Friday, July 31, 2015

Risk, Gain and Loss: What are We Willing to Accept?

1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment Monument at the Gettysburg Battlefield
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By Curtis Heaton

“Are you sure we do not have acceptable losses in wildland fire?" I quietly asked.

The group shifted around uncomfortably waiting for someone to speak. It was a beautiful fall day. I was facilitating an L-580 Gettysburg Staff Ride conference group under the shadow of the 1st Minnesota Monument.

The theme at the stand was Leadership and Risk. One of my fire peers had just passionately stated: “We are not the military and we do not have acceptable losses.” The location was fitting. The 1st Minnesota Volunteers had incurred an 82 percent causality rate in just five minutes of pitched fighting. It is one of the greatest single engagement losses in the history of the U.S. military. We were standing at the very spot where they received the order to attack.

Once again, I asked: “Do we have acceptable losses in wildland fire?” I could sense that critical thinking and group sense-making was beginning to occur.

By Painting by Don Troiani. Courtesy of The National Guard [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Painting by Don Troiani. Courtesy of The National Guard [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The 1st Minnesota Stand
On the afternoon of July 2, 1863 Confederate forces launched a major offensive aimed at defeating the Union forces positioned outside of Gettysburg. As the battle raged, Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock sensed the Union plan was failing and the Confederates were poised to break through his thinly held lines. A breach meant the Union army would be divided and crushed. Hancock needed time to shift resources. He turned to the only resource he had available, the 1st Minnesota Volunteers.

Hancock ordered the 1st Minnesota Regiment to: “Take those colors!” Outnumbered 6 to 1, both Hancock and the brave Minnesotans knew they were wading into a conflagration. This risk was the only option Hancock had in his arsenal. His time wedge had closed. He had no room to maneuver—no margin.

Events beyond his control had placed him on Cemetery Ridge—the center of the Union defense. Decisions made by his leaders and the actions of others had placed him at the crucial part of the battlefield.

They Followed the Plan . . .
The 1st Minnesota had simply filled a resource order that morning. They followed the plan and arrived at their drop point and now they were staring at a wall of Confederates. Both the threat and consequences were clear. They had to stop the rebels, a force of 1,500 crack troops. A total of 262 Minnesotans engaged. Five minutes later 47 Minnesotans were left standing. The actions of 1st Minnesota disrupted the Confederate offensive and bought Hancock time to move up Union reinforcements. The Union line held that day.

From a General’s perspective, the risk of losing an entire regiment was worth the gain of saving the Union line. But what about the Private? Why would the Minnesotans willingly accept so much risk? Are we any different? How can we learn from their sacrifice? (Brothers of War website)

Why Gettysburg?
The Battle of Gettysburg was arguably the key battle in the Civil War. Two great armies collided at a crossroads and fought for three days—incurring tens of thousands of casualties. It is considered “the high water mark of the Confederacy” and may have decided the outcome of the Civil War and the fate of a nation. It is the most studied incident in American history.

For all of these reasons and more, the Battle of Gettysburg is a great place to study leadership and decision-making.

How We View Risk in Wildland Fire
While “Risk” comes up at various points during the Gettysburg Staff Ride, it always reaches passionate debate at the 1st Minnesota Monument.

I consistently hear my peers dismiss lessons from the military because “We do not have acceptable losses in wildland fire.” “They make decisions differently.

I disagree.

There have been more than 500 wildland firefighters killed in the line-of-duty during my career alone—roughly 20 per year. We lose billions of dollars in capital and resources, we experience a number of serious injuries, as well as both physical and emotional trauma, and much more. This is what our current system produces—the loss we “accept”. We also protect many things: life, property, resources, infrastructure. But nothing is ever free in the risk equation.

The uncomfortable discussion about risk, gain, and loss only seems to occur when the Staff Ride participants begin to realize their decisions and actions as leaders can result in the loss of life. When it becomes personal.

Many have never experienced a really bad day (and, fortunately, most never will). But as an occupation, wildland fire is deadly and destructive. It is also a beautiful, simple, and necessary act of nature. And as leaders within that occupation, we need to be honest about the consequences of our decisions and the human factors that influence them. We need to be honest how words and behaviors reflect our personal view of risk. Language

Do we normalize risk by simply avoiding the topic? Verbs for discussing risk have become nouns in our language. In essence we “normalize” the action. Our words and processes make risk acceptable. We have developed a script in order to avoid the uncomfortable discussion about risk and loss. We accept that risk is in everything we do, yet culturally we continue to talk about risk in an ancillary fashion to the actual decision-making.

