No One Wants to Believe It Can Happen to Them

This is Asheville IHC Reaction #12 – part of the Asheville Hotshots written reactions to  “The Big Lie”

After reading the Big Lie I was definitely on the same mindset as Mark Smith—no one wants to believe it can happen to them. I agree with the part of the essay that says “There is acceptable risk. There is no acceptable losses.”

There is only so much we can predict, manipulate, influence, and control on fire situations. Whether it be suppression or prescribed, we base a lot of our actions on expected fire behavior and forecasts—but how often is the weatherman right?



The point is that we put ourselves out in these high-risk environments because it is our job and certain tactics or strategies have worked for us in the past until they don’t and we have a casualty.

Within every incident there is an investigation to figure out how things could have been avoided. But I feel as though not every situation will be avoidable. People need to be aware that you’re constantly working in a moderate to high-risk environment not just on fires but even back at our home units, doing projects such as falling trees which is one of the most dangerous things we do.

I feel like if we inform people on “The Big Lie,” people within the fire culture will be more vigilant while being on the job and incidents will stay low. We have talked about how losses are inevitable. But by telling firefighters that we are constantly in a moderate risk environment we will keep people on their toes and keep injuries and deaths down.

You Can Do Everything Right and Still Be Killed in This Job.

This is Asheville IHC reaction #11 – part of the Asheville Hotshots written reactions to “The Big Lie.”

There are a lot of points that I agree with in “The Big Lie.” Things like fire is inherently dangerous, that a zero fatality goal is unattainable, and how much risk is acceptable. One of the major points that I’ve been hearing and talking about for the past couple of years is that fire is never truly safe. I’ve been lucky enough to have avoided going to a funeral of a firefighter that I know personally for 8 years now. But I can see that the day that I help lay a friend to rest is fast approaching. It’s hard to get any job done and be completely safe. You can do everything right and random things will still happen.



I don’t know if I just got lucky with my overhead or if the culture is truly shifting to one of accepting that fire is dangerous. Personally, I think it’s a little bit of both. But regardless, for the past few years I’ve had more and more discussions about acceptable risk and the fact that fire is really truly dangerous. The biggest eye opener was talking with my current captain about the Esperanza fatality incident. He worked on the Los Padres National Forest for a number of years and knows the fatality site well. When the event happened, he recalls his captain at the time saying something to the effect of “They did everything that I would have done, I wouldn’t have changed anything”. Hearing that from my captain and listening to his thoughts on the entrapment was a major event that cemented the idea that you can do everything right and you can still be killed in this job.


When I worked in California we had the U.S. Forest Service Safety Journey program that we were required to participate in. Numerous times throughout the event the presenters maintained that the goal of the agency was a zero fatality environment. This was rebuffed by the fire shop as a whole that that particular goal was unattainable. So it seems to me that the issue of the Big Lie is being more perpetuated at the Forest management level and above. The fire community as a whole generally accepts that fire is dangerous and that people will die.

One of the major issues on fire is that because of the public interest we get told that firefighter and public safety is the number one priority, and then turn around and tell a group of guys to go walk 1,000 plus feet into solid black to drop a candle because the public can see it from the road at night. But no one is able to tell me how much risk is too much. However, if I turn down an assignment because of safety or lack of experience concerns, no one bats an eye—so we have improved in that regard. But if fire managers are going to keep putting lives and personnel at risk to accomplish tasks that don’t make sense from a suppression standpoint—in order to let the public keep their warm and fuzzy ideas of the world—then I get the feeling that we are going to keep having accidents and fatalities no matter what we do.

So all in all, I’m seeing the Big Lie being perpetuated more at the managerial level than at the suppression level. I have a feeling that this is stemming from managers not understanding what it is that the suppression folks are doing and that most of the time the suppression folks are not wielding a brush, but a sledge hammer. There is an element of finesse in fire. But, for the most part, we use broad strokes and most managers don’t have the background or the experience to know that because generally they don’t deal with the fire side of things very often. If you go into any District office I guarantee that the fire shop is going to be run very differently and almost at odds with the rest of the departments. I have a feeling that this is what is creating the Big Lie because I’m sure in Range you can put up miles of fence and have zero fatalities, in Timber you can cruise acres of timber and have nothing happen, in Wildlife you can catalog hundreds of nests and not have an injury, but in Fire it’s hard to get a 0.01 acre fire to do what you want let alone have no injuries. I think that this is where the disconnect is occurring.



I Hope More People Come to this Realization.

This is Asheville IHC Reaction #3 – part of the Asheville Hotshots written reactions to  “The Big Lie”

My initial response to this essay was complete shock, but not to the intent of the author, but more to the reaction of those that believe otherwise. I find it difficult to rap my thoughts around anything besides the reality that wildland firefighting is a dangerous occupation. The shear nature of fire is anything but predicable and if people or the public don’t understand that before undertaking the task or voicing their opinion on the matter then they are simply wrong.

I know that there’s always the chance that I could be killed and so does my family. We have accepted the dangers and that is why I have extreme respect for the foe that wildfire is. If a person feels otherwise, I urge them to witness the power of a wildfire for themselves. A fire ripping up a mountain slope or across a plain really puts the perspective of how small you are and out of control fire really is. Bewildered is the best word that comes to mind. Yes there are times and situations where the danger is reduced but that doesn’t justify the probability of a serious emergency not occurring.

I have personally been in a serious emergency situation while I was on a hotshot detail back in 2015. It was at the very end of the shift and the incident that occurred never should have happened and it almost cost a man his life. (If anyone is interested I will elaborate on the discussion further but not in this paper.) That was my only experience on a shot crew and I was glad I had the chance to experience how a shot crew should not be. I do, however, fear that the mentality of these individuals is only shadowed by other FFT1 and FFT2 crews around the county. (I can elaborate on this too.)


People need to see and understand that no fire or property is worth the life of a firefighter. We as an organization have to be more involved and recognize that fires are always going to be a natural part of the landscape and with that knowledge build an awareness for ourselves and the general public that reduces the risk of our men and women on the frontlines. It really pisses me off when I watch firefighters risking their lives trying to salvage someone’s home or property. These people build their homes in areas prone to fire danger and in areas so remote you’d need a helicopter just to reach the grounds. Now why in the hell are we in these places trying to protect these structures? These people have homeowners insurance and their property can be replaced, a life cannot.

I can only hope and pray that more people come to this realization after reading “The Big Lie” essay and it generates a different train of thought on how people view wildfires and the dangers they present. I would like to see more people voicing their opinions in the future.