This Hotshot Was Burned When His Saw Geysered – Listen to His Lessons.

By Travis Dotson

Nic bucked up the tree he had just put on the ground. Then he shut the saw off and sat with his saw partner for 15-20 minutes. Nic got up to cut another tree. The saw wouldn’t start.

He had heard all the stories.  He had talked about geysering in training. He had even experienced fuel geysers before.


Nic is solid. Chances are you’re solid as well.

Solid does not mean accident proof.

Wisdom from Nic:

  • “It caught me off guard because it didn’t match up to any of the signs I’d recognized before. I’ve been surprised once, I can be surprised again.”
  • “I never thought I would get hurt by opening my fuel tank. It’s not one of those things you recognize as being a major hazard.”
  • “I definitely don’t feel like I can predict it anymore. I don’t think it’s worth betting on, just treat it like it’s always going to geyser and put yourself in a better place whenever you plan on opening the cap.”

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Now you know – do something different.

We Made it Out, But it Was Very, Very Close – Reflections From The Nuttall Fire.

Everyone was moving in slow motion. On our intercrew I could hear our Lookout giving us updates calmly but forcefully: It was time to be gone.


By Matt Holmstrom

Current – Superintendent Lewis & Clark IHC

Nuttall Fire – Squad Leader Lassen IHC

There are so many impressions and recollections that I have from that day, July 2, 2004. Some of them are lessons I tried to learn and pass on to my guys, some that, even now, I’m not sure that I have fully processed. I do know it was very, very close.

And I do know that this is in contrast to the official record.

I was a young Squad Leader that day. One Foreman was detailed away and the other was in a large-scale lookout. So it was the Superintendent, another Squad Leader, and myself running the crew.

I remember that during the previous shifts we had been burning across these ridges and for at least one night shift. The slop-over on the Division that day wasn’t too large and certainly wasn’t very active. I thought it would be a good transition day from nights to days.

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We were cutting direct line and making good progress with the other crews. On our initial scout that morning we had identified the same “safety zone” that everyone else did. This would become the safety zone that the Flagstaff IHC ended up deploying in.

The fact that 80+ people all thought that a SZ that 20 people later deployed in looked good should give a good indication of our mindset. The Augusta IHC ended up in a nearby aspen grove with our Superintendent. Lassen and Plumas IHCs ran uphill back to the road system.

One of the Most Terrifying Moments in My Life

On that run, at the start, I was impatient to get going. I was trail, making sure that everyone had been accounted for and was together moving up the line.

Plumas was ahead of us and it seemed to take forever for the hike to start. Everyone was moving in slow motion. On our intercrew I could hear our Lookout giving us updates calmly but forcefully: It was time to be gone.

As we started up slope, the gaps started almost immediately. The Squad Leader leading our crew out was very tall and was striding it out, gapping the slower guys at the back. I was annoyed and was trying to close up those gaps. That’s when I had one of the most terrifying moments in my life.

I looked back below us to gauge the distance between us and the fire—fire that we could now hear. What I saw made me almost physically ill: one lone blue hardhat at the bottom of our line, looking around, obviously confused.

At first, I thought that I had miscounted. That I had missed one of my guys. I immediately started another head count. I was turning around to go back and shouting down at them to hurry when the two overhead from Plumas thundered past me downhill on the run.

Because both crews wore the same color hats, I couldn’t tell that this person was a Plumas firefighter, and not one of mine.

Of course, we all made it out that day, but that was a powerful reflection in leadership that I have always carried with me.  Those two guys ran down at fire coming uphill at them to help a slower teammate who somehow just got separated in the retreat. I got to see leadership and bravery exemplified, and tempered with humility.

Mike Sherman and Pete Duncan, my hat is off to you both for your courage and leadership. Again, none of this is in any official records, mostly because those guys are humble. They’ll probably be mad at me for mentioning them here.

I was in Disbelief—I Felt Tricked or Somehow Betrayed

Our Lookout, my Captain, later asked me why we didn’t leave when he first told us about the activity below us. He had eyes on the entire Division, gave us plenty of advance warning, and we could’ve left far earlier.

I couldn’t answer then and I would struggle to answer now.

I reflect back to the confidence that I felt that morning. The idea that this would be a good shift to transition over from the night burns we’d been doing and into the day shift. I remember being extremely convinced that The Plan was solid. After all, it was developed by guys who had been fighting fire longer than I’d been alive. If they weren’t concerned, why should I be?

I remember even once we were pulling out, I was in disbelief. I felt tricked or somehow betrayed. The fire had not done what it was supposed to, what we had planned for it.

I had completely forgotten that there is a home team, and we were not it. Looking back, I would say that we got head-faked by our earlier work. We were victims of our own making – through several successful shifts and the corresponding over confidence.

