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Honoring Our Fallen video clip

Battles Lost video clip

Entrapment Fatality Sites, Google Earth Placemark™

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Everyone Goes Home

Inaja Fire, 1956

Loop Fire, 1966

Battlement Creek Fire, 1976

South Canyon Fire, 1994

Point Fire, 1995

Island Fork Fire, 1999

Kates Basin Fire, 2000

Cramer Fire, 2003

Cedar Fire, 2003

Tuolumne Fire, 2004


Battles Lost

Download Battles Lost .mp4 video clip, 11.4 mb.

Script of “Battles Lost”

You ever been to a fatality fire site before? I try to visit them whenever I'm near one. Just seeing the actual site helps me understand a lot better what really happened. This South Canyon Fire site is definitely one worth studying.

The military does this type of thing as formal training. They'll go to the site of a battle, and analyze it, and study what happened, and figure out what factors affected the outcome. Historic battles are considered valuable learning tools. We need to do more of that in the fire management business.

The history of our business is full of battles we've lost and lessons to be learned.

We didn't even have a history until the 1910 fires in northern Idaho. 78 firefighters lost their lives in those fires. That's when the federal government finally started to develop a fire suppression policy and budget some money to battle forest fires.

When a fire started they'd just hire people off logging crews, ranches or right off the streets of the nearest town. If wasn't until the 1930's that the Civilian Conservation Corps started the first organized crews. They were hard workers, but they didn't have any formalized fire training like we have today.

Between the 1933 fire at Griffith Park in California and the 1937 Blackwater Fire in Wyoming, 40 more firefighters died and over a hundred others were injured. That's when we started to develop specialized fire training for the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Fire is not an easy thing to understand. One of the reasons I come to places like this is to try to figure out why a fire burned the way it did.

Back in the 1940's smokejumpers and hotshots crews started showing up on the scene, but they didn't understand much more than the CCC boys did about how a fire burns. And because they didn't understand fully all the factors that make some fires just get up and run, 13 firefighters died at the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire up in Montana. It was after that, we started to do a lot of research and gather piles of data on fire behavior. See, we thought if we could anticipate the way a fire was gonna behave, we could increase safety on the fireline.

But, we were still losing battles. Right on the heels of Mann Gulch, there were two more major fatality fires in California. In 1953, 15 firefighters died on the Rattlesnake fire, and in '56, 11 more died on the Inaja Fire.

It was becoming pretty clear to us that we needed to do a lot more to help out the people pounding the ground. So, a standard list of do's and don'ts was developed. That's where we came up with our 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and the 13 Situations that Shout Watchout.

As time went on, we figured we were starting to get a handle on most of our major safety concerns. Then along came the Loop Fire in '66 and the Canyon Fire in '68 — both in southern California and both nearly carbon copies of the Inaja Fire. Once again, we disregarded lessons from the past and 19 firefighter paid for it with their lives.

By the end of the 60's, smokejumpers and hotshots had been around for over 20 years. But as these fires proved, all that special training didn't make them immune from ignoring the past. So, we developed even more do's and don'ts, and that became our Downhill Line Construction Checklist.

Even in my career, we've lost way too many battles by simply not paying attention to what's gone on in the past. Four firefighters died in the 1971 Romero Fire in California. That started a nation-wide push for a radio cache system and a fireline qualification system.

Then in 1976, just five years later, the Battlement Creek Fire — about 20 miles down the valley right over here — claimed another three firefighters. That's when it became mandatory to carry fire shelters onto the fireline, and more special guidelines were developed in the form of the Common Denominators.

The 1980's brought a rash of fire shelter deployments. Then in 1990, six more firefighters were killed on the Dude Fire in Arizona. It was obvious that modern technology alone was not going to eliminate fatality fires, and we began to move toward more simplified safety guidelines using the LCES system.

But these were just the dramatic fires — the ones that cost a lot of lives and caused the fire organizations to react in some pretty dramatic ways. We need to remember that there were literally hundreds of other fatality fires involving one or two lives that have been forgotten along the way: fires where the same safety guidelines were disregarded, over and over again.

How can we keep forgetting?

Here we are at South Canyon, where another 14 firefighters lost their lives in 1994. Once again, elite firefighters. Once again, repeated mistakes. Once again, calls for change. Once again, quickly forgotten.

You know, the South Canyon Fire isn't any more tragic than any of these other fires I've mentioned — it's just more recent. The one thing we need to remember is to use the lessons from the past, so we don't have to keep re-learning them the hard way.

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