He’d Rather You Call Him a ‘Learner’ Not a ‘Survivor’

[This article originally appeared as the “One of Our Own” feature in the 2021 Summer Issue of Two More Chains.]

As you’re about to discover, Kip Gray has an important story—and insights and learning—to share with us.

This man’s unique perspective helps enrich his stories, his learnings. In 1999, after working on engines on Oregon’s Ochoco National Forest for seven seasons, this wildland firefighter made the jump to the structure fire world. For the past 22 years, Kip has worked his way up to his current Operations Battalion Chief position with the Medford (Oregon) Fire Department.

And, of course, there’s a key personal wildland fire story that Kip tells ever year when he travels back to the annual South Canyon Fire Staff Ride. On July 6, 1994, Kip was a temporary “fill-in” with Oregon’s Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew. Based nearby on his Ochoco National Forest, Kip knew the Prineville Hotshots, had worked with them, and gone out as a fill-in with them before. He was on that steep Colorado mountainside with them that day when, below them, the South Canyon Fire spotted across the drainage into the drought-stressed Gambel oak and raced up the hill where Prineville and the others were located.

Nine of the Prineville Hotshots and five of their fellow firefighters–three smokejumpers and two helitack firefighters–could not escape those flames. They all perished.

In the following conversation between Kelly Woods and Kip Gray—among other stories and experiences—Kip reflects back on his South Canyon experience. He explains why it’s important for him to attend the annual staff rides that honor those who died on this fatality fire by learning and telling the stories from this tragic event.


“If you’ve signed on to be a firefighter, you’ve really signed-on for a lifetime of learning. You’re never going to know everything you need to know. You’re just not. So, you’ve really signed-on to learning for at least the rest of your career—and, hopefully, for the rest your life.”

Kip Gray


By Kelly Woods, Director, Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

Kelly: Could you talk about why you decided to leave your Engine Captain job to transition to the structure fire world?

Kip: My decision to leave the wildland fire community and the U.S. Forest Service was really because I had two small kids at home and I was looking for a permanent appointment. I had spent two years right out of high school getting structural fire certifications and an EMT license. I therefore had the qualifications to start applying for some of these structure jobs.

At that time, I was super open with my (Forest Service) boss about doing this. I explained that if the Forest Service could provide me permanent status, I’ll absolutely stay—but this is where I’m at in my fire career. I needed to be pursuing all opportunities for permanent work.

Of course, I do miss working with the wildland fire community. There’s nothing quite as fun as wildland fire.

One of the things I miss the most about wildland fire is being outside, being in wild places, being in wilderness areas, and just being mobile. Through the course of a single day, we might go from somewhere way up in the Ochoco Mountains down to the Lower Deschutes River or John Day River. You might attack a fire at timberline or you might go down and attack a fire in the lowlands where it’s all grass.

Kip (second from right) stands with his fellow South Canyon Fire “learners” (from left): Kim Lightley, Alex Robertson, Michelle Ryerson, and Bryan Scholz. They’re on top of Storm King Mountain during a recent South Canyon Staff Ride.

And I always appreciated getting to travel about and meeting all kinds of different people, learning the different ways of doing business in different states and different regions. I learned how our wildland fire community is very small. You form important bonds with different folks and their “can-do” attitudes. I always enjoyed that.

I’m certainly not discrediting any of those type of experiences in the municipal and structure world. We do have the same thing. But just by the nature of our assignment, we don’t get to travel and bump into other people as much.

I’ve realized that a lot of the values between the wildland community and the structural fire community are interchangeable. In both, there’s a lot of people who want to do the right thing and are really passionate about their jobs and are willing to work hard—often not under the best conditions.

I think there’s a common similar attitude, a bond, that all firefighters share.

Kip with his daughters, Kelli (on left) and Sydney, visiting their dad at his Medford Fire Department.

Kelly: Could you explain what you do as your fire department’s Operations Battalion Chief?

Kip: Our Medford Fire Department has five fire stations with 23 firefighters total on duty each day. I supervise these fire stations. I have five Engine Captains who report to me. Really, what I try to do every day is just get the “roadblocks” out of their way, so they can go to calls. Our department is very busy and the Engine Captains don’t have a lot of time to handle logistics and a lot of the more administrative type responsibilities. I try to take that out of the way for them.

When there’s a major incident, a structure fire or a wildland fire of some consequence, or a motor vehicle collision with extrication, I’ll respond to serve as the Incident Commander for those types of scenes.

