Writing Wrongs

A portion of the 2020 Year End Infographic.

By Travis Dotson, Analyst, Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

We (the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center) just published the 2020 Year End Infographic. It’s really just a tally of a few select numbers and some lessons we chose to highlight. We collected this information from incident reports. (If you didn’t know, a big part of our job is hosting the Incident Review Database — where wildland fire incident/accident reports live.)

Here is the deal – all the numbers are wrong.

Yep. I built this infographic and I am telling you those numbers are wrong!

And not just this year, every year. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The numbers are wrong for many different reasons. Some will say our fatality count is too many because we chose to include the three Americans who died fighting fire in Australia. Others will question why we did not include the 18 who lost their lives fighting a wildfire in China. And why did we not include the volunteer who died enroute to a brush fire in Texas? (By the way, it’s because there is no “official” report, only media accounts.)

So, the big red number is harder to pin down than one might think, meaning it will almost always be wrong.

And yet that big red number is still useful. This dark topic can serve as a catalyst to dialogue which is often the spark that leads to action. Action is where we make changes in our views, standards, daily actions, SOP’s, all that kind of stuff.

So maybe we can all agree that the number is wrong. That way we don’t waste time discussing or lamenting the number itself and we can move right into dialogue about the path forward.

People died fighting fire last year. Quite a few. Each one of them matter. Each one of them count. Whether those individual human lives are reflected in the final figure after the excruciating task of tallying up the “numbers” is done, the living are the one’s left to create meaning out of tragedy.

How do we honor the fallen? We honor through learning.

Take a look at HOW people died while assigned to wildland fires last year. Circle-up and tackle these topics:

  • What role do YOU play in the risk that aviators face?
  • What role do YOU play in the cardiac health of yourself and those around you?
  • How prepared should YOU be for entrapment?

4 thoughts on “Writing Wrongs

  1. Before the season, we all read the GACC-specific COVID-19 plans and read where where there would be a priority on the aggressive use of aircraft in order to keep fires small. To many of us, this sounded like the resurrection of the 10 AM Rule. To others, we questioned whether this transfer of risk to aircraft would have tragic unintended consequences. Others were not comfortable with having the conversation in the first place considering how careers have been ruined due to opinions on COVID-19 response being shared (note my signing in as “Anonymous” for the first time in my 20-year career). Do we have data on the true impact COVID-19 had on wildland firefighters in 2020? I heard of zero fatalities and very few infections associated with wildfire response. Do we have data to assess the correllation (or not) of the unusually high number of aircraft fatalities to whether aircraft were actually used more often this year. Is it time to evaluate the appropriateness of the 2020 COVID-19 response and adjust, as necessary for 2021?

  2. I wish it was only Covid related, but retardant use has become out of control. Ever since the arrival of the VLAT’s there seems to be a very friendly relationship between contractors and air attacks. Zero fiscal responsibility and zero consideration of risk versus gain. I can rattle off a long list of fires where millions were spent on retardant for very little gain. Bighorn, Wallow, Whitewater Baldy. It’s a miracle we haven’t crashed more aircraft. Maybe it’s time we hold air attacks more responsible for unnecessary retardant use, or give them more options than just falling back to ordering VLAT’s. We can blame lots of things on Covid, but wasteful and borderline fraudulent use of retardant was, and will be with us long after Covid’s gone.

  3. A recurring theme it seemed this season was being short on needed resources ( often blamed on COVID19) but going ahead with whatever plan was decided on whatever fire at whatever level of overhead supervision. When an entrapment or a near miss occurred, folks acknowledged they knew the plan they agreed to was probably a poor one for multiple reasons but “ Hey, we’re firefighters, we’re used to doing more with less”. So it seems that regardless of type of resource, perhaps EVERYONE needs to go revisit that IRPG and brush up on the How to refuse risk pages. There is a strong possibility that some of these fires that occur are not within the resource capability’s that currently exist given the various levels of Risk present and maybe its time we back out to the nearest highway, parking lot etc and let it run until the probability of success is much higher and less people get hurt or killed from the reasons noted.

  4. I worked on the White River FLA that occurred on the Mt. Hood NF this past summer. The entire experience was a bit surreal as I had worked with that ship many times in the past. But what repeatedly went through my mind is how much more we were using aircraft this summer due to COVID. Many local IA’s we put aircraft on this summer that we wouldn’t have in the past. While we will never have any real answers if COVID BMP’s were a causal factor it hammered home transferring risk is the same even during the pandemic. So back to basics pandemic or not.

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