Everyone was moving in slow motion. On our inter-crew channel I could hear our Lookout giving us updates calmly but forcefully: It was time to be gone.
By Matt Holmstrom
Current – Superintendent Lewis & Clark IHC
Nuttall Fire – Squad Leader Lassen IHC
There are so many impressions and recollections that I have from that day, July 2, 2004. Some of them are lessons I tried to learn and pass on to my guys, some that, even now, I’m not sure that I have fully processed. I do know it was very, very close.
And I do know that this is in contrast to the official record.
I was a young Squad Leader that day. One Foreman was detailed away and the other was in a large-scale lookout. So it was the Superintendent, another Squad Leader, and myself running the crew.
I remember that during the previous shifts we had been burning across these ridges and for at least one night shift. The slop-over on the Division that day wasn’t too large and certainly wasn’t very active. I thought it would be a good transition day from nights to days.
We were cutting direct line and making good progress with the other crews. On our initial scout that morning we had identified the same “safety zone” that everyone else did. This would become the safety zone that the Flagstaff IHC ended up deploying in.
The fact that 80+ people all thought that a SZ that 20 people later deployed in looked good should give a good indication of our mindset. The Augusta IHC ended up in a nearby aspen grove with our Superintendent. Lassen and Plumas IHCs ran uphill back to the road system.
One of the Most Terrifying Moments in My Life
On that run, at the start, I was impatient to get going. I was trail, making sure that everyone had been accounted for and was together moving up the line.
Plumas was ahead of us and it seemed to take forever for the hike to start. Everyone was moving in slow motion. On our intercrew I could hear our Lookout giving us updates calmly but forcefully: It was time to be gone.
As we started up slope, the gaps started almost immediately. The Squad Leader leading our crew out was very tall and was striding it out, gapping the slower guys at the back. I was annoyed and was trying to close up those gaps. That’s when I had one of the most terrifying moments in my life.
I looked back below us to gauge the distance between us and the fire—fire that we could now hear. What I saw made me almost physically ill: one lone blue hardhat at the bottom of our line, looking around, obviously confused.
At first, I thought that I had miscounted. That I had missed one of my guys. I immediately started another head count. I was turning around to go back and shouting down at them to hurry when the two overhead from Plumas thundered past me downhill on the run.
Because both crews wore the same color hats, I couldn’t tell that this person was a Plumas firefighter, and not one of mine.
Of course, we all made it out that day, but that was a powerful reflection in leadership that I have always carried with me. Those two guys ran down at fire coming uphill at them to help a slower teammate who somehow just got separated in the retreat. I got to see leadership and bravery exemplified, and tempered with humility.
Mike Sherman and Pete Duncan, my hat is off to you both for your courage and leadership. Again, none of this is in any official records, mostly because those guys are humble. They’ll probably be mad at me for mentioning them here.
I was in Disbelief—I Felt Tricked or Somehow Betrayed
Our Lookout, my Captain, later asked me why we didn’t leave when he first told us about the activity below us. He had eyes on the entire Division, gave us plenty of advance warning, and we could’ve left far earlier.
I couldn’t answer then and I would struggle to answer now.
I reflect back to the confidence that I felt that morning. The idea that this would be a good shift to transition over from the night burns we’d been doing and into the day shift. I remember being extremely convinced that The Plan was solid. After all, it was developed by guys who had been fighting fire longer than I’d been alive. If they weren’t concerned, why should I be?
I remember even once we were pulling out, I was in disbelief. I felt tricked or somehow betrayed. The fire had not done what it was supposed to, what we had planned for it.
I had completely forgotten that there is a home team, and we were not it. Looking back, I would say that we got head-faked by our earlier work. We were victims of our own making – through several successful shifts and the corresponding over confidence.
So, what did I take away from the Nuttall Fire?
- Every day is a new day. Don’t be overconfident.
- All transitions are tough and may be dangerous.
- Listen to your Lookouts, you put them there for a reason.
Always remember that the fire gets a vote on your plan—Mother Nature always bats last.