Initial Attack: we attack wildfires. Hancock ordered 1st Minnesota to attack. Attack is defined as a “violent or harmful act.” Is that what we always want to achieve? Hancock sure did. We build a plan rather than engage in planning. “WFDSS” was designed to encourage critical thinking—it is now a product that we have to develop. Objectives like “Protect _______” is a common objective on an incident. This objective is built on the assumption we can protect anything and that the risk is always worth the gain.

What is the cost to our people for protecting? “Keep the fire north of______, south of_______”. The Box. This common strategy statement assumes all of the hazards found within the box can be mitigated and the exposure justifies the gain. When it fails, we just draw a bigger box. Hancock could not draw a bigger box. He was at the edge of margin. Strategy should be based on time, space, and assets. A strong strategy encourages maneuverability and flexibility. It creates more margin, rather than reduce it.


Processes are built into the system to decide, act, and then mitigate risk.

That sequence seems flawed. Sense-making has given way to documenting. We seem to believe we can mitigate everything—just make sure you document it. Fifty or so pages into the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG) addresses some type of hazard mitigation. “See the safety message on p. 17 in your IAP and reference p. 24 in your IRPG on dealing with those downed power lines and be safe!”

The 5-Step Risk Management Process in the IRPG was designed as a critical thinking/analytical tool to support and mirror the decision-making process. Is that how it’s being used? Or do we make a decision and use the tool as a subjective filter to justify a predetermined course of action—and to be comfortable with the risk we have transferred?

We have a page in the IRPG dedicated to “How to properly refuse risk”. Risk has to be properly refused? Risk should always be evaluated and discussed. “Refusing” should be thrown out of our vocabulary. The very stigma associated with this term creates unnecessary friction in the system.

A little friction in the system is good, it encourages us to run a diagnostic, to understand why there is friction. However, if we generate too much friction then the system erodes from within. It destroys itself. We should view every discussion about risk as sense-making, a tactical pause, inquiry—put any label you want on it. But encourage all discussions about risk. The system has enough friction in it as is, we need not create more.


Perhaps we have developed a “script” that we are all too comfortable using. You have heard it countless times. It goes like this: “Critical fire weather today…extreme fire behavior…don’t let your guard down…maintain situational awareness…show a lunch break…

It is a well-used script. It has defined a culture. Follow the rules and everything will be okay. Just make sure you document everything in case things do go bad. Did the 1st Minnesota get a safety briefing before they attacked?

We act this way because we are human. Humans are creatures of habit; we love patterns. They make us comfortable. We do it this way because we have always done it this way. When facing uncertainty, humans often revert to fear or quickly dismiss uncertainty so we feel we understand what is occurring. We feel like we are in control. We can feel normal.

Sense-making requires effort. Recognizing how we are influenced by these scripts is the basis for critical thinking—thinking about how we think. Fire has no script. It behaves solely on the conditions. Hancock had no script at Gettysburg. But he clearly understood the conditions and the risk—as did his Minnesotans.

Scripts can be good. Like incident organizers and prescribed fire burn plans that help us to make sense of policies and aid in training and development. Hands down, the wildland fire community is full of outstanding problem solvers. Day in and day out we are constantly adapting plans, tactics, and modifying those scripts to fit reality. We unfold the map on the hood of the truck at DP7 and pause to make sense; to understand. Here we rewrite the script based on our observations, perceptions, and conditions. Here we engage in group sense-making.

Scripts and adaptability are strengths in our culture. And yet they also affect our ability to perceive and detect anomalies and how we communicate deviances. The danger surfaces when the script replaces critical thinking and sense-making. When the script becomes thought.

Sense-Making and Critical Thinking

Hancock and the Minnesotans had little time for group sense-making on July 2, 1863. The Confederates, led by the legendary Robert E. Lee, were pushing hard for the Union line.

Robert E. Lee was the best. He was both feared and respected. I think of Robert E. Lee as a Haines 6 coupled with high winds and record drought. General Lee was extreme fire behavior in 1863. The Confederates were a 30,000-foot convection column ready to collapse on top of Hancock and the Minnesotans.

Hancock had to make sense of what was occurring and he had to think critically. He was not only trying to predict the future but he also needed to share his vision with the 1st Minnesota. He accomplished this solely through his presence and character. He had no process to fall back on or script to reference.

