7,305 Days Ago, I Learned How to Fight Fire

We had opportunities to make better decisions and we didn’t.

How do we process and transfer these lessons?

By Thomas R. Taylor

Seven thousand three hundred and five days ago I learned how to fight fire. It occurred on one shift and it also took the lives of four young people, one who was a friend, two who were assigned to me on my Squad, and one who I sometimes dream about.

So, when I tell people that I learned how to fight fire in one shift at the expense of four young people, it is a reality that cannot be forgotten. Ever.

The repercussions of the actions taken that fateful day—or as the parents might rightfully say: “Not Taken”—cannot be described by myself or others assigned to the Thirtymile Fire in relation to the tragedies endured by the families of Tom, Karen, Devin or Jessica.

Sure, some people had to be recertified as Duty Officers, others were drug through the mud, and a few tore up task books and started over. Nothing even remotely close and quite pitiful in comparison to losing a child. Two of them on their first fire no less.

Tom Craven

Tom Craven, my friend whom I met when we were on a Regs Crew down to the Gila National Forest, never got to see his kids grow up, or coach Pop Warner Football, take his wife on an anniversary dinner, or help his parents with chores as they aged.

Karen FitzPatrick

Karen FitzPatrick, who took that fateful selfie with a disposable camera at our deployment site, never got to pledge a sorority, teach Sunday school, or have her father walk her down the aisle and potentially start a family of her own.

Devin Weaver

Devin Weaver, strong enough to break a Pulaski and a Combi shortly after we anchored in, will never hunt with his father, enjoy college, choose a career, or marry and, in turn, teach his children to catch a fish.

Jessica Johnson

Jessica Johnson, who also broke a Combi with strength and a willingness to get the job done, will never be there for her little sister, tease her mother, or capture her most vivacious self with the beauties of life.

This is all because 7,305 days ago we had opportunities to make better decisions and we didn’t.

My actions as a Squad Leader, or lack thereof, directly influenced the outcome of that fateful day with the loss of life. Four lives.

Four mothers and four fathers, one wife with two children, sixteen grandparents, four brothers, and three sisters’ lives were forever shattered. These are just some of the extended family members who I’m aware of; I’m certain there are more. 

And, of course, countless others have also suffered directly from the Thirtymile Fire. But this isn’t a time to try and relate with the families’ grief or interact in “trauma wars” with people involved on the ground that day.

Positives That can Blossom from These Tragedies

Lessons learned from that day are countless. The family that was forged even as other families were shattered is potentially a positive that can blossom from these tragedies. How one processes and transfers these lessons to oneself and passes them along to others is something a few of us have strived to accomplish. Reflections have been many, and struggles have been numerous. Much like the stars of the Southwest when spiked out.

There were distractions that day that shrouded keen decision making: soft intent, an attitude we all had of putting the fire out, thinking it was only a mop-up show, not wanting to “Fail”, building the team, feeling left out, lack of experience, and the inability to squelch all of these and simply slow down and talk. These distractions often come to mind.

Trust and Communication.

Human Behavior and Fire Behavior.

Escape Time.

Things are hugely different now than they were 7,305 days ago. It is because of death, injury and sacrifice that things evolved and continue to evolve.

I thank these four young people we lost that day for the ultimate Sacrifice.

So, in the spirit of Tom, Karen, Devin, Jessica and the countless others who have died in our profession, please be mindful of all the current distractions in both work and life. Learn to filter those distractions. Try and have some fun, and please know that every day is truly a gift.

Vital Signs

A tired mind becomes a shapeshifter
Everybody needs a mood lifter
Everybody needs reverse polarity
Everybody got mixed feelings
About the function and the form
Everybody got to deviate from the norm

From Rush’s 1981 “Moving Pictures” album

10 thoughts on “7,305 Days Ago, I Learned How to Fight Fire

  1. So Tom… maybe a description of (or link to) some of the lessons you learned and how to fight fire would have been helpful in your blog?

    • Bob, I myself just re-read the official investigation report. And while we know that investigation reports, particularly older ones, sometimes are more about blame than about lessons, there are many good lessons to be read. I suggest you go check it out.

      The point of Thom’s essay isn’t to share lessons with you, me, or anyone else, but to reflect on the day and let us know that there are positives from tragedy. I appreciate his words and his growth.

