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

9 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.

  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!

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