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.]


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 []:

  • 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.


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 []. 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.


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!

The Student of Fire Era

[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 Paul Keller

For four seasons, from 1986-1989, I was a member of the Zigzag Hotshot Crew, based on the Mount Hood National Forest’s Zigzag Ranger District in Oregon.

Paul Gleason was our Superintendent, a position he had held since 1979.

I live in the Zigzag area on Mount Hood’s west side. Back in the 1980s, I therefore knew of the Zigzag Hotshots and their long history. I was honored to become part of this family of firefighters.

Sure, back in the day we trained, too. But it was the Dark Ages compared to the Student of Fire era that is obviously alive and well on today’s Zigzag Hotshot Crew.

At first, after leaving the crew and continuing my career in fire elsewhere, I was aware of the Zigzag Hotshots, their personnel, and their activities. But down through that swift river of the years, even though I still lived in the Zigzag area, I, unfortunately, eventually lost all contact with the crew.

This same void of connection applied to the other many alumni who had also once served on the Zigzag Hotshots before and after me.Zigzag Hotshot Logo2

Long Overdue

Enter Devin Parks.

Thankfully, Devin, now in his second year as Zigzag Hotshot Superintendent, wanted past crew “old-timers”—like me—to get together and break bread with today’s Zigzag Hotshot Crew.

On a Friday in April—at the end of Zigzag’s first week back in operation this season—Devin and his crew hosted a barbecue lunch for past crew members.

No one had ever done such a thing before. Turns out, this “family” reunion was long overdue.

As Devin explained in his electronic invite that was spread far and wide a few weeks before the event, “The intent of this gathering is to connect the current crew with those who have served as Zigzag Hotshots throughout our proud history. This is a great opportunity to pass down our history to the newest generation of Zigzag Hotshots, as well as to learn about these incredibly talented individuals who are carrying our program into the future.”

Good Vibe

The word successfully got out to former Zigzag crew members. A total of 20 of us—from various eras—returned to Zigzag that day to attend the barbecue. (Hans Redinger, a former Zigzag Hotshot Assistant Supt., probably traveled the farthest, making the 220-mile drive down from Washington’s Snoqualmie Ranger District, where Hans is Fire Management Officer.)

As soon as I arrived, I joined in with a group of folks—both former and current crew members—who were shooting the bull, laughing, and probing each other with various questions. I looked around and quickly realized that these informal cross-generational conversations were bubbling up everywhere.

There was an unmistakable good, communal vibe resonating in the air.

Zigzag Hotshot Barbeque w_Former Crewmates_4_19_19

The old and the new. Devin Parks, Superintendent of the Zigzag Hotshot Crew (pictured second from right), had his crew host a barbecue in April for past crew members “to connect the current crew with those who have served as Zigzag Hotshots throughout our proud history.”

Those of us who had been on the crew during the “Gleason Era” were asked questions about Gleason. While much has been written and documented about this wildland fire legend—whose life was taken by colon cancer in 2003—those of us who worked on Paul’s hotshot crew shared some little-known inside scoops with the current Zigzag Hotshots. Call it: “family history.”

For instance, the crew headquarters. Us old-timers were blown away by the crew’s current home base, located in a completely refurbished one-time two-story fire warehouse behind the Zigzag District’s main office facility. We admired the crew’s overhead offices and their spiffy classroom training area.

Gleason was a maverick. Rather than be tied to that main district office facility (where he did have a desk beside the FMO’s desk) he preferred he and his crew to go more guerrilla. Ten miles up the highway, in a remote Forest Service compound that then included a parking lot and three historic cabins (Gleason lived in one of them), is where Gleason’s crew reported for work—right there in that gravel parking lot. Yep. (If we needed to go indoors for training, we used a meeting room down the hill at the Zigzag Ranger Station.)

