Redding IHC Crewmember – 2013
Participating in the Redding IHC South Canyon Staff Ride was a definitive moment of my career both in fire and with the U.S. Forest Service. In spite of all that has changed after the South Canyon Fire and over the past two decades, firefighter fatalities continue to occur every year. Firefighting is still an inherently dangerous job with many unpredictable and unforeseen hazards that sometimes result in tragedy.
We strive to see everything and anticipate all possible disasters but to say that we can foresee and mitigate every single pitfall we encounter on a daily basis is to believe that we can predict and control the future.
In this dynamic and dangerous environment, my best defense against disaster is knowledge—knowledge of myself, my crew, and the environment around me as I build and constantly reevaluate my situational awareness. A great deal of the training to recognize situations, develop self-awareness and knowledge that we use from the first day we take Basic 32 came from the South Canyon Fire and studying human factors that played a role for every firefighter on Storm King Mountain on July 6, 1994.
While we may gain intelligence about fire behavior and modeling or advances in technology to aid our efforts in the future people are still people, imperfect and capable of mistakes, and many lessons learned from the South Canyon Fire are timeless.
If I fail to learn from the lessons fought and paid for by those before me then I am destined to repeat their fate. I will never forget after walking that mountain that it can so easily be me when I’m tired or stressed that misses important information or just a seemingly small detail that may turn out to be a crucial misstep later when time is compressed and decisions must be made quickly.
As we walked the West Flank Fireline with Eric Hipke he recalled that many firefighters had serious misgivings about constructing that line. Walking the line back from Lunch Spot Ridge toward Zero Point, I thought—as I had many times that day—“This could have been me. This has been me before.”
As we hiked, my crewmates and I discussed how many times we have been on fires like this and been nervous, had that gut feeling or hair rising on the back of the neck, and we just put our heads down and kept digging. Or we voiced our opinion which was ignored, or mocked as weakness and fear. So we put our heads down and dug or laid hose.
As we approached the last stretch of line on the staff ride, an incredibly steep pitch dotted with clusters of crosses, Hipke stops to point out a spot he remembers and give us more context of what happened as he hiked up that last stretch with the fire on his heels. He talks again of the gut feelings people had expressed earlier that day and pauses, recalling that Roger Roth was standing almost exactly where his cross stands and said earlier that day that this line wasn’t safe and they shouldn’t be there.
I will never again ignore my gut, put my head down and dig. Intuition is often the recognition of what I can’t quite put my finger on logically but somehow innately know is true. I will always listen to that feeling in the future. As a leader, I will also strive to foster an environment for others to express their misgivings and opinions as they may see something I have missed.
I have also learned during the Redding Hotshot training season that sometimes the simplest things are the most impossible to achieve, while those that seem the most impossible are actually the easiest goals to accomplish.
The South Canyon Fire, a seemingly small fire in plain sight of a neighborhood where homeowners constantly wanted action taken, was actually a complicated situation. The fire was challenging to access through the East Drainage, in terrain difficult even for smokejumpers to jump, and the apparently straight-forward task of cutting line on the West Flank was fraught with difficulty and struggle with rugged terrain, complex topography, and heavy fuels.
This situation was another lesson for me that walking away from a strategy becomes infinitely more difficult with every hour of work and every drop of sweat we invest in a piece of ground. I must always be willing to take a step back, look at the big picture objectively and reevaluate tactics and strategies. If a plan is no longer viable because of changing conditions or simply isn’t working, sometimes the best thing to do is walk away and make a bigger box. As Don Mackey said the morning of July 6, 1994: “No piece of line is worth dying for.”
On the first night that engines scouted to find access to the fire, someone shined a headlamp up the West Drainage and decided it was impossible to hike. Brian Scholz, Captain for the Prineville Hotshots in 1994 and gracious enough to recount the experience for us on the staff ride, had even asked if he could take half the crew waiting to be flown to the fire and hike up the West Drainage. But he was told that route was impassable.
Our second day hiking into Storm King, we followed a trail up the West Drainage that took less than half an hour at an easy pace. This path even seemed much safer to me than traveling up the East Drainage, which took hours for the local crews hiking into the fire. The seemingly impossible was actually the simplest answer. Even a small detail such as how we arrive at a fire can shape our perception and tactics.
The resources for the South Canyon Fire all arrived at the top of the fire whether they had hiked, jumped or been flown in and their plan was thus to cut downhill and underslung line to get around the fire. This is a lesson for me in the future to consider all options and again be willing to change tactics when considering the big picture, as well as to find out if something is really impossible or simply hasn’t been done before.
Our last morning in Colorado was filled with the hustle and bustle of 20 people coordinating for a single purpose. Check-out of rooms, get the buggies ready, and be ON TIME so we can leave. We loaded up, hoping for a call on our drive home to our dream assignment out of region somewhere exotic like New Mexico. Not long after leaving we took an unexpected exit and the quiet buggy was suddenly full of whispered speculation. We unloaded at a park with a dedicated memorial for the firefighters who lost their lives on the South Canyon Fire.
After weeks of planning and days of driving and intense training on Storm King Mountain, taking the time to stop and look at the faces and read the biographies of each life lost was one of the most poignant moments of this experience. Each person on those plaques reminded me of a fellow firefighter. They were a lot like my fellow crewmembers—athletic, some with a passion for firefighting and the Forest Service, all with a strong love for the outdoors and genuinely good people, men and women that I would like to have met.
After studying them and talking about them for weeks I feel like they are old friends who I haven’t seen in a while, people that had potential to be the future leaders and trainers of my generation and though they are gone, they continue to lead through training like this staff ride.
I have learned so much and been heavily impacted by what they went through on that July day. For me, safety means that we firefighters are the highest values at risk—these names and faces—every time we head to a fire.
On our last night as a large group each participant at the staff ride shared one thing that they had learned and taken away from this experience. One comment that a few people repeated stuck with me: Know your stuff, be the best at your job, and above all take care of your people because those are real lives and my son or daughter might be on the crew that you are leading.
I will never forget the lessons learned from participating in the South Canyon Staff Ride. They will continue to influence my development as a leader and a person for the rest of my life. Thank you for the time, effort, and support that you have contributed to make this invaluable experience possible.