Hancock clearly understood what was at risk strategically. The price for losing the battle would be high. He knew what was at stake—his country. He was a smart guy and understood the politics. He also had a pretty good idea what Robert E. Lee was trying to do. He had learned after getting pummeled by Bobby and the Confederates time and time again. Hancock was preparing to apply those lessons learned at the expense of the 1st Minnesota.

He knew what he was asking the 1st Minnesota to do. He did it out of duty, not personal glory or ego, or by following a process or a script. He made sense of the situation and he communicated the risk.

OK, cool story Heaton, so what’s your point?

My point here is that Hancock, like all great leaders, understood risk and did not avoid it or bury it in ambiguity and false mitigations. He had no qualms about transferring risk; that was his job. He had no issues communicating the risk. His intent was clear and he was clearly accountable for his decision. That is the first lesson on risk from the 1st Minnesota stand.

The second lesson is why the 1st Minnesota accepted the risk from Hancock. They merely filled a resource order and reported to their assigned drop point. Their Branch Director ordered them to attack. They could have attempted to mitigate the risk, transfer the risk, or just declined it and ran away like so many other brave but scared kids that day. But no, they went all in. Why? Why would 262 men march to certain death? Why would firefighters ever leave a safety zone?

Cannon at Gettysburg Battlefield
(Photo credit: Chris Wilcox)
Why We Live and Die Together. What It Means to be ‘Us’.

Why did the 1st Minnesota attack?

As the U.S. Marine SME for my conference group at the Gettysburg Staff Ride always points out: “They didn’t do it for Hancock. They were brothers. One goes, they all go.” The Private at Gettysburg did not fight for a cause. They fought for each other. Their greatest risk was failing their brother. This insight is coming from a veteran (the Marine SME) who understands risk and human performance under stress.

Is our model really any different? We transfer the risk by inserting the operator into a hazardous and uncertain environment and then seem surprised when a group of them die?

So Who are We?

Causes are great: mission, duty, protecting the public and our natural resources. Great stuff and it all has meaning. It is all worth some level of risk. I am in no way downplaying the dedication of our people. But like the 1st Minnesota, we in wildland fire ultimately fight for each other, for our families.

This is the essence of the warrior culture. That sense of being—of belonging to something bigger and better than yourself. Finding your limits and giving it all you have. It is cool.

If you have not been part of what I am describing, then you might not understand. Live side-by-side with someone for months at a time. Share hardships. Laugh, sweat, bleed and cry with them and you do not (will not) fail them.

You will risk a lot for each other. You will do things with them you would never do alone. Ask a career Hotshot or Smokejumper or Helitack or Engine Captain what is most important to them. The answer is their people. I am honored to be associated with the wildland fire community and equally humbled by what that actually means. Being part of this special group influences my decisions, it defines my behavior at times and it may inadvertently encourage me to act in certain ways. Call it trust or duty or even ego.

It is complicated enough that I am not sure I even understand it. Our Fallen may not have died for a glorious cause but we can choose to honor them for the gift they left behind; the gift of knowledge. We can choose to learn from their sacrifice. It is a priceless gift and not one to be taken lightly.

We Need to Be Real About Accepting Risk

This esprit de corps is not something that we should try to “fix”. Rather, it needs to be better understood. It is why we are often so successful. It doesn’t take much motivation to get our people to engage a fire. It is who they are. It is why they signed on. It is also why we have mass casualty events.

Who wants to be the first one to pull out? Who wants to be the first one to question the boss or tell the homeowner it was unsafe to protect their home? Who was going to say no to Hancock on the afternoon of July 2? Who is going to say it is too steep or too dry or too dangerous? Who is going to define acceptable risk?

That’s why we need to be real about accepting risk. Hancock assigned the mission. We assign the missions. We are the system that accepts the loss.

So yes, it is about risk and it is about leadership. More importantly, it is also about how we have normalized risk by simply allowing our people to be who they are. How we continue to fool ourselves with misdirected blame, mitigated language, and layers of process.

It is wrong to continue to expect our firefighters to manage risk at the tip of the bayonet. Even with all of their skill and training, sooner or later they will not be able to manage the risk we transfer to them. We must first admit that we accept loss before we can begin to reduce it.

Complexity and System Failure

Thirty-Mile, South Canyon, Dude, Esperanza, Yarnell Hill and countless other fires were not simply human error or unexpected weather events.

These fires were the result of a culture that allows humans to excel. Excel to the point of a systematic failure—to try to hold the line when conditions are extreme; to accept great amounts of uncertainty.

All of these fires have two reoccurring themes: Complexity and System Failure. Fuels, Weather, Topography and People—all four of these elements were in place and just happened to be complex enough at one level or another to outpace the group’s ability to adapt to changing conditions.