Today, in the Zigzag Hotshot Crew’s indoor training area the wall is lined with several crew photos from numerous years. You’ll find Paul Gleason in just one of these—the 1991 crew, Gleason’s last year here. (After 12 years as Zigzag’s Supt. Paul transferred to Colorado’s Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest to be a District FMO in 1992.) So where are the other 11 “Gleason” years’ annual crew photos? Sorry folks. There aren’t any. Like we explained to the current crew members at the barbecue, Gleason was a maverick and a guerilla Superintendent. Except for that one 1991 exception, we never took official crew photos. It was good to pass on this “inside” family history to Zigzag’s current crew.

Super Hosts

Today’s Zigzag Hotshot Crew were super hosts. They provided all of us with delicious hamburgers, brauts, salad, desserts and refreshments.

After chowing down and continuing to brew good conversations between the “old” and the “new” we all gathered into one big circle. Superintendent Devin thanked us alumni for traveling to and attending this special gathering. We then went around and everyone had an opportunity to introduce themselves and say whatever they wanted.

I was truly impressed with the current crew members. As they spoke, it became apparent to me that a beneficial cultural change has transpired and become ingrained since I put down my pulaski three decades ago. These folks get the “big picture”. They read and study RLS’s and FLA’s and train, train, train. Sure, back in the day we trained, too. But it was the Dark Ages compared to the Student of Fire era that is obviously alive and well on today’s Zigzag Hotshot Crew.

At the same time, it was so good to learn that many traditions continue. Today’s Zigzag Hotshots obviously nurture and promote a strong passion for interfacing with wildland fire—just as we once did before them. And these current folks PT just like we did, too—humping up that dreaded super-steep Hunchback Ridge. Yes!

I also got a really strong cohesive vibe from this tight crew of wildland firefighters. As a former Zigzag Hotshot, they made me proud.

After our introductions and reflections were over, we all gathered up for a group “family” photo. We then continued our sharing in a celebration of ongoing conversations. The barbecue was supposed to be over at 1300. But our mutual, combined energy powered it on long after that time.

Here’s my recommendation. If you’re on an established crew who hasn’t reached out to your alumni for quite a while, you might consider doing so. I can guarantee you, it will be a win-win.

Aptitude — Why Don’t We Test for It?

By Travis Verdegan
Black River Falls Area Staff Specialist
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

A few months ago, I found myself wondering a few things related to aptitude assessment and decided to check with the LLC to see if they’d done anything with the topic that I might have missed. They got back to me that they hadn’t, but they wanted to take the bones of my email and turn it into a blog. I immediately set to work on it. But, like many things, I got sidetracked along the way, like by a few months. The upside of this sidetrack was that it allowed me time to consider things I hadn’t formed into complete thoughts.

There has been a lot of good discussion lately on risk management. The thing that continuously strikes me is that much of this talk circles around new processes or taking a fresh look at how decisions are made. I kept getting this feeling that we in many instances were overlooking the individual(s) making decisions in real time. Example: The “green” firefighter(s) seeing a rapidly evolving situation during initial attack without the benefit of an IAP or supervisor to bail them out in the moment.

I’m a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers. Recent events for that team have sparked a new rendition of the old debate: players vs. plays. In other words, what is more important: good coaching or talented players?

Ultimately, I believe in football and in wildland fire, both are important. I would classify a lot of the recent discussion related to risk as being focused on the plays. My following blog post is what I came up with to focus the conversation onto the players.

Aptitude — Why Don’t We Test for It?

Why don’t we assess aptitude for fire positions both in day-to-day hiring and in the qualifications management process?

My Post

I’ve often thought we could borrow a few more things from the military. Namely, the way we recruit/hire and compensate the workforce (a little tuition assistance commensurate to the risks we were exposed to as seasonals could have changed a lot for many of us), as well as setting an initial benchmark for an individual’s propensity toward certain aptitudes (specifically risk recognition and assessment).

To Build on the Latter

The military uses the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) to gauge the potential for future success in various aspects of service. If there was a component of aptitude assessment that helped predict ability to assess risk, then there may be a better way to place those people with the highest ability in vital positions and better promote them through the qualifications management process.

