Each morning our crew gathers to talk about the weather forecast, read 6 Minutes for Safety, and bring up any other loose ends. For 6 Minutes, they try to tie historical events within the wildland fire world to the day it happened, creating a structured daily ritual of group learning. 15 years after the Thirtymile Fire killed four people in the Chewach River Canyon, our crew gathered on the back dock behind the fire cache, greens and boots and ready to go cut manzanita all day. “Kill some domars.” It was just another day in fire.
Prior to bear crawling a Stihl chainsaw around in drenching rain and Filson coats, the overhead convened us to discuss some of the points surrounding what happened on July 10, 2001. I’d been reading Jon Maclean’s book “The Thirtymile Fire” for the last couple days. So, when I heard the happy-go-lucky volunteer read the topic for the day, I consolidated what I’d read to the forefront of my mind, as something for reference purposes – I’d have some answers, or at least something to contribute. Revealing my earnestness would be one way of showing my dedication to the job. That’s what I was thinking anyway.
As the discussion unfolded, I was somewhat alarmed by the some of the content. It felt too on-the-fly. We had among us someone who had participated in the Thirtymile staff ride, and a couple members who personally knew one of the survivors. Put another way, we had too much insight for 6 minutes. But that doesn’t quite get the to the point, either. We also had people proclaiming certain points as facts which didn’t seem to align with what I’d been reading.
I brought up the point Maclean raises concerning Elreese Daniels’ wishy-washy directive for coming off the rocks. We know the ones who died on the fire deployed their shelters in the rocks. By Maclean’s account, it was unclear whether or not he ever made the order, something family members and lawyers would continue to argue about long after. Before I could emphasize the importance of good leadership – or as made crystal clear in the 10 standard firefighting orders “ maintain control of forces at all times” – I was cut off to be informed by overhead that they’d never heard anything like that. But someone else in our group had read the book too, and brought up the fact that the Thirtymile Fire set the precedence for legal accountability for negligent actions committed by firefighters. If we are going to have a discussion on safety for the Thirtymile fire, would we not want to talk about the person who played the role of supervisor for the crew which suffered casualties?
There is no doubt that by studying the fire, a “swiss-cheese” model seems to present itself, and it’s easy to take a doomed-for-failure outlook. We went on to talk about the MARK-3 pumps, the endless supply of water, and how operator incompetence could potentially mean life or death.
We talked about access and egress, how important recon is, knowing where your roads go.
We talked about the work to rest ratio and being tired during trying circumstances. The human factors stuff.
We talked about being lackadaisical rather than being aggressive early on.
We talked about safety zones, escape routes, communications and lookouts.
We talked about the record weather and fire danger, how the fuel moisture levels were well below critical thresholds, the Relative Humidity dangerously low.
But we didn’t talk about leadership.
We didn’t talk about the IC’s inattention to his resources actively engaged, how he’d become immersed in radio-world with Air Attack.
We didn’t talk about the Crew Boss’s disengage/reengagement of the fire, how the fire had become too much for the resources to handle, but was then reengaged anyway.
We didn’t talk about the Crew Boss’s discrepancies with the helicopter or his poor communication with other resources.
We didn’t talk about Thom Taylor’s initiative on wanting to cut down snags near the rock scree prior to being overrun as an attempt to enhance the safety zone, nor did we talk about the Crew Boss’s dismissal of aforementioned idea.
And we didn’t talk about how the crew boss, Elreese Daniels, did not have control of his forces during those last critical moments.
With this thinking, I am reminded of Yarnell Hill, and the Loop Fire, and Storm King; I am reminded of what I learned from studying these events, of how leadership transpires to have definite influence upon the overall outcome. By taking leadership as the critical element for each event, it empowers me to become the missing components through more effort and learning. This is a critical perspective to learn, because without it, the “know-it-all” is a stagnant, complacent, dangerous firefighter to have as a supervisor or crew member.