Has Nothing Changed?

By Travis Dotson


You should probably just go read this article:

What We Learned from the Yarnell Hill Fire Deaths

It’s written by Kyle Dickman.

The subject matter is of great interest to us here at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.

It has to do with wildland fire. It has to do with learning.

It has to do with a monumental trauma in danger of being rendered inconsequential.

Here are a few quotes from the article:

“Over time, the relationship between tragedy and rulemaking sewed into the culture the belief that firefighters die only when they break rules.”

“While these rules are well intentioned and do indeed save lives, he says they also impose a false sense of control in a wildly chaotic environment.”

“…there’s a relatively high probability that a tree eventually crushes you, you step on a bee nest, grab the business end of a chainsaw, or get burned. Yet somehow, most firefighters Smith polled believe they work in a low-risk environment—something more like a factory floor.” 

“..if the Forest Service admitted the incredibly high chance of death their people are exposed to, their firefighters—or maybe their families—might demand fair compensation.” 

You should probably go read it.

You need to think about this stuff.

We are spending lives every summer yet we are not clear on what we are buying.

Check it out:

What We Learned from the Yarnell Hill Fire Deaths


9 thoughts on “Has Nothing Changed?

  1. Until the general public is told outright, that Wildland fire fighters are not here to protect your home (structure protection), nor to save your butts (evacuate), the agencies will keep letting their employees get killed by allowing them to go into situations that they should never be in.

    If agencies were straight up honest with the public, AND made it blatantly clear to FF that HERO tactics will not be tolerated, the fatalities may drop.

    Recent past… Yarnell… 19 died leaving safe black to help evac.
    Twisp… Unnecessary deaths attempting to save structures on a one way in one way out road..

  2. Dickman’s article is definitely worth a read, but I take issue with the notion that we face “an incredibly high chance of death” or that “there’s a relatively high probability that a tree eventually crushes you.” The numbers indicate otherwise, when you consider the millions of hours of exposure we incur on wildland fires every year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps a ton of data on fatalities suffered in various occupations in the U.S. The way they report it is number of deaths per 100,000 workers. Year in and year out, the emergency services (law enforcement, firefighting, EMS) report significantly lower fatality rates than occupations like logging, commercial fishing, general agriculture, construction – you name it. Think about that: we operate in an extremely hazardous environment with a huge amount of unpredictability and variability, yet we suffer fewer losses than most industries in America. I believe this is a reflection of the awesome job wildland firefighters do in dealing with risk routinely, making good choices on when and where to engage, staying fit for the work, maintaining effective medical response etc. Of course risk is always present in everything we do, and when we do have certain types of fatal accidents like burnovers or driving, they are often multiple fatality accidents. We need to be clear-eyed about the hazards on the fireground and deal with them effectively, but let’s not allow ourselves to overstate the risks of dying either. We should only take risk when “the juice is worth the squeeze”, when the values at risk are worth putting firefighters at risk; this is no doubt an area where we can improve across the board. Whenever we lose a sister or brother, whatever the circumstances, it hurts our whole community deeply – we’ll never forget. Preoccupation with failure is a healthy habit, so keep doing what you’re doing on the fireline to keep our losses as low as possible.

  3. I watched the PBS show Independent Lens the other day. It was a short film about Grayback contract firefighters. In one scene they’re at the top of a ridge, in dense fuels, right at the edge of the fire, scratching a ridiculously narrow fireline, (relative to the risk). The winds are fluky, and the fire has a real chance of slop-over. An airtanker drops a load of retardant which gives the crew an upper hand, and they finally call their efforts a success. A success at what? the expense of firefighting and the risk of losing lives is not worth losing outcroppings of homes or commercial timber. We need to get real here. I live in a hurricane zone and watched Mathew topple houses from narrow sand bars. And what? we are bringing in tons of sand to the tune of 40 million dollars, and the homes are getting rebuild on top of the same sand dunes. We need to get out of the way when nature rears up her head. It is cheaper to build new homes, new towns and pay for the evacuation of people, than to try and prevent the inevitable. And of course, lives lost has no economical equivalent.

  4. What we learned from Yarnell Hill. As an industry we learned that Arizona state OSHA and the Arizona Dept. of Forestry have very different interpretations of what needs changed and who might be to blame. We also learned that absolutely no one knows what actually happened. By now we have learned that people want to put a sticker on their hardhat, lament the tragedy and pretend like it never happened.
    “They were just firefighters”. This is not what they were trained. Hotshots are never “just firefighters”. Hotshots are the elite of firefighting. They answer to no one below a division supervisor on the hill, they make decisions affecting the entire fire, they communicate with adjoining resources when they deem it necessary, they are completely independent of the fire to the point that they don’t even stay in camp with the “just firefighters”. All of this culminates into a culture of machismo and elitism so strong that 19 people died and no one has any clue why they moved, where they were going or even what their intention was. How is it that we have hundreds of people operating on the line every day who have no accountability and are given such amazing leeway to make whatever decision they want without any outside input that 19 people died with the entire fire thinking that they were in a safety zone up to the moment they futilely tried to break through the radio chatter to try to get support.
    I know that if I took my crew out of a safety zone to march through decadent brush, without communicating with anyone, on a day when shifting, strong winds were expected. If I survived, I would be prosecuted.
    The fire culture of elitism allows crews to operate with no oversight and little accountability as long as the word “hotshot” is written across their vehicles.
    This isn’t about the inherent danger of the industry.