  2. Right on Thom. I appreciate your struggle and most importantly, I respect your committment to take advantage of the only thing that ultimate sacrifice offers. To grow, learn and share the lessons with others rather than turn inward. I truly believe that’s the proverbial Phoenix that rises out of tragedy and trancends trauma. I know it has come full circle for you as that sharing has helped your processing and healing. As Dave Grossman said “Pain shared is pain divided. Joy shared is joy multiplied.” So many of us have directly benefited from hearing your experiences first hand. Thank you and I truly hope you stay on this path of discovery and storytelling. Strength and love brother.

  3. Good words brother. Thanks for your willingness to share. I know it can be draining.
    Go beat on your drums.
    Rhoss

  4. I was on this Fire with the Type 1 team and got to learn the terrain.

    On the road at the bottom, you have gentle slopes along the meandering river in the valley, you do not realize how steep and narrow the drainage is from the bottom as you cannot see the sides of the mountains or the tops there.

    So I can see how you could think it would not burn so bad. Goat Peak lookout had pictures of the column collapsing and rolling out. Totally not expected. I also would have just thought the fire would just burn through, not thinking it would do a major run up both sides of the canyon you could not see.

    Not sure what kind of maps they had, but Forest maps only show roads and rivers. Need a bigger map with terrain details.

    Glad you shared these difficult thoughts. I try to treat resources I meet with respect as we all have our own personal battles and worries to deal with while getting the Job done.

  5. Powerful, powerful writing. Thank you so much for sharing, it’s hard to do, but when you feel it in your heart and communicate it to help others…it’s a different story.

  6. Thanks for sharing Thom. The lessons you shared aren’t taught in any classrooms and come with years of experience. Hope to see you up north this summer!

  7. Good article Thom, insightful from having been there and all.

    My comment will be somewhat long and in-depth and less emotion-based than most that are here. As a retired USFS Hot Shot Supt, turned human factors researcher, including numerous deployments, fatalities, and ensuing investigations, I have found that it’s a well established fact that the SAIT first establishes a “conclusion” and then supports it with whatever “facts” will work to that end.

    The Thirty Mile Fire SAIT-SAIR is a prime example.

    We were on a BLM fire near Grand Junction with a South Zone HS Crew and cell phones were still kinda new. There was talk of fatality fire in Washington where four WFs were killed. Something seemed wrong about the whole thing. So, I took some leave and traveled up there to see for myself. I attempted to visit Mr. Emhoff in the hospital in Seattle but he was off-limits to everyone except family. I then visited the fatality site and met the two citizens that had gone for a visit to the mountains for some “mental health” recovery. I’ve since visited the site numerous times thereafter and talked with many IMT, Crew, District, and other personnel on the fire, associated with the fire, and familiar with the fire and the dynamics.

    Several of us Truth Tellers even participated in an RT-130 Refresher video for the following year that was nixed by the Region and never officially used because it was outside the Party Line. narrative. Thom will recall the controversy over that well-intentioned endeavor and the high price he paid for that decision.

    I’m fully supportive of those older SAIT-SAIRs, that correctly blame some of those decision-makers that were entrapped, deployed fire shelters, injured, or died because of their faulty, poor, or sometimes – no decisions where time made the decision for them. They accurately and correctly utilized the Ten Standard Fire Orders and 18 Watch Outs as a means to learn from (pp. 40-43). The lessons are certainly there if you make the effort to flesh them out.

    One method that works quite well is to read and discuss the incident case studies (investigation reports) knowing there are a lot of missing pieces to the puzzle about what happened and why/ Using the Socratic Method as they do in law schools is a pretty unique and effective means to delve into these incidents. ( https://resilienteducator.com/classroom-resources/should-educators-use-the-socratic-method-of-teaching/ )

    Nowadays they use the FLA, CRP (I call it CRaP because I think it is), and Learning Review where they seem to consider every mishap an “accident” and find “no blame” and “no fault.” They just want you to “tell your story.” So then, what are you really learning except “incomplete” lessons (Vaughan).

    The 30-Mile Fire SAIT-SAIR does a pretty good job analyzing the “management” and “people” decisions fire behavior, however, there are a lot of holes throughout the report.

    The SAIT-SAIR disingenuously states: “Findings are defined as fact-based conclusions, or relevant facts themselves. The findings, taken together, should provide a complete understanding of what occurred. The goal of the Investigation was to speak to the needs of as wide an audience as possible; thus the Investigation Team sought to provide a comprehensive set of findings.”

    I take umbrage with this statement. The word “fact” is used three times in the entire 106 page SAIT-SAIR and only one of them is in this sentence above on page 21.