Kelly: Let’s talk a bit about storytelling in our firefighter culture. When we get together, that’s what we do; we tell stories. We laugh, we learn, and we process the things that have happened. Stories are such a key piece to bring us into that center of the bullseye for the likelihood of learning, right?

How important has storytelling been for you in either hearing stories or sharing your own stories?

Kip: Storytelling within the fire community is very important. I think storytelling begins to validate some of the things that people are learning. Telling real stories helps to prevent oversimplification and biased conclusions about events.

For example, these days in fire classes—whether it’s S-290 or 390 or 131, or whatever—instructors use the South Canyon Fire as a case study.

And I’ve been in some of those classrooms and heard the discussions where nobody knows that I was on that fire. When the group starts talking about South Canyon, I’ll hear people say certain things and draw conclusions that, in my opinion, start to oversimplify what happened.

That’s probably a normal response that we might all tend to do. I think what folks are doing is kind of saying: “Well, this makes sense to me, so it must have been this. I can put my finger on this thing right here. That had to be what it is, because it made sense to the person on the fire. Therefore, it’s not going to happen to me because I can now make sense of what happened so I can prevent this.”

So, sure, if you’re just looking at the 10/18, and LCES, and Downhill Line Construction guidelines and all that stuff on paper, you can begin to draw some conclusions. You can second-guess that if they wouldn’t have done this or done that, the outcome would have been different. That’s why storytelling is so important. It helps add that first-person perspective and experience to what you’re being taught. 

Storytelling helps people to understand that it’s actually not that simple on the ground in the moment.

There’s the classroom, and these days we have some very good courses, but there’s still no replacement for somebody who’s willing to put into words an event that happened to them and share this with other firefighters. I think there’s also a bit of respect that just comes from firefighter to firefighter. When somebody tells me something, and it’s coming from a brother or sister firefighter, it tends to carry some weight.

And then there’s the learning that takes place by firefighters just chatting with one another. You find somebody you connect with and you share stories and that person is going to say something that’s going to stick with you. Some of the best learning is this type of informal learning that takes place between firefighters just talking to each other. It’s likely you could not capture this type of learning in any sort of curriculum. It’s pretty organic.

Kip (on left) during his wildland fire days with crewmate Dax Borgard on the 1996 Sloan’s Ridge Fire near the North Fork of the John Day River in Oregon.

For Years, I Didn’t Talk About South Canyon

Kip: For several years, I didn’t really talk about my South Canyon Fire experience. And to be honest, I think I just didn’t fully understand my own story. I didn’t have enough pieces of that puzzle to really feel like I could present it.

It wasn’t until I started going back to South Canyon to participate in the annual South Canyon Staff Ride, year after year, that those pieces started to come together. And they came together through storytelling. They came together through me being back on that mountain with those other people who had also been there that day in 1994 and hearing their perspectives—their stories.

It came through being up there with one of the jumpers that I had never before met. Even though we were on that fire together, of course we’d never met. I probably saw this person on the way up the hill that day. That was it.

The clarity of what had actually occurred that day came from hearing this person’s perspective. I suddenly had a bunch of “aha” moments like: “Oh, I didn’t know you guys did that” or “Now I see why you did this.”

That important learning about this incident only happened through storytelling, through other people sharing what they saw, what they heard, what they felt, why they went the way they did.

So, for me, there’s no substitute for telling and sharing your stories. And it’s interesting how you continue to put the story together for a long, long time afterwards. You just keep learning little bits and pieces—and that’s the real value of telling it.

Kelly: Absolutely. Storytelling is a form of sensemaking, right? You have to hear what other people were thinking and feeling to fill-in the story. I think that is such an important piece of the learning because, like you said, if you’re just looking at a black-and-white piece of paper and say: “Okay, we’re going to study this particular fire,” it’s easy to make a lot of assumptions about how people made mistakes.

At South Canyon, when we walk on the ground it’s always a lot steeper than that black-and-white piece of paper could ever indicate. And everything’s a lot farther than it seemed. It’s so incredible that so many of you folks who were on that fire are willing to return and keep telling your story for the benefit of the fire community.

This May, when I attended this year’s South Canyon Staff Ride, it struck me how many of the participants hadn’t even been born when South Canyon occurred.

Kip: Yes, it’s an interesting realization when you start to process that.

Kelly: What’s it like when people say to you: “Oh, you’re a South Canyon survivor.” How do you feel about the term “survivor”?

Kip: That word “survivor” has a little bit of a stigma attached to it. Rather than “survivor”, I think the term should be “learner”.

