The Lunch Spot

Recently, during a Staff Ride Round Table, my group had a discussion on the significance of “The Lunch Spot”. Lunch spots play a key role in wildland firefighting. They provide a break, a meal, time to reflect, time to analyze, and unfortunately, they also have played pivotal roles in unintended outcomes. How often do we use “The Lunch Spot” as a place to take a tactical pause? Utilizing your lunch spot to analyze what is really going on, just before the peak burning period sets in, will help you make sound decisions. Here is one of my favorite articles that dives a little deeper into “The Lunch Spot”. – Chris Fry, Acting Assistant Director, Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC)

[This is Travis Dotson’s “The LUNCH SPOT” article that appeared in the Spring 2014 Issue of Two More Chains.]

The Lunch Spot

By Travis Dotson

Do you recognize these three photos? If you’re a student of fire you should.

Many have noticed it. The eerie similarity of the “Lunch Spot”: South Canyon, Thirtymile, and, now, Yarnell Hill. Those are the big ones—and there are certainly others.

What is it? Why does it jump out to us? Why does its potential enormity make sense on some visceral level? Let’s take a look and see if there’s anything to this.

First, what makes a lunch spot a Lunch Spot?

Insignificant Lunch Spots

We’ve all been on innumerable insignificant Lunch Spots. It’s usually just the closest available shade at the logical breaking point for the day, nothing special. On long mop-up shifts it’s the place we gaggle-up and retell stories of blue-bird powder days and missed shots on monster bulls.

It’s where we get into mischief if we’re left unattended too long.

It’s where we earn ourselves push-ups and the crew lead decides we need to go another 100 feet in—just to keep us occupied.

But on the shifts we live for, it’s something else entirely.

Safe Place for Tactical Pause

When the smoke is churning and we’re slamming line, the physical location of the Lunch Spot often coincides with a decision point. It’s commonly a spot offering a safe place to take a tactical pause.

You top out on a ridge, tie into a road, or hit a boulder patch and pause to question whether or not what you are doing is working. The time of day, progress—or lack thereof—and some physical feature spur discussion about a potential shift in focus.

Maybe it’s going from direct to indirect, from gaining ground to “hold what you got”, or moving out to start structure protection.

“Lunch” is often started with words along the lines of: “Alright, shade-up and grab a bite while we figure out what we’re going to do with this thing”. In short, it’s often just before, during, or after one—or several—transitions. Maybe there is chatter about the next ICS level and some fussing over a complexity rating. Maybe the next level of IC was just ordered or just arrived. In an emerging fire, the midday pause is often more than just a meal stop.

Diamond Mountain Hotshots on the 2002 Monument Fire. Photo by Ben Croft.

What Does It Look Like?

What does this situation actually look like?

Usually the crew is tired and everyone just sighs, slumps, and swigs. The quiet ones consume carbs and offer an audience while talkers ingest fuel and dispense words. The overhead is out wrestling with the innumerable inputs dealt them in this live fire tactical decision game. As food disappears, a few folks instinctively chuck rocks while others obsessively calculate overtime, and a small group discusses the issue at hand—the fire and their collective future. This small group always has opinions while resigned to the fact they will saddle-up and hop-to whatever mission the crew lead hands down. Bets are even placed on what’s coming and everyone anxiously awaits the crackle of crew-net.

So What?

So what? Is this moment in time on a fire even significant?

Obviously, with hindsight, we can argue it is significant. It might not go down exactly as described or always take place while the crew is eating, but these conditions and the decisions made in those moments can literally determine life and death.

So what usually happens? Maybe a conscious decision about strategy is made or a casual request for assistance comes across the radio. Maybe we just notice a way we could be of use—and BAM—the afternoon action is on.

The Conscious Decision

The conscious decision about strategy sounds something like: “Hey, let’s gear up and head back to the trucks; looks like we are going big box on this thing.” That usually gets a few hoots and a grin or two—the likelihood of big burn shows and 16’s just went way up. We’ll prep anything you want for a chance at the torch.