    However, the word “van” is used 22 times and requires much further scrutiny as it applies to the alleged “fact-based” fire behavior narrative and alleged “conclusion” that will follow.

    In the “Deployment Phase” section on page 29, it declares these “findings:”

    “33. The crew van had minor damage (melted license plate frames, front and back). Conditions were survivable inside the van. There was no melting evident of any interior feature.

    “34. The civilian’s truck with a fiberglass camper shell was parked about 75 feet up canyon from the crew van next to burnable fuels and was consumed by fire.”

    Hold this thought …

    In the “Incident Overview” section on page 2. are the “Thirtymile Fire Vicinity Maps Maps.” The lower topo map is instructive.

    In the Fire Behavior – Entrapment Phase in Figure 4. Figure 5. and Figure 6. on pp. 57-60, I allege that there has been a concerted effort to steer you into believing this fire behavior actually occurred. The Figure 6. idealized image is approx. 180 degrees counter to what occurred based on burn patterns, “needle freeze,” scorched trees with fire-dried green needles still in tact, etc. You will notice supposed fire behavior in the idealized overlay images onto fact-based topography photos that fit the established SAIT “conclusion” compared to what actually occurred and what was recounted to me by involved fire personnel.

    Personnel familiar with the fire behavior stated the fire ran Easterly up the slope, though a saddle, then parallel with the ridge running in a somewhat Northerly direction until it dropped DOWN toward the river below through another saddle into, basically a reverse-box canyon that terminated about 30 feet above the canyon bottom.

    The super heated, hot gases funneled across the river bottom toward the eventual deployment site depicted in Figure 10. “The Road and Rock Scree Deployment Areas Looking West and Down River.” Notice the scorched trees to the right of the scree slope. Both this scree (tallus) slope and the grove of trees to the right acted as a chute or chimney funneling the hot gases from across the river. There are investigation photos of those trees with green fire-dried needles after the fatal fire.

    These deadly hot gases passed over those deployed in the roadway and up through the narrow crevices where the others deployed above the road and died. “Figure 14. Deployment Spot on the Road Between Two Packs that
    Burned” on page 19 and “Figure 15. [Crew Boss (T) and IC (T)] Pete Kampen With Medical Kit at the Road Deployment Site at 6:10 p.m. (Entiat IHC
    truck in the background)” photos should put it more into perspective.

    Hearkening back to the van and the citizen’s burnt truck …

    “33. The crew van had minor damage (melted license plate frames, front and back). Conditions were survivable inside the van. There was no melting evident of any interior feature.

    “34. The civilian’s truck with a fiberglass camper shell was parked about 75 feet up canyon from the crew van next to burnable fuels and was consumed by fire.”

    So then, how is it possible for the following fire behavior description to travel up the canyon and only melt the plastic on the USFS van yet completely burn the citizens truck 75 feet away? (“The burned-out shell of a pickup truck sits on the road with windshield glass drooping over the dashboard and rivers of molten aluminum flowing away.” p. i) Easy, it is not possible.

    All of this intense fire behavior occurred where the dead WFs (from the SAIT-SAIR) “were subjected to extreme temperatures and significant direct flame exposure, conditions that far exceed the design limitations of these [PPE and fire shelter] products. The condition of [their PPE] indicate that though the temperatures … were lethal, they were far lower than those to which the other three victims were exposed. … [to] the extreme levels of convective heat coming from below.” (p. 87)

    And then this blather knowing (or at least acquiescing to) the fact that there are all kinds of falsehoods in the SAIT-SAIR – “The investigation team spent many sobering hours here seeking to understand what happened and why, in hopes that a tragedy such as this will never happen again. We labored with respect and honor for those who died, and with a sense of duty to those who will face such a time in their life. We dedicate this report to the hope of lives saved. Let there be no more purple ribbons.”

    However, a year later on the first anniversary, there was the Fawn Peak Fire in the very same canyon where several WFs were almost killed on a ridge above during a firing operation gone awry as OWF USFS officials and 30-Mile Fire family, friends, and loved ones where traveling up the canyon below them to the fatality site to honor the fallen from the year before. The IMT was made aware of this near-miss incident with transmissions over the TAC thinking they were on Crew Net, fire shelters removed from their cases, and more. And yet it was completely buried and never investigated. ( https://www.dnr.wa.gov/publications/rp_burn_cwppmethow.pdf )

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