When someone says “survivor”, it tends to sound a little heroic. And, of course, it’s really not. I, therefore, tend to dislike that term. I’m just a firefighter who was there.

I think there’s a lot of lessons that can be learned from survivors, of course. But I wouldn’t want that term to detract from any sort of lesson or storytelling or anything.

I think it’s important to remember that the folks who we’re honoring didn’t survive. For me, maybe I just got lucky. I was in the right spot. But it’s those folks who didn’t survive, that’s the reason why we need to tell those stories.

Kip with daughters Kelli and Sydney and son Joey at an eighth-grade honor society recognition for Sydney.

Kelly: Can we talk about the “honor through learning” concept? That’s something we tend to say a lot here at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. To me, this isn’t just about honoring those people who have lost their lives. It’s also honoring those people who have been through something and have lessons to share. We need to create a safe environment in which they can share their lessons, their stories. Through all lessons, we honor our whole community through learning.

Kip: Well said. I think that’s 100 percent true. In fact, that’s what motivates me to continue to return to the South Canyon Fire Staff Ride every year and talk to people. Because it’s not always easy. There’s definitely moments there where it’s hard.

But to not attend that staff ride, I feel like it would be a disservice to those folks who were there that day and never came back home with us. For me, to stay in the firefighting community and call myself a firefighter and not tell those stories—to not share these stories with other firefighters—that would be a disservice.

So yes, definitely, honoring through learning is a valuable piece of our culture.

Kelly: What else compels you to get up that hill every year and meet the people and tell your South Canyon story on the South Canyon Staff Ride?

Kip: What motivates me is to find those people in whom I get a sense that they have a little bit of that “I don’t think I would have done that; I don’t think I would have made that decision” bias. Then I talk them through what happened. I try to get them to the point where they can say: “Well, gosh. I might have done the same thing given what I just learned.”

Reaching out to those people by telling my story helps motivate me to return to the staff rides.

Kelly: Is there anything that you think we should be trying to do better to capitalize on these learning opportunities?

Kip: It’s been 22 years since I left the Forest Service. So I’m more out of touch with what’s happening out there in the wildland community. On the structure side, or maybe in general, I’m continuing to strive for a learning culture, where we have systems or folks who can tell their stories.

And it’s not punitive. Even though there may not be any sort of discipline, at times it can still feel punitive. Because there can still be a stigma attached to it, like you made a mistake.

As a supervisor, we’ve had close calls and we’ve had near misses since I’ve been here at the Medford Fire Department. We just tell the story. We just talk about it with the rest of the firefighters who were there and with our neighboring departments.

I also like to have the person who was involved in one of these incidents sit down and write out their story. Get clear on what happened and put it into writing. Then we have that to serve as a reference point for talking and discussing what happened.

Kip visits the Granite Mountain Hotshots memorial in January 2021.

Kelly: OK, let’s shift gears here a bit. Most of us can probably guess what turned out to be the worst shift of your life. For a change of pace, can you talk about the best shift of your life?

Kip: I think there’s so many fun things that you do out there in wildland firefighting. And that’s something that I probably do miss. It’s just fun to be out there doing those sorts of activities. It’s a grind, it’s dirty, it’s hard, it’s hot—whatever. But it’s also really fun because, like I mentioned previously, you’re out there working and collaborating with those like-minded people.

It’s hard to pick one shift. But a really great assignment I had was in 1998. I took an engine to Florida and we spent three weeks there. It was really a fun, different assignment with different ways of doing business. And it turned out to be like a Region 6 reunion.

Most of our Ranger District was there. Other engines and captains and the Prineville Hotshot Crew was there. We all ended up just having a ton of fun and we fought a lot of fire.

And because eventually there was such a bottleneck trying to get people demobed off the fire, they got to the point where they’re like: “Hey, if you guys just want to disappear, get out of our hair today, and we’re still going to pay you for eight hours: Go away.”

And we’re like: “We’re out of here!” So we ended up at the beach and just spent a couple of days hanging out with a bunch of really good firefighting friends. That was pretty fun.

And, of course, there’s been those fires over years that were fun because you get to do all kinds of different things. You dig line, you do structure protection, you burn-out behind a dozer, you spike out in the wilderness.

Kelly: Very cool. Before we close here, is there anything else that you’d like to add to our discussion?

Kip: If you’ve signed on to be a firefighter, you’ve really signed-on for a lifetime of learning. You’re never going to know everything you need to