So, what did I take away from the Nuttall Fire?

  • Every day is a new day. Don’t be overconfident.
  • All transitions are tough and may be dangerous.
  • Listen to your Lookouts, you put them there for a reason.

Always remember that the fire gets a vote on your plan—Mother Nature always bats last.



When You’re the Division Supervisor and Fire Shelters Come Out

“I try to cultivate relationships and build trust so I can create an environment where people feel safe telling me that my idea is a bad one.”

By Jayson Coil

Division Supervisor on the Nuttall Fire

When I reflect on the events surrounding the entrapment and subsequent shelter deployment on the Nuttall Fire there is one main lesson that continues to resonate with me. Along with this lesson comes the acknowledgement of the cost of this lesson.

When I refer to “cost,” I am not referring to the cost for me personally, but the impact the event had on others that day. Like any other fire, there are firefighters who depend on us (leaders) for their safety. This is not to say that individuals are not accountable for their own safety. But the actions that those of us in leadership positions advocate for can most certainly influence the risks that a firefighter faces. This is the “cost” I am referring to here.

A Potential Slow and Painful Death

For some of the people on H-4 that day, it was their first big fire. For them, it was not just smoky, it was the scariest thing they had ever experienced. For others, it was another one of too many close calls.

After this incident, some people left their careers for other professions. And, there may be other impacts to folks that I am unaware of.

The conditions that afternoon were bad. When the fire whirl crossed the helispot, it would have been a slow and painful death if anyone had inhaled those superheated gases.

I Would Be ‘That Guy’

I am certain somewhere in my own thoughts, along with the concern I felt for the other people, I was also troubled about the personal impact if we deployed our shelters. This was my Division. I would be “That Guy”.


Of course, I know it should not be that way. Such a concern should not influence one’s decision. However, I know that it can.

I try to remember the potential of a given consequence when I consider a course of action—to help myself remember that the actions you take early in an incident can impact your options days down the road. I find this sort of assessment beneficial because it prevents me from anchoring into false assumptions.

But if I minimize this incident’s impact on others, what message would I be sending?

I Wanted the Plan to Work

So, what did I learn on July 2, 2004?



I learned—and I have attempted to remind myself of this on every subsequent incident—that the effort you put into a plan and its implementation should not taint your assessment of risk on a given day.

Many people had worked hard on that line. They were invested. I was invested. I had just arrived at the lookout when everything started to pick up. I am thankful for the leadership many provided that day.

I do not look at this incident with the notion of how I could have changed things that day. Rather, I look at it from the perspective that I was invested more in that line because it was mine and because of the hard work crews had put into constructing it. I wanted the plan to work. I wanted the line to hold.

I felt accountable for the slopover. It was my Division. So, I wanted it fixed and the line to hold.

However, I would suggest that this is the wrong way to look at it. We deal with uncertainty and variables outside our control all the time. Often, these variables lead to unintended consequences. Today, I try really hard to recognize that and continue to reassess the quality of information I have received.

I try to declare my biases and invite others to challenge my assumptions. I want them to help me calibrate because I know self-assessment is not the solution. I try to cultivate relationships and build trust so I can create an environment where people feel safe telling me that my idea is a bad one. From my perspective, that is essential to effective leadership.


This Has Happened Before…UTV Floorboard Fire.

By Travis Dotson

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OK – super simple deal here. Go look under your UTV, specifically look between the skid plate and the floorboard.  Chances are there is a bunch of grass and sticks and stuff packed in that little space. It’s probably all dried out and primed to ignite – all it needs is a heat source – and we drive these things around in one big heat source.

Don’t think it’s possible? Tell that to the folks who have had it happen to them. Thankfully, some of those folks took pictures and wrote up the event and shared it with us here at the Lessons Learned Center – now we can tell you to go clean your UTV up so it doesn’t catch on fire while you’re driving it!

Here are some quotes from the reports:

“…vegetation lodged between skid plate and underbody ignited, burning a hole through floorboard…”

“Firefighter noticed flames protruding through the floorboard. A shovel with sand and the UTV fire extinguisher were used to suppress the flames.”

“Described as looking ‘like a hay bale,’ the material—packed in tightly—completely filled the compartment.”

“While using a 2016 Polaris 6×6 UTV on a prescribed fire, an accumulation of fine fuels located in an enclosed compartment under the UTV’s floorboard and above the skid plate ignited.”

“This fire melted a four-foot hole in the skid plate and floorboard and caused extensive damage to wiring and the gear selector cable.”

You get the picture – now go check your UTV.