I know we have the Position Task Book (PTB) process sponsored by NWCG to provide a subjective analysis of an individual’s behaviors and competencies related to a qualification. As a person who plays a significant role in the qualifications management process in my home state, I have a love/hate relationship with PTBs. I love the intent, but I don’t know that we collectively work within it.

Case in point, survey a western hotshot crew to see if they have any bias, unconscious or otherwise, related to having a DIVS from east of the Mississippi. As with many biases, while there may be merit to this line of thinking, it should not be universally applied. What I’m saying here is: I’ve seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other for what it means to be a qualified DIVS—or any other position for that matter.

. . . we struggle when agencies start to feel the effect of retirement bubbles bursting. Almost overnight, innumerable years of knowledge, skills, and abilities walk happily out the door and those who remain are left to quickly fill the void.

Collectively, I’d say we do a decent job subjectively analyzing behaviors and competencies, you might think of the results like a bell curve. Within any bell curve there is going to be variability, and some of that variability is going to be statistically significant. On one end of the curve lives the effect of “elitism” and on the other, “fast tracking”.

In some instances, we struggle when we start to try to incorporate objectively quantifiable measurements into the process (i.e., fire size class, operational periods, number of babies, puppies, or kittens saved). In other instances, we struggle when agencies start to feel the effect of retirement bubbles bursting. Almost overnight, innumerable years of knowledge, skills, and abilities walk happily out the door and those who remain are left to quickly fill the void.

Use of some sort of aptitude-based testing would by no means paint the entire picture when it comes to individual performance assessment, but it might help curb some of the variability on either end of the curve.

On Hiring and Recruitment within Government Agencies

My own experiences with hiring include being ruled out for that elusive permanent position with the U.S. Forest Service at the last minute by HR because I was short by a week or two on time in grade. Hardly an assessment of anything other than the time I was able to work during the summer as a seasonal before having to go back to school each year. I’ve heard of plenty of other situations similar to this across a number of governmental agencies and know of a lot of good people who have moved on from the fire scene for various reasons.

My own experiences with hiring include being ruled out for that elusive permanent position with the U.S. Forest Service at the last minute by HR because I was short by a week or two on time in grade.

Like myself, I’m sure any one of you could list off professions of folks who used to be part of the fire scene. Doctors, lawyers, mechanics, and electricians to name a few. For many of these folks, if the traits they exhibited as a seasonal firefighter were any kind of indication, then they are now masters of their craft. We lose a lot of good firefighters and thankfully most of them are not lost in tragedy.

No doubt the realm of HR law within government is fraught with well-intentioned policies and procedures aimed at fair hiring processes. Using a component of aptitude assessment in hiring might bring a valuable element into hiring within the fire community. Beyond that, an innovative approach to recruitment/retention could go a long way toward keeping some of the ones lost to other professions.

Tying in Risk

I would be willing to bet that innate early risk recognition ability—the kind that could be applied intuitively without the use of complex computer models, ICS forms, or policy—could be found in those people with a strong aptitude for pattern recognition, regardless of their geographic location or what agency they work for. I’m guessing the military and others already have proven this. We have taken the approach of putting together our best and brightest minds to come up with the rules and policies to make the risk assessment easy for folks (i.e., the 10 and 18). Follow these and everything will be OK, the Big Lie.

What if there is a better way to put the right people in the right places to make the right decisions? What if some of those folks use that ability to assess their way right out of the “risks” associated with a career in government? What could a newly adapted recruitment process do for the wildland fire community?

I’m all in with the concept that we can never eliminate risk, but I do believe we can tip the needle closer to zero, even if just by one half of one percent.




High Vis?

By Charlie Palmer     chicken_hi_vis_jacket_yellow_chicken.jpg

I pored over hunting catalogs and websites. I watched video after video, and read hundreds of product reviews. I had made a vow with myself that this year was going to be different. Having drawn a coveted special permit in a hunting district known for its big bull elk, changes in my usual approach were going to be made.

