I remember reading the essay the first time last summer while I was sitting at helibase in the rain. My supervisor had forwarded it to me and said it would be worth my time to read it. I remember nodding my head while reading it and thinking, “Finally, someone is saying what we all are thinking.” We do work a dangerous job. Firefighters die every year. People outside the fire community are always shocked when it happens, but we as firefighters inherently aren’t surprised when we hear it, because intrinsically we know what we do every day on the line is dangerous. And that it could be us, but we bury that notion so that we can continue to hike to that fire every day, cut down those trees, dig that line, suppress that fire. If we chose to let that notion of, “It could be me next, I could die out here today” seep into our psyche, we wouldn’t be able to function, to do our jobs. We recognize that there is risk associated with our job, we take it on, deep down we know we could die out there, but we don’t think about that, we trust that ourselves and our leaders are making good decisions that can reduce the risk and keep us as safe as we can be in that environment.
However, I do believe that there is a disconnect at the upper management level, where they create this persona to the public that we are working towards a “zero-fatality” season, and that is unrealistic. We in the USDA and the DOI need to be educating those outside of this realm that this is a risky business, and though there is no “acceptable” loss, there is never going to be a season where loss does not occur, unless we take no suppression action, period. We also talk about how we can properly refuse risk, it’s in the IRPG, but how often do we actually allow ourselves to turn down an assignment. And if we do, will our DIVS, TFLD, OPS, find someone else to do it? Most likely yes, and if they do and no one gets hurt we dodged a bullet, but if someone does get hurt in the process, do we reflect on whether we should have been there in the first place, and the reasons why someone turned down the assignment to begin with?
“We in the USDA and the DOI need to be educating those outside of this realm that this is a risky business, and though there is no ‘acceptable’ loss, there is never going to be a season where loss does not occur . . .”
I can’t begin to tell you how many people I’ve spoken to who’ve seen accidents or fatalities occur that reflect later about how it was ground they had been in a million times and it didn’t seem any different than any other assignment they’ve been on, or they reflect on why they were there in the first place. I’ve heard so many times during a briefing, “Trees aren’t worth dying over.” OK. Then if we are out in the middle of nowhere with no values at risk, and the fire is doing nothing but good on the landscape, why are we risking lives when trees aren’t worth dying over? And even if there are values at risk, is it worth a firefighter’s life? We say no, but how many firefighters have died trying to save houses because they were pressured by their overhead to be there. No one wants to lose their house, but houses can be rebuilt, people’s lives can’t be relived.
At the end of the day, I think the fire community as a whole needs to take a deeper look into what our long term goals are for the health and sustainability of our forests, and whether our suppression strategies are doing more harm than good. That might influence how many firefighters are put in higher-risk environments than they need to be, and lower the number of fatalities a season. But it will never be zero. And until everyone can admit that in the fire community and communicate that out into the world, nothing will change.