The best equipment and technology in the world cannot save a mountain climber in an avalanche or bring a spacecraft home safely. There is too much uncertainty built into these complex systems. Getting it right most of the time is quite impressive. Getting it right all of the time may not be possible. Complex systems have complex problems.

Like the rest of the world, the complexity of the fire environment has changed.

All the data supports a “new normal” in our business: an environment more complex than the system that we designed to manage it. It is a system designed around human decision-making. So, how are we changing? How do we create a greater degree of margin in the system so we can maneuver in the face of uncertainty?

How do we develop a more resilient system to respond to changing conditions and to learn from failure? How do we think and lead like Hancock without relying on the sacrifice of the Private to be successful?

What is Our Acceptable Level of Risk?

Is acceptable risk captured in WFDSS? Is it communicated on the ICS 215 and 215a? Do we share it at the morning briefing? (“Briefing”—yet another verb [to brief] that has become a noun in our language.) If we are unable to define acceptable risk then we must be willing to accept it with whatever loss occurs.


Acceptable Loss or Normalizing Risk? 
Please Help Define What We Need to Address

After writing down my thoughts from my experiences at 1st Minnesota and getting feedback on this topic, it is clear that I am talking about two separate—but closely related—issues: Normalizing Risk and Acceptable Losses.

They are so closely related that I have struggled separating them in this article. Perhaps I am oversimplifying a complex issue. Discussing one takes me right to the other. I could therefore use your assistance.

Please help define what we need to address.

Use this link to submit answers to the following questions:

  • How do we view loss in the wildfire community?
  • What parts of our culture place us in the greatest danger?
  • Under what circumstance could a bad thing happen to you?
  • How does recognizing our limitations ultimately improve our performance?

It’s your responsibility to have an opinion on these topics. Discuss these issues with those around you.

Help develop a culture that supports open dialogue and grows as a result.

Curtis Heaton is the Operations Section Chief for the Phoenix NIMO Team and a Lead Instructor for L-580 Gettysburg Staff Ride. 

Thanks to the Wildland Lessons Learned Center for this post. Printed in the Spring 2015 issue of Two More Chains.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

IGNITE: Effective Team Communication

In high risk environments, the best level of protection against errors and accidents is effective team communication.  –Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 50
In high risk environments, the best level of protection against errors and accidents is effective team communication. – Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 50

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Influential People - Those Less Known

Influential People from The Smokey Generation on Vimeo.

We hear the names Paul Gleason, Jim Cook or Ben Charley in wildland fire. Most of us will never have their notoriety; however, the impact we have may be equally influential. Each wildland fire leader has the power to do great things. Each has the ability to make a difference in the lives of those we love and serve. Be great. Lead well.

What is your story? We challenge you to become a part of this amazing  project and share your leadership stories. Bethany Hannah began The Smokey Generation: A Wildland Fire Oral History and Digital Storytelling Project for her master's thesis. All members of the wildland fire service, not just hotshots, can share their stories by following her example. Click here for potential leadership questions. Visit The Smokey Generation website for complete information.

The Smokey Generation logo


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Remembering the Point Fire - 20 Years Later

Kuna VFD

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Point fire that claimed the lives of Bill Buttram and Josh Oliver of the Kuna Fire Department near Kuna, ID.
Take a moment to honor our fallen by reviewing the accident and ensuring that your Memorandums of Understanding with cooperators are current, relationships are strong, and training for volunteer departments are sound.
1995 Point Fire
(From Engine Operator, PMS 419)

Date of Incident: July 28, 1995
Time of Incident: 1829 hours MDT
Incident Name: Point Fire
Incident Location: Southwestern Idaho

Initial Fire Report and Dispatch
Late in the afternoon of July 28, 1995, thunderstorms began to move into southwestern Idaho from northern Nevada. The thunderstorms produced little or no moisture, and associated lightning sparked dozens of wildfires.

At 1829 hours, the Danskin lookout reported a wildfire northeast of Initial Point, about 16 miles southwest of Boise, Idaho. The wildfire was also reported to the Bureau of Land Management’s Boise District Dispatch by several citizens and the Ada County Dispatch Center. At 1835 hours, Boise District Dispatch sent the Wild West unit to the wildfire. The Wild West unit consisted of two Type 4 wildland engines (Boise District Engine 67 and Salmon District Engine 425) and one Type 6 engine (slip-on). The crew boss, Dave Kerby, drove to the wildfire in a Suburban.

