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Wildland Firefighter Training: A history of bad decisions

May 21st, 2014 by tristan baurick

WaldoFirefighter copy

This is part two in a series of posts about my experience taking the wildland firefighting course in Belfair during the month of May. I’m taking the course to better understand forest fires and the people who fight them. Read part one here.

In the last post about my wildland firefighting class, longtime wildland firefighter Eddie Wright gave an overview of forest firefighting’s various unexpected dangers.

Those dangers are nothing compared to the poor judgement of fellow firefighters, he later stressed.

Black Water Fire of 1937. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Black Water Fire of 1937. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Wright and the class’ other instructors spent a lot of time recounting situations in which bad decisions led to deadly outcomes.

“Unfortunately, most of our lessons are learned via blood,” said Mike Prevost, a Poulsbo firefighter with years of wildfire experience.

By staying alert, keeping an eye on conditions and following basic safety protocols, a firefighter’s time on the front line can be fairly uneventful.

That is, if they can contain and control the burst of excitement they feel upon seeing smoke and flames.

“Everything you learn here from books – it goes out the door when you’ve got the sirens blaring and the engine of an old truck roaring,” Wright said. “Everybody’s jacked. They’re saying ‘we’re out to kick this thing’s butt!’ They’re not paying attention and then this thing literally rolls on top of them.”

That’s what happened on the Wyoming’s Blackwater Fire of 1937 – Wright’s first lesson from the history books.

Fifteen firefighters were killed and 36 more were injured when crews failed to post a lookout before charging at the fire on a steep slope. Had a lookout been posted, it’s likely he would have spotted the second fire that had started behind their lines.

Black Water fire survivors. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Black Water fire survivors. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Blackwater’s high death toll led to a new, more careful approach to wildland firefighting, including the formation of the Standard Firefighting Orders, which advise firefighters to post lookouts, stay informed on weather conditions, identify escape routes, stay alert, and maintain communications. All basic stuff, but easy to forget in what Wright called “the fog of war.”

Next up was the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012, the costliest wildfire in Colorado history.

A lookout had been posted, but he wasn’t a very good one. In fact, the man chosen for the job was generally considered the worst on his crew.

“They didn’t know what to do with him, so they sent him on top of the mountain, where he sat there listening to 50 Cent on his iPod,” Wright said.

He didn’t bother to call in an approaching fire for 30 minutes, thinking it wasn’t a big deal.

Wright, who was fighting the fire, said the late communication nearly cost lives. It was a “pivitol moment” where he realized “how much you depend on other people.”

Failing to identify an escape route is another critical error that has led to firefighter deaths, as it did on a California fire in 1966. Fire pushed by high winds ran through a gully, killing 12 elite “hotshot” firefighters who found themselves boxed in by the terrain.

“The spooky thing is … the almost identical situation happened last year,” Wright said. “We need to learn from this.”

Firefighters also need identify a “safety zone” before engaging a fire. A safety zone is an area where firefighters can survive an oncoming fire. Usually, its a place that’s already been burned.

Mann Gulch Fire of 1949. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Mann Gulch Fire of 1949. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Had a safety zone been established, the 13 smokejumpers who died in Montana’s Mann Gulch Fire of 1949 might have lived, Wright said. As was recounted in Norman McClean’s “Young Men and Fire,” the smokejumpers parachuted onto a ridge but were soon trapped. They had nowhere to go as the fire roared upward.

“Most of these (stories) are tragedies of errors,” Wright said.

Firefighting organizations are hierarchical with clearly-defined duties and protocols. In some ways, they resemble military organizations – except, I found, in the responsibility firefighters have to question authority.

We had a whole section in the class on how to “properly refuse risk.”

“You have not just the right but a duty to refuse an assignment you think is unsafe,” Prevost said.

Because so many mistakes are made, firefighters need to exercise their own judgement when given an order.

“You might get an assignment from a commander, but you’re the boots on the ground,” he said. “You need to say ‘hey, where you’ve put is full of beetle kill* and the fire is going to go through here like a rocket. You need to say ‘Uhhh…no!”

If an order is refused, word needs to get around. That didn’t happen during the 30 Mile Fire in Washington’s Okanogan National Forest in 2001.

“(The commander) didn’t tell the last crew boss that his assignment had been refused three times by other crew bosses,” Prevost said.

Now protocols are in-place that require commanders to say when their orders are refused.

In my next post, I’ll share photos and lessons from our final day out in the field.

*Beetle kill describes trees damaged by the mountain pine beetle. The masses of beetle-killed trees, which has surpassed 1.5 million acres in Colorado and Wyoming, result in catastrophic fires.

Top photo: A firefighter wipes away sweat during the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colo. in 2012. By Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock/U.S. Air Force

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