A couple weeks back we had our IC Refresher: a drill that all Incident Commanders at any level – or those in training status at any level – are required to participate in.
The day was segmented according to various representatives from the forest who had specific topics to discuss, including Life First, Seasonal Outlooks, Safety, Delegation of Authority, Air Resources, and an FLA Case Study.
The topic surrounding Life First was primarily focused on the idea that no matter what project, incident, or objective at hand, that life comes first and foremost. This idea echo’s the Forest Service Chief’s message for the 2016 season that he wouldn’t “tolerate any fatality this year.” The terms and insinuations of “tolerate” are open to interpretation.
We had also had a Life First discussion prior to the forest-wide IC meeting, where members from our district held an open talk on what “Life First” means. The District Ranger broke us into groups and tasked us with coming up with examples of situations where we were unsure whether the risk was worth the reward, and how the idea of Life First influences those decisions. I brought up the following example of working on a neighboring forest in 2014.
Our Type 3 Engine was assigned to the Initial Attack Division after a big lightning storm came through and smokes were starting to pop up on a daily basis. We had a couple Type Six Engines, an Interagency Crew, and a Task Force Leader assigned to us. Because we had previously worked on the neighboring forest, my Captain was given the lead due to his familiarity with the country and fire behavior.
We were ordered by dispatch to respond to a smoke that ended up being in some of the nastiest, steepest country imagineable. The other guy on the engine carried a saw in with us. The hillside was so steep, that either the saw or the guy was constantly rolling down hill, and the crotch in his pants was ripped out completely by the time we arrived at the fire. When it neared end of day, we radioed a request to sleep on it, rather than hike back out, thinking the discomfort of a night without a sleeping bag and camp food was a better alternative than risking another hike in the following day. We were denied by our Division Supervisor – the team handling the incident was requiring all resources off the hill by a certain time, no exceptions. Besides the fact that all three of us emerged with torn pants, covered in bloody scrapes and blisters, no one was seriously injured.
This Life First topic came up again in our IC meeting around the idea of minimizing exposure as we closed the day with the 2015 Gregg Creek Fire case study. The season following our aforementioned hike through hell – toting chainsaws, domars, hand tools, a case of red bull, an american flag, and three structural firefighters from colorado – a guy broke his femur trying to hike out for the night with his crew, probably over very similar ground we’d experienced the year prior. As the acting Deputy Forest Supervisor for the Willamette Forest retold the story, stopping for discussion along the way, I laughed empathetically under my breath – I could imagine those poor guys, hiking along those hillsides, wondering why the hell they were there, trying to figure out how the hell they were gonna get that guy outta there at one o’clock in the morning. Had my captain or fellow crew member broken their leg the year before, I wasn’t sure what I would’ve done.
Having studied the Gregg Creek incident, I would change a few things should similar conditions and circumstances present themselves in the future.
- First off, always remember that steep country is unforgiving, particularly in areas where road access is minimal. Before taking the plunge, prepare yourself and your guys for a nite out, expecting to stay down in the hole in order to minimize exposure. Clearing this before diving in might be beneficial.
- Secondly, recon the area. It was discovered later, after the short haul was made on the Gregg Creek Incident, that road access was actually better than what people thought, potentially shortening that horrendous nightlong ordeal.
- Lastly, practice how you play: the possibilities are endless. Rather than killing time with aimless patrols break up the monotony with as much simulation as possible. I have yet to participate in a simulation which wasn’t beneficial towards my development as a firefighter, leader, crew member or individual.
Here is a link to the Gregg Creek FLA Youtube Video