Boise District Dispatch soon dispatched more resources including Unit C—three Type 4 engines (BLM Engines 09 and 83 and Boise National Forest Engine 61), a Suburban (driven by Unit Leader Blas Telleria), one Type 2 water tender, and one transport hauling a dozer.

The Wild West unit was first to arrive on the scene at approximately 1900 hours. Kerby assumed the role of Incident Commander (IC) and sized-up the fire. The fire was actively burning in sagebrush and cheatgrass with moderate rates of spread and 3- to 5-foot flame lengths along the flanks. Because of higher‑than‑normal moisture in the area in the spring, cheatgrass growth was especially dense—estimated in excess of 3,000 pounds per acre, about ten times the volume of a year with normal precipitation. Mature sagebrush between 3- and 4-feet high also added to the fuel problem. Kerby estimated the fire size to be between 60 and 65 acres. Winds were generally from the west at 4 to 6 miles per hour.

Boise BLM Dispatch contacted IC Kerby to inquire as to whether Kuna Rural Fire District (Kuna RFD) was on scene. Kerby indicated that he had not seen any rural fire department equipment or personnel. Shortly thereafter, Kuna Fire Chief Rich Cromwell (Kuna 650) contacted Kerby and asked if assistance was needed. Kerby placed a request for a brush truck and water tender.

At 1907 hours, Kuna 650 radioed Ada County Dispatch and requested that three vehicles be dispatched. Kuna 620 (a 1,500-gallon brush truck), Kuna 622 (a 1,750-gallon brush truck), and Kuna Tender 625 (a 2,500-gallon water tender) responded from their fire stations at 1911 hours.

The Wild West Unit arrived at the southeast corner of the wildfire on Swan Falls Road. The initial strategy was to keep the fire from crossing Swan Falls Road to the east and to minimize the loss of resources and property in the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. (See Map #2 on SW page 16.) The IC tactically positioned the Type 6 engine along Swan Falls Road (a two-lane, paved road running north and south) and tasked the engine crew to burn out along the road to keep the fire from crossing the road.

Point Fire - Map 2
Engines 67 and 425 followed the IC to an area near the point of origin at the southwest corner. The IC instructed the engine crews to anchor and split up and directly attack the flanks, using water pumped through their hoses (called “live reels”). Engine 425 worked the southern flank east toward Swan Falls Road while Engine 67 worked the northern flank eastward, also toward Swan Falls Road. Shortly after the flanking operation began, the BLM dozer arrived and was assigned to work the southern flank, constructing a line behind Engine 425 to the east.

A helicopter departed the Boise airport en route to the Point fire at 1857 hours. The helicopter picked up the IC for a reconnaissance flight. During the flight, Unit C arrived on the scene along Swan Falls Road. Engines 61 and 83 were assigned to directly attack the northern flank, west from Swan Falls Road. Engine 09 was sent to directly attack the southern flank west from Swan Falls Road. Telleria, the Unit C leader, assisted the Type 6 Wild West engine with securing Swan Falls Road.

Kuna 620, Kuna 622, and Kuna Tender 625 arrived just behind Unit C at about 1930 hours. IC Kerby assigned the brush trucks to work behind Engines 61 and 83. Doyle McPherson, the Kuna captain (6803), came to the scene in Kuna 620 and was dropped off on Swan Falls Road with Kuna Tender 625 to act as Kuna Command, as directed by Chief Cromwell.

Shortly thereafter, Engine 61 and Engine 83 began flanking the north line, working west from Swan Falls Road. Kuna 620 and Kuna 622 drove around them in tandem and Kuna 620 began working a flare‑up on the fireline, using nozzles attached to the front bumper while driving next to the fire’s edge. Kuna 622 trailed Kuna 620 conserving water.

At 2010 hours, IC Kerby stated that engines on both flanks had met and the spread of the fire had been stopped. He estimated the size of the fire at 120 acres. The dozer continued working the southern edge toward Swan Falls Road.

Red Flag Warning
At 2022 hours, BLM Boise Dispatch issued a “red flag warning” for dry lightning and locally strong winds. At the Point fire, wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour were predicted from a thunderstorm or cell that was moving northward at approximately 30 miles per hour. Telleria radioed Kerby and requested that he reinforce the fire’s northern perimeter. Upon receiving the red flag warning, IC Kerby positioned Engines 61, 67, and 83 along the northern perimeter in anticipation of the gusty winds.

