA men were excellent mentors. (OMNA International specializes in helping organizations with leadership development ( I felt they were moving speakers that inspired thoughts and a lot of contemplation about our own personal roles in leading our respective agencies. During one of the integration dinners one of the OMNA facilitators startled all of us by declaring to the group, “People are like tea bags”. There was a long pause while he gazed about the room, while we all wondered where this statement was headed. “You know what they are made of once you put them in hot water”. We all laughed a little but there were many nods of agreement. Through their open questions, well placed quotes and prodding comments, they pointed out to us how we can utilize experiential learning in a safe atmosphere to give people the space to discover for themselves what they are made of before the fireline tests us in a less forgiving environment.


This style of learning models an important concept for our respective organizations and our overall tribe that stretches across geographic boundaries, fuel types, and management objectives.

Amazing Story

An amazing story was told at the end of the second day of the staff ride by one of the OMNA facilitators about The Wizard of Oz. He told us how this story isn’t just about Dorothy, there are other characters who seek to get more from the Wizard. The scarecrow is seeking a brain, the tin man is seeking a heart, and the lion is searching for courage. He reminded us that by the end of it all they discover they have it inside them. This is how a lot of us felt. This is what we do with our people. We help them discover what is within themselves. Many times, the OMNA facilitators reminded us it is our job to invest in our people and not just spend our time. If we invest in our people we will get returns in many ways.

For me, this style of learning models an important concept for our respective organizations and our overall tribe that stretches across geographic boundaries, fuel types, and management objectives. Our relationships are integral to the transfer of information through communication. Our interpersonal relationships are unique to every situation and so are the fire grounds upon which we meet.

This workshop resulted in a draft product for our staff rides, a cache of inspirational quotes, and another important product. It resulted in a change of thought for me. I realized that this type of learning can be utilized for many other things than staff rides.

A staff ride just provides a place to talk. It gives us the lasting impact of knowledge of a tool that we can utilize for many different venues—like refreshers, S courses, L courses, etc. I left inspired and motivated to continue investing in others. This experiential learning left me with a lasting impression on my own leadership ability and the potential cultural change for my overall “tribe” of wildland fire culture. This impression lingers in the form of another quote from those couple days:

“Understanding can be far more valuable than agreement.” – OMNA Facilitator

Emerging Lessons – 2016

We just published another episode of our Podcast, you can listen here:


Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 3.00.12 PM

We talk about some of the “numbers” from this season.  Things like four cases of early season Physical Training Rhabdomyolysis in four days (May 4-5) and nine instances of “equipment burn damage”  (vehicles, chainsaws, camp equipment, etc).  Are those “trends”?  I don’t know for sure but I tend to resist using the term “trend” because I feel like it’s been thrown around way too loosely in our business.

How many safety officers have you heard get up at briefing and admonish the crowd about some “growing trend” we all need to look out for.  In many cases I feel like those “trends” were actually two personal observations or even repetitious rumors taken as gospel.  Thats annoying because it can add to the fog of misinformation and firecamp falsehoods.

All that to say we have some numbers, in addition to those numbers we have a few lessons.  The lessons typically come from the reports themselves, meaning they are based on a single event – advice those involved in that particular incident would pass along to others.  Sometimes we are able to extract additional lessons by looking at multiple events and identifying similarities (trends).  Here are just a few from this year.

Beware of early season physical training.  We had multiple instances of medical emergencies during the first several days of “critical training”.  When the crew comes on for the first week – be very mindful of how the week is structured.  If you are going to get started right off the bat with a “test” type of PT – what is the emergency plan and do you have emergency contact info for everyone…especially the new folks?  Think about it.

Oregon PT Heat Stroke    Day One PT Rhabdomyolysis    Black Hills NF Rhabdomyolysis

Take the time to make sure the black is cold before you park.  Yes, several vehicles caught fire this season.  Yes it takes time, but think about that sick feeling you get in your stomach when you see black smoke coming from the area you parked in…and then the radio crackles to life and you know exactly whats coming.  Not only parking, but anytime you stage equipment of any kind…fire surprises all of us so stay humble.

Erskine Dozer Transports    RX ATV/UTV Burn     Deer Creek Engine Burn

Do some homework on your tires.  How old are they?  How many miles do they have on them?  Are they on a recall list?  Better to look into this stuff than find out after a blowout and multi lane swerve…just saying.

Crew Carrier Tire Failure    AZ Tire Blowout


Your call.