UTV Floorboard Fire RLS 2017

UTV Flammable Debris RLS 2014


Don’t Let Your Language Fool You: Risk “Transfer” is Not Risk “Mitigation”

Last week we featured writing from the Asheville Hotshots. This week we highlight several unconventional lessons generated by other folks in the Southern Area. The writing in this weeks series was originally submitted through Rapid Lesson Sharing.  In coordination with the submitters, several of these submissions have been adapted for this Blog.

Nice work Southern Area – way to set the bar on sharing lessons and perspectives!

If we can change our language we can change how we think about things—and therefore interrupt old ways of thinking that may undercut safety.


By: 2016 Safety Liaison 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.)

 Thinking and Speaking are Intertwined

It is one thing to say that our thoughts affect our speech, but it is quite another to recognize how our speaking shapes our thinking.

For example, the “Forest Service 2016 Wildland Fire Risk Management Protocol” suggests that we should consider replacing the commonly used phrase “initial attack” with “initial response” which implies a more “deliberate, thoughtful approach.” (Click here for the 2016 protocol document.)

The logic behind this suggestion is that if we can change our language we can change how we think about things—and therefore interrupt old ways of thinking that may undercut safety.

Thinking, Speaking, and Risk Assessment

One specific example of how language can train our thinking in unintended ways is when we use the word “mitigation”—when what we have really done is “transferred” risk. Even though “mitigation” means that we lessen the severity or likelihood of a potential outcome, we often function as if we have zeroed-out the risk completely.

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A Familiar Topic, a New Example

In December 2016, the Maple Springs Fire was burning from a developed area outside of Robbinsville, North Carolina into the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. Control lines outside the wilderness boundary were secured.

The Agency Administration and Incident Management Team began discussions about how to proceed with the portion of the fire located within the wilderness boundary. They wanted the fire progression stopped. Two possibilities were discussed.

The first was to put three crews in the wilderness using direct handline to secure the active fire edge. The second was to use water scoopers over a period of a couple of days to continually drop water on the edge and slow the fire’s progression.

The decision was made to limit the risk to the greatest amount of people (the fire crews) by using the aircraft to limit fire spread. However, the IMT expressed concern that this would not “mitigate” risk but rather “transfer” it from the crews to the aerial resources.

To be sure, while this decision mitigated the risk to the greatest number of individuals on the ground, it transferred risk to pilots in the air—where the magnitude of loss could be catastrophic if something were to go terribly wrong.

While both severity and likelihood were taken into account in this decision making process, the exact criteria by which the decision was made is not as easy to discern.

In the comments, share your own examples of when risk isn’t actually mitigated but really just transferred.


Entrapments are…

By Travis Dotson


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I have been entrapped – multiple times.

It feels awful to say that and I know exactly why – to most of my peers that statement means I’m a bad firefighter.  Entrapment is a bad thing, and if it happens to you it means you didn’t have LCES in place – it’s YOUR fault.

OK, I can handle that.  What I want to talk about is how common entrapment is and howScreen Shot 2017-05-25 at 7.32.42 AM hard we try to convince ourselves it didn’t happen to us.  You ever had to “scramble”?  Your engine ever “take a little heat”?  Ever had to “look for a hole” or heard someone urgently barking “RTO!” on crew?  More than likely the events unfolding in those instances were unexpected.

I was serving as a lookout one time and my safety zone was back along the ridge to some granite.  A finger of the fire made a big run between the granite and my lookout spot.  I spent the rest of the afternoon “buffing out” my lookout spot with black.  That was not the plan – that means it was an entrapment.

I was firing boss on a prescribed fire and took a four wheeler interior to see how things were coming together.  I said over the radio to the lighters “hey, don’t close the box on that south end, that’s my way out” I got a “copy” from both sides.  When I came back the box was closed – I had to do some creative ATV ducking and weaving to find a way out.  Again, not planned = entrapment.  (Yes, I had a stern talk with a few folks about what “copy” means.)

What is my point here?  I’m trying to get us all to acknowledge how common this scenario is.  Right now it seems as if we treat “entrapment” as some sort of outlier or anomaly that only happens to the deserving bad firefighter when in reality it’s a regular occurrence we choose to minimize.  Why?  We have to minimize these events to keep alive the folk-tails regarding predictability in our environment.

We are amazing at forecasts, but LCES requires precision predicability to work – and we don’t have it.  Nobody predicts their ATV tipping over or being ignited by embers as the fire front approaches.  Nobody says “theres no way we can make it to the ranch before the fire gets us, but lets go anyway.”    Uncertainty is rough ain’t it?

The benefit of acknowledging this is revealing a more accurate accounting of the risk we face and exposure we take on.  The accuracy in our words enables a more honest dialogue about “what is worth it.”

Don’t lie to yourself, don’t lie to each other – just call it what it is so we can get better at deciding when to accept the risk.