Kuna 620 and Kuna 622 continued to mop‑up along the perimeter working west along the northern flank, then south, around the west end, turning east. They passed the dozer, Engines 425 and 09, ending up at a fence on the southeast corner of the fire line. At this point, Kuna 622’s crew met with Brian Barney (Wild West Type 6 engine ENOP). Via Barney’s radio, Kuna 622 received directions to refill and continue working the line. Kuna 622 followed by Kuna 620 headed west on the southern perimeter.

The two Kuna engines, still in tandem, turned north and worked along the western perimeter where they ran out of water. Kuna 622 contacted IC Kerby for instructions. Kerby told Kuna 622 to refill and stand by due to predicted high winds. Kuna 620 had momentarily passed Kuna 622 on the northwest perimeter. Kuna 622 pulled alongside of Kuna 620, informing them that they were going to refill. Kuna 622 then took the lead, pulling off the line and turning toward Swan Falls Road. Kuna 622 headed east through the burned‑over area.

Kuna 622, just prior to reaching Swan Falls Road, was contacted by Kuna 620 on radio (BLM tactical Channel 16). Kuna 620’s crew said that the vehicle was overheating. Kuna 622 instructed the crew to remove the screen from the radiator. Kuna 620 acknowledged, “Remove the screen.”

A short time later, Kuna 622 pulled onto Swan Falls Road, turned south, and met with Kuna Tender 625, located south of the southeast corner of the fire where refill operations started. Kuna 620 was not with Kuna 622.

Sometime after Kuna 622 went to refill, Kuna 620 passed Engines 61 and 67 on the west end of the fireline. Soon afterwards, and for unknown reasons, Kuna 620 turned north on a two‑track road at its intersection along the fire’s northern perimeter. (See Map #3, Point A, on SW page 17.) Kuna 620 traveled along the two‑track road for 1,945 feet (Point C) where it turned off the road and drove east and then north‑northeast cross country another 1,786 feet through heavy sagebrush. At this point, the vehicle became disabled (Point E). The vehicle was 713 feet west of Swan Falls Road and 1,750 feet north of the northern fire perimeter.

Point Fire - Map 3
At about 2046 hours, the fire, fanned by strong, southerly winds from the thunderstorm, escaped from the northern perimeter at several locations. Telleria and Bob Stroud, a BLM fire investigator, were in a Suburban and immediately drove north on Swan Falls Road about 2,000 feet from the original northern perimeter to assess fire behavior. To their surprise and horror, they witnessed a stationary Kuna engine in the path of the oncoming flame front. Telleria repeatedly attempted to radio the Kuna Engine and also Kuna Command on the BLM tactical channel, but received no response. Telleria then radioed Engine 83’s foreman, Lance Lane, a trained medical responder, and advised him that his skills soon may be needed. Telleria also radioed Boise District Dispatch and requested an ambulance and police assistance.

At 2049 hours, Kuna 620 contacted Kuna Command on the Ada County South frequency and reported, “We’re on the north line, Doyle; we got fire coming hard and this thing has died.” The speaker was Bill Buttram, a 31‑year old volunteer fireman with Kuna RFD. The second fireman in the vehicle was 18‑year old Josh Oliver. A minute later, Kuna 620 contacted Kuna Command again on the same channel. “It’s not going to let us out of here!”

Kuna 650 asked Kuna 620, “What kind of problem do you have?” Buttram replied, “We’re surrounded by fire!”

Kuna 650 asked Buttram to repeat. Buttram replied, “The truck’s been overtaken by fire!” This was the last transmission from Kuna 620.

The fire was moving rapidly and burning intensely. Flame lengths were at least 20 feet high, and flame spread was about 560 feet per minute. At the point of escape, the fire overtook Kuna 620 in approximately 4 minutes.

Rescue Attempts
Rescue efforts were hampered by the duration and high intensity of the fire caused by the heavy fuel which consisted of mature sagebrush.

After the flame front passed, several rescue attempts were made by members of Kuna RFD and federal firefighting crews. The residual heat from the sagebrush made the first few attempts to reach the engine impossible. At 2121 hours, Kuna 622 and Engine 425 were able to approach the vehicle. Kuna 620 was still on fire. Kuna 622 extinguished the flames and gained access to the vehicle. Kuna Command was notified that two fatalities had occurred.


Most fatalities that occur on wildfires are not the result of a single mistake or circumstance. Rather, they occur as a chain of unfortunate events. Such is the case in the deaths of Bill Buttram and Josh Oliver. Taken individually, the three primary events that led to the accident were all survivable, and perhaps, not even remarkable. But when the decision to leave the burned area and drive into heavy, unburned fuels was grouped with Kuna 620 stalling and the advent of 40 to 50 mile an hour winds from the thunderstorm, the combination of events proved fatal.