Instead of hunting all over the state, my efforts were going to be focused in this one geographic area. Instead of my propensity for road hunting or not getting very far from the truck when I did decide to hike, this year the ventures would be farther afield and deeper into the backcountry.

And lastly, adjustments in my apparel needed to be made. For years, I have gotten by with a hodgepodge collection of camouflage clothing, none of it expensive or technical in its construction. My frugality on this front often left me wet, cold, and looking like some kind of militia reject.

So I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about high-end camouflage hunting clothes. Thus my previously described research efforts.

Having decided on a specific company and some of the products from them that I needed, I plunked down several Benjamins and checked this item off of my pre-season action plan.

Although significantly lighter in the wallet, my excitement about staying warm, dry, and better hidden this season began to build. Having spent so much time immersed in the finer points of concealment clothing, I could not help but think about another type of effective camouflage with which I was also quite familiar: the Nomex clothing that wildland firefighters wear. Let’s be honest. When it comes to blending into our surrounding environments, green or khaki fire pants and a dirty yellow shirt do a fantastic job of helping us stay less visible out in the woods. But is this what we want?

As someone who is intrigued by risk management, and the actions that humans can take to minimize or mitigate some of our exposures, I have watched closely as multiple other professions have embraced the usage of high visibility clothing.

Whether it be the construction trades, highway workers, railroads, airline ramp personnel, waste collectors, or various other public safety officials, hi vis clothing (often times coupled with reflective striping) is everywhere, it seems. They must be wearing it for some reason, right?

Interestingly, despite the surge in its usage popularity, there has been very little research done on its effectiveness. Furthermore, in the few studies that have been completed the results have not necessarily been conclusive. While a Danish study found that a sample of nearly 7,000 cyclists who wore a high visibility yellow jacket had a 47% lower chance of personal injury accidents when compared to those cyclists who did not wear one (Lahrmann et al, 2018), research from Nottingham University Hospital’s NHS Trust and Nottingham University concluded that cyclists wearing hi vis jackets actually had an increased chance of collisions (NHS, 2016). Investigators theorized that cyclists wearing high visibility apparel may be encouraged to take more exposed positions on the road. However, the study only reviewed 76 total accidents.

Wildland firefighting is risky work. Unfortunately, accidents and fatalities happen each and every year.  In how many of these mishaps was visibility (or lack thereof) a factor? Could hi vis flame resistant (FR) apparel help reduce these figures?  These are questions to which we currently do not have answers.

A little over four years ago, I submitted a proposal to the the US Forest Service Technology and Development Program recommending that an analysis/investigation of high visibility FR clothing for wildland firefighters be undertaken. Unfortunately, the proposal was rejected.

My idea vanquished, I put my interest in the topic onto the back burner, and I moved onto other projects. And there it stayed until I read the Horse Park Fire Entrapment FLA. A lookout running for her life. A lead plane frantically trying to find her for 40 minutes. Thankfully, all involved that day made it out safely, but it was a very close call. Would high visibility clothing have helped?

One of the lessons at the end of the FLA brought up this very question: Are there advantages to high vis flame resistant clothing in the wildland fire environment? I say it’s time to find out.

What then, if anything, can be done in terms of next steps? To me, it makes sense that further investigation is needed. This would require the assistance of the Technology and Development Program. Maybe I need to resubmit my original proposal?

Perhaps the analysis could start with a limited production of different versions of high visibility Nomex fire shirts with reflective striping (green, orange, green/orange combination). With hi vis FR fires shirts available, a small number of crews could voluntarily choose to wear them. They could then evaluate them on such things as effectiveness, user satisfaction, and ability to retain visibility after becoming dirty.

Or, perhaps I’m just barking up the wrong tree? Maybe those in the field have no interest or see no utility in high visibility clothing. And I’m okay with that if that’s their feedback. It just seems odd to me that so many other professions have adopted high visibility attire for their workers as a means of risk management and wildland fire has not yet followed their lead.

