Lessons From Thirtymile: Transition Fires And Fire Orders
written by Jerry Williams
On November 2001, I was flying over Helena, MT, when I looked out the window and saw Mann Gulch. As a wildland firefighter, you cannot see Mann Gulch without being deeply moved. More than most places, Mann Gulch speaks to our past and our future. The story of Mann Gulch reminds us of how far we have come and what challenges we still face in improving fireline safety.
Mann Gulch reminds us of other fires in other places as well, fires with names like Dude, South Canyon, Island Fork, and now Thirtymile. Like Mann Gulch, these were all tragedy fires—fires where lives were lost. They invite us to see a connection to Mann Gulch. Especially after the Thirtymile Fire, they call on us to act on that connection.
Transition to Tragedy
These fires were all transition incidents—fires in transition from small to large (see sidebar). They became tragedy fires as they grew from something we thought was under control into something that suddenly overwhelmed us. Sometimes, such as at Mann Gulch, transition fires involve blowup conditions; at other times, such as at Thirtymile, they do not. In most cases, we did not recognize the full gravity of the situation until it was too late and there was nowhere to escape.
For most of the fires we manage, our policy is sound. We have strong strategies for initial attack through our preparedness planning—our National Fire Management Analysis System for deriving the most efficient level of resources. We also have flexible options for managing large fires through our Wildland Fire Situation Analysis.
However, we remain vulnerable in managing the fires in between. Transition fires are relatively few, but their small number belies their significance. Probably because they occur so infrequently, we are sometimes unprepared for their potential consequences. We get into trouble when we continue offensive tactics in a situation that puts us on the defensive. People sometimes get hurt or even killed. With few exceptions, our tragedy fires—the fires where most of our entrapments and deployments occur—are transition fires.
Transition fires raise special questions:
I believe that we do not have a coherent strategy for what are arguably the most important fires we face. We find ourselves doing the best we can with that we have, hoping that it will suffice. Usually, it does suffice; faced with a transition fire, experienced leaders will disengage and regroup. But as long as good judgment during transition fires is more a matter of chance than design, another tragedy seems inevitable sooner or later.
It is time to develop and adopt a more formal approach to transition fires, one that makes us less vulnerable. Many of the items in the Thirtymile Fire Prevention Action Plan are specifically designed to improve our approach to managing transition fires (see the action plan items beginning on page 14). At the fall 2001 meeting of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, the interagency leadership committed itself to such an approach. Support is needed from the entire interagency wildland fire community.
Beginning with Mann Gulch, transition fires have shocked the wildland fire community and precipitated safety reforms. A key reform was the introduction of the Ten Standard Firefighting Orders. The Fire Orders and other safety measures complement our fundamental beliefs, behaviors, and values as wildland firefighters. They are a vital counterweight to a remarkable strength in our culture that, if left unattenuated, can jeopardize our safety on the fireline: our “can-do” attitude.
Our “can-do” attitude is written across the face of every firefighter on every incident. The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, produced some remarkable examples. One photograph shows people in a stairwell streaming downstairs past a New York City fireman on his way up. His expression is typically “can-do”: bright-eyed, eager, and ready for a firefight.
That look, that attitude, and that spirit define the firefighter. I see that look during every fire season. The shine comes off a little as the season wears on, but it is always there. It projects our “can-do” strength of character. But it is a strength that can defeat us; if untempered by sound judgment, “can-do” can devolve into “make-do,” which can lead to tragedy. The role of management supervisors and crew leaders is to instill the sense that the biggest part of our job is doing the job right. Doing the job right by following the rules is what keeps “can-do” from slipping toward tragedy.
Our rules of engagement are the Ten Standard Firefighting Orders. Though simple, they are sometimes overlooked or ignored. Our “can-do” orientation can impel us to put operations ahead of safety. The Fire Orders remind us that there is a right way to do things before we engage, while on the fireline, and in our after-action reviews. The Fire Orders are not an obstacle to getting the job done; instead, they are the way to get the job done right.
We especially need to follow the Fire Orders at times when we might be tempted not to:
The Fire Orders have less value in a controlled environment than in an environment that is uncertain:
Such things happen in the world of firefighters, though infrequently. When they do happen, especially during a transition fire, their consequences can be fatal. When the unexpected happens, the Fire Orders assume their real value. And because the unexpected does happen, we must be disciplined in observing the Fire Orders day in, day out.
In our business, especially on transition fires, the unexpected can happen without warning. That’s why:
The Thirtymile Fire, like other tragedy fires, reminds us that we are accountable at all times for our performance as fire managers, crew supervisors, and firefighters. The Ten Standard Firefighting Orders are the measure against which our performance as professionals should be judged. It is time we used the Fire Orders not only as guidelines for safe firefighting, but also as criteria for measuring our firefighting performance.
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