(Map 4 on SW page 18 depicts the fire perimeter and vehicle/crew locations at the time of the Point fire blowup—approximately 2049 hours.)
Point Fire - Map 4
Links for Learning

Monday, July 27, 2015

IGNITE: The Importance of Character

True leadership is only possible when character is more important than authority.  –Joseph Marshall
True leadership is only possible when character is more important than authority. – Joseph Marshall
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Friday, July 24, 2015

Beware the Noise of Rats and Mice

"Under a Flaming Sky" cover

While reading Under a Flaming Sky, the story of the great Hinkley firestorm of 1894 by Daniel James Brown, I came across interesting commentary about the formation of the National Weather Service.

 A Look Back at the Weather Service History

US Army Signal Corps Weather Service
(Signal Weather Station on Pikes Peak, 1880s. Credit: US Army)
Despite the successful establishment of the Signal School, the Signal Corps still lacked a clear-cut mission. During hearings before the House Committee on Military Affairs in 1869, Secretary of War Schofield testified that he felt the Army did not need a separate Signal Corps. The committee shared his view that the signal function could be performed by the engineers, but Congress did not act on this proposal. Nevertheless, when Congress reduced the size of the Army to save money, Myer knew that the Signal Corps needed a stronger footing in order to survive further scrutiny. One solution appeared to lie in weather observation and reporting, a field in which he had some experience from his days as an Army doctor.

Weather has always regulated daily activities, especially for those whose livelihood is intimately tied to the land. Its study in the United States antedated the founding of the republic. Benjamin Franklin, who was not only a political leader but also a noted scientist in colonial America, had theorized about the origin and movement of storms. Another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, kept a daily journal of weather observations and corresponded widely with others of similar interest. Jefferson envisioned a national meteorological system, but until some means of rapidly reporting the weather was invented, a nationwide forecasting service was impossible.

After the war, as the nation's commercial and agricultural enterprises expanded, the need for a national weather service became apparent. Because the Smithsonian lacked the funds to operate such a system, Joseph Henry urged Congress to create one. A petition submitted in December 1869 to Congressman Halbert E. Paine by Increase A. Lapham, a Wisconsin meteorologist, provided further impetus for national legislation. Lapham advocated a warning service on the Great Lakes to reduce the tremendous losses in lives and property caused by storms each year. Paine supported this proposition and soon introduced legislation authorizing the secretary of war "to provide for taking meteorological observations at the military stations in the interior of the continent, and at other points in the States and Territories of the United States, and for giving notice on the northern lakes and on the seacoast, by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms." Paine chose to assign these duties to the War Department because "military discipline would probably secure the greatest promptness, regularity, and accuracy in the required observations." Congress approved Paine's proposal as a joint resolution, and President Ulysses S. Grant signed it into law on 9 February 1870.

Myer recognized that Paine's bill provided the mission the Signal Corps needed. As Paine later recalled: "Immediately after the introduction of the measure, a gentleman called on me and introduced himself as Col. Albert Myer, Chief Signal Officer. He was greatly excited and expressed a most intense desire that the execution of the law might be entrusted to him." Myer's efforts were rewarded when Secretary of War, William W. Belknap, assigned the weather duties to the chief signal officer on 15 March 1870. Now the Signal Corps embarked upon a new field of endeavor, one that soon overshadowed its responsibility for military communications.
[Source: US Army, Signal Corps Regimental History]

Folk Wisdom and Forecasts
The historical information was enlightening, but I found the following parables used when making forecasts delightful:
  1. A red sun has water in his eye.
  2. When the walls are more than unusually damp, rain is expected.
  3. Hark! I hear the asses bray. We shall have some rain today.
  4. The further the sight, the nearer the rain.
  5. Clear moon, frost soon.
  6. When deer are in gray coat in October, expect a severe winter.
  7. Anvil-shaped clouds are very likely to be followed by a gale of wind.
  8. If rain falls during an east wind, it will continue a full day.
  9. A light yellow sky at sunset presages wind. A pale yellow sky at sunset presages rain.
  10. Much noise made by rats and mice indicates rain.
What light-hearted commentary have you seen in weather forecasts or what quips have you created yourself?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

IGNITE: Delegating Tasks

We consider the individual skill levels and developmental needs when delegating tasks, making sure people have appropriate challenges that press them to grow and expand their skills. – Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 41
We consider the individual skill levels and developmental needs when delegating tasks, making sure people have appropriate challenges that press them to grow and expand their skills. – Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 41
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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Staff Ride/Case Study/Site Visit...There is a difference!