    • I value your opinions and insights into what you perceive as how Hotshot Crews operate while assigned to incidents, but I think that you are painting crews with a rather broad stroke on this one. There are some major discrepancies with what led the Granite Mountain Hotshots off of the hill and away from good black. I also am going to refrain from my personal thoughts on the actions and outcomes of the Yarnell Hill Fire.

      I would like to take the opportunity to point out that Eric Marsh was assigned as a Division Group Supervisor that Granite Mountain was working for.

      It is also my opinion that the idea or notion that Hotshot Crews are elite and that mindset allows them to operate without consequence is false. While the impression may be given that Hotshot Crews operate independent of instruction I have never witnessed or been a part of a crew or worked with adjoining crews that are. Hotshot Crews are problem solvers and are given problem areas with qualified personnel capable of scouting those areas and coming up with solutions that allow for the safe engagement of their personnel and those that are assigned to assist. There is no action taken unless a Division, Branch or Ops also buys into the plan that is formulated by boots on the ground that is often times provided by Hotshot Crews.

      Hotshot Crews have been stereotyped for a reason and that does exist to a certain extent today, but it is not the rule. Again, Hotshot Crews are problem solvers and end up as the tip of the spear with the personnel capable of finding solutions, compromises and options. The stereotype that Hotshot crews elite status allows them to operate independently and without consequence is blatantly false.

      Thanks for your insights.

      • Please forgive me if this comes off as argumentative or insensitive. The impression that hotshot crews operate independent of instruction comes not only from decades of working next to them but also from the fact that 19 of them died and even now, no one has any idea what they were doing or why they left the safety of the black. Yes Eric Marsh was assigned as the Div. Sup. and this led to even less communication outside of that crew and no oversight whatsoever as the only overhead assigned to supervise that was part of the crew. Obviously the plan formulated by boots on the ground was bought into by the Div. Sup. because he was a crewmember and probably helped to create it. This is not independent? Who did he run that plan by that was his supervisor?
        The point that I am trying to make is that while hotshots may be “problem solvers” or “the tip of the spear”, they are still given more latitude than any other resource outside of smokejumpers. This is viewed as carte blanche to operate any way they feel.I have personally seen the results of this in having backburns lit under my crew by hotshot crews that no one knew were in the area, having aerial resources currently in use redirected by hotshots without any communication whatsoever, having hotshot supervisors give direction to my crewmembers without any recognition of chain of command and literally countless times that my crew has had to work adjacent to them only to have them pretend like we didn’t exist and I receive nothing but condescension, disdain and impatience from the supervisor when I make an attempt to communicate with adjoining resources (talk to the hotshots). Nothing has changed in regards to this behavior. I received that exact condescension, and disdain this season even.
        Nowhere is this more obvious than the example of Yarnell. 19 people died, no one has any idea what they were doing or where they were going. There was no attempt to inform anyone of their movements or their intentions. No one seems to find that strange. It’s just part of how hotshots operate.. Where I work, operating adjacent to a hotshot crew is the 19th watchout situation.

  5. I carefully studied both of the official reports generated by the Yarnell Hill incident. I truly wanted to understand what happened there and why. The crucial question: why did Granite Mountain leave a perfectly good safety zone? Basic answer: they didn’t want to be there. Why didn’t they want to be there? Only the dead truly know the answer to that, and I was gratified to see that the concept of hindsight bias was mentioned in the reports. However, I noticed a clue as to why they left. At one point the ASM radios Marsh to ask after their wellbeing. Marsh replies that Granite Mountain was taking an escape route to a safety zone. Literally true, but highly disingenuous. I thought: I’ve made radio calls like that; if I say it one way, someone will tell me ‘no’, but if I phrase it another way, I’ll be OK. I believe Marsh understood that no one was going to argue over the radio with taking an escape route to a safety zone, but if the real intent was to re-engage at Yarnell, he likely would’ve been told ‘no.’ The Ops Chief had already expressed his relief that Granite Mountain was in a safety zone. So why did they leave it? More adventure? More bravado? A higher sense of perceived duty? Don’t know, and when they stepped off the ridge for the ranch simple bad luck was also a factor in their demise. I think it’s significant that the article we’re referencing appeared in Outside Magazine, a journal that celebrates outdoor adventure. As Steve Pyne noted two decades ago, aspects of wildland firefighting, especially in the mountain west, have evolved into a kind of extreme sport. For example, do we truly need smokejumping anymore? Did we ever need it? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s been glorified and romanticized to the point of parody, and the jumping and hot shot cultures have had, in my opinion, far too much influence on the wildland fire service as a whole. “Can do” is a useful attitude, but when does it shade into just “want to do” because we are bad ass dragon slayers and need more fetching video clips for the Facebook page? Nothing wrong with adventure — we all need some — and your risks are your business — unless they lead to the deaths of others.

  6. I know Dotson is a journalist but his first statement of crap is they interviewed every firefighter that had any information about the fire…

    Really?? They interviewed Blue Ridge crew ??

    Not according to the facts..

    Sets the tone for the rest of the story to be less believable…

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