Obviously, the conscious decision could come in all different forms. It could be: “Air support and dozers are 20 minutes out; let’s keep hold of that anchor point and look for potential pinch points.” Or, it might be: “Sit tight. It’s a cluster down here and we’re just going to wait till things settle out a bit.” Either way, it’s an intentional action—based on the observed conditions.

Often times, a change in strategy calls for a tactical relocation. In those moments we think about efficiency and how we can contribute. We weigh options and make a decision based on what we currently know.

Maybe we head off to a ranch. Usually we make it to the ranch, sometimes we barely make it to the ranch, and once in a great while we become proof that this work environment is way more complex and dangerous than we are willing to acknowledge.

Payson Hotshots on the 2007 Poe Cabin Fire. Photo by Aaron Pool.

The Request

The casual (or frantic) request for assistance could be any number of things:

  • “Can you guys take a quick look at those structures up the road?”
  • “Can we get a little help with these spots up here?”
  • “Can we get a hand bumping this water down the line?”

Sometimes it’s not even spoken. We just see what is needed and jump in. All normal stuff. All innocent. We are a crowd of folks helpful by nature and disgusted by sluggish responses. Damn right we’ll help. In the moment, we don’t always grasp the gravity of an innocent decision to jump in and help out.

All of this takes place as we head into the most volatile portion of the day. The vast majority of entrapments happen between 1400 and 1700. That’s just what the numbers say. Do we know why? Not really. Although lots of folks have opinions about it. We can speculate.

Often, the afternoon has the highest potential for fast-moving fire. When fire moves fast we have less margin to operate in—less decision space in unexpected situations. A walk up the line at 1500 is a drastically different risk than when we last did it at 1100. Same piece of ground, different conditions, less margin. Normal decisions that typically work out fine—can end up with tragic outcomes.

Does Any of This Mean Anything?

Implications? Are there any? Does any of this mean anything?

Or, is it just another made-up common denominator to throw around in the classroom to show students how salty and smart we are? It can certainly be used that way. But could it be something else? Something useful?

A set of alarming words used to initiate dialogue in the moment. A method for re-booting awareness of what we’re facing and what’s at stake:

  • “Is this going to be a Lunch Spot people talk about?”
  • “Are we changing tactics just before 1500?”
  • “Was that a casual request for assistance on an emerging fire?”

Whether any of this is of merit is certainly up for debate. But I am convinced that using the “Lunch Spot” as an opportunity for reassessment has value.

Because of our history, those two words have come to represent a critical decision point. It’s the small window we have to put real thought into: What we’re facing; What really matters; and What we’re willing to risk. So let’s use it.

Are We Heading Off to Repeat History?

After the shock of Yarnell Hill and all the other tragedies of 2013, we—as the Wildland Fire Service—are currently at the “Lunch Spot”.

We’ve been heads down throwing dirt for quite a while and despite all our aggressive well-intentioned efforts we just got crushed. We’re sitting in the black wondering what to do now.

A few folks are chucking rocks just waiting for the next assignment. There are those who see no reason to do anything different and want us to “just keep doing what we we’re doing and stay heads-up.” Some are looking back at what we’ve done so far and the terrain ahead and are muttering: “It’s not worth it.”

A bold few are out scouting for a different way to do things.

I’m terrified we’re not acknowledging the gravity of the situation, not using this pause to genuinely take stock of what we are facing. Does what we’re doing make sense? I’m afraid we’re going to gear-up with good intentions and unknowingly head off to repeat history.

2 thoughts on “The Lunch Spot

  1. The Photo of Payson was just days before the La Grande IHC burnover. Payson and my crew Union had several lunch spot moments on Poe Cabin. Poe Cabin was also the first FLA the FS wrote. We’ve come a long was…

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