What thoughts do you have on this matter?


Lahrmann, H., Madsen, T., Olesen, A. V., Madsen, J. C., & Hels, T. (2018). The effect of a yellow bicycle jacket on cyclist accidents. Safety Science, (108), 209-217.

Nottingham University Hospitals annual report. (2016). Retrieved (October 26, 2018) from

Ground Ignition Equipment Standards?

By Paul Keller


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 ( 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.”



Fuel Geyser Awareness Project Updates

By Paul Keller

There’s updated news on the “Fuel Geyser Project” front.

The U.S. Forest Service National Technology and Development Program’s National Fuel Geyser Project’s ongoing efforts to minimize injury to employees from fuel geysering recently posted a range of insightful information on their activities. The “National Fuel Geyser Awareness” program is a function of the NWCG Equipment Technology Committee.

These updates include fuel geyser incidents in 2018, fuel geyser incidents by manufacturer, and by incident type. In addition, this map (below) has been provided that indicates where fuel geyser incidents occurred from 2015 to 2018.

Updated Fuel Geyser Map

The Technology and Development Program’s National Fuel Geyser Project awareness updates now include: Recent Accomplishments and Next Steps/Actions Planned. Other subjects include: Alternative Solutions and Risk Analysis; Implementation Risk Factors; and Fuel Solutions.

Fuel Geyser Incidents in 2018

There were a total of 28 fuel geyser incidents reported in 2018. Twenty-three of these were chainsaw incidents (21 with Stihl chainsaws and 2 with Husqvarna chainsaws). Four incidents occurred with fuel containers, and one incident occurred with a leaf blower.

Fuel Geyser Incidents the Past Two Years

From 2017 through 2018, fuel geyser incidents were reported during these activities: Chainsaw (43 incidents); Fuel Transport Container (6 incidents); Leaf Blower (3 incidents); Brush Saw (1 incident); ATV (1 incident).

Alternative Solutions and Risk AnalysisFHP

The National Technology and Development Program’s National Fuel Geyser Project members have also been studying potential solutions to prevent fuel geysering.

These alternative solutions that have been identified include: 1) Vaporless Refueling Systems; 2) Formalized Fuel Geyser Training; 3) Standard Saw/Requirements; 4) No Gas Chainsaws; 5) Specialized Fuel; and 6) Fuel Conditioning.

Fuel Solutions

The specialized fuel alternative would involve low volatility fuel. This solution would be three years out for potential implementation.

Fuel conditioning would reduce fuel volatility. The technology for this is not currently available. This may also violate emissions regulations.


A key recommendation of the National Fuel Geyser Project is to continue its field evaluation of vaporless refueling systems. This effort would include 50 test crews and 30,000 refueling cycles. It would occur from May through November of this year.

This field evaluation would be implemented on all handheld-engine powered engines (including chainsaws, string trimmers and blowers).

Next Steps

The following ongoing development efforts will continue in the near term:

  • Vaporless Refueling System – by Industry and the National Technology and Development Program
  • Saw Specification/Requirements – by the National Technology and Development Program
  • Training – by Saw Program/Office of Safety and Occupational Health (OSOH)

The National Fuel Geyser Project’s communication plan now includes a “National Awareness Campaign” and disseminating information on the “Implementation of Fuel Geyser Solutions”.

In addition, these action priorities will continue to be pursued:

  • Continue Fuel Geyser Reporting
  • Assess effectiveness of solution
  • Re-evaluate implementation strategy annually

National Fuel Geyser Awareness Website

For more information—or if you experience a fuel geyser that you would like to report—go to the National Fuel Geyser Awareness website:


Who Uses Lessons?

By Travis Dotson

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


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.


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.



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?


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.


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


“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



North Spring Fire Septic Tank Incident



Blasting Caps Discovered During Mop-Up


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?