Hohenfriedeberg, Battle of Hohenfriedeberg, Attack of Prussian Infantry, June 4th, 1745 - shown "Potsdam Giants" Grenadier Guards Batallion (1806: No. 6). History Painting by Carl Röchling (1855-1920).
Hohenfriedeberg, Battle of Hohenfriedeberg, Attack of Prussian Infantry, June 4th, 1745 - shown "Potsdam Giants" Grenadier Guards Battalion (1806: No. 6). History Painting by Carl Röchling (1855-1920).
Staff rides were developed by the Prussian Army in the early nineteenth century and have been used by the militaries in many countries since then. In the 1970s, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps turned to staff rides with great enthusiasm and now they are considered essential instructional techniques in advanced military schools and in field units.

Photo credit: U.S. Army Center of Military History
Photo credit: U.S. Army Center of Military History
The intent of a staff ride is to put participants in the shoes of the decision makers on a historical incident in order to learn for the future. A staff ride should not be a tactical-fault finding exercise. Participants should be challenged to push past the basic question of "what happened" and examine the deeper questions of leadership and decision making:
  • "What would I have done in this person's place?" 
  • "How detailed should the guidance from a superior to a subordinate be?" 
  • "Can a senior leader make use of a competent but overzealous subordinate?" 
  • "What explains repeated organizational success or failure?" 
The study of leadership aspects in a staff ride transcend time and place.

Staff Ride
A field study that is conducted on the ground where an incident or event happened. A staff ride consists of three distinct phases:
  • a systematic Preliminary Study of a selected fire or other emergency operation,
  • an extensive Field Study to the actual site(s) associated with the incident, and 
  • an opportunity for Integration of the lessons derived from the study and visit.
Staff rides require maximum participant involvement before arrival and at the site to guarantee thoughtful analysis and discussion.

A staff ride should avoid being a recital of a single investigation report. Such reports rarely address the human factors that affect individual decision-making. For this reason, providing participants with a variety of information sources is important.

Case Study
  • An analysis of persons, events, and decisions that are studied holistically.
  • Does not need to be conducted at the site of the incident, but could include a visit to the incident location.
  • Case studies are used to demonstrate a thesis or principle.
  • Case studies are led and require facilitation.
Site Visit
A visit to the actual location associated with an incident or event to provide opportunity to gain meaningful perspective and insight.

Idaho City Hotshots at the Rattlesnake Fire
(Photo credit: Idaho City IHC; Rattlesnake Fire)
Virtual Site Visit
A virtual site visit follows the same methodology as a "live" or "field" staff ride, but because travel restrictions preclude a trip to the incident location, the terrain is replicated in a virtual environment.

Material from virtual site visits may be used to hep conduct case studies and staff rides.

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge

Monday, July 20, 2015

IGNITE: Leadership is ACTION!

Leadership is not a title. It’s a behavior. Live it.  –Robin Sharma

Leadership is not a title. It’s a behavior. Live it. – Robin Sharma

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Looking Back with Gina Papke

An Introduction: Gina Papke from The Smokey Generation on Vimeo.

Wildland firefighters are adept at the art of storytelling. Every fire and every firefighter has a story to share and share it they do. Visit any fire or spike camp and stories will either be shared or made. Sharing our stories gives new generations insight into the evolution of fire operations.

In this video, Gina Papke, Fire Program Specialist and former hotshot, shares a few stories as she reflects upon her 35 seasons in fire. Gina became the first female Interagency Hotshot Crew Superintendent in the nation when she assumed leadership of the ZigZag Hotshots in 1991.

Stay tuned for more Gina Papke stories in future blogs.

What is your story? We challenge you to become a part of this amazing  project and share your leadership stories. Bethany Hannah began The Smokey Generation: A Wildland Fire Oral History and Digital Storytelling Project with hotshots. All members of the wildland fire service can share their stories by following her example. Click here for potential leadership questions. 
Visit The Smokey Generation website for complete information.
The Smokey Generation logo

Thursday, July 16, 2015

IGNITE: Calm Minds

Only with a calm mind can you open your heart and use your mind well. –Dalai Lama
Only with a calm mind can you open your heart and use your mind well. – Dalai Lama
IGNITE the Spark for Leadership and SHARE throughout your networks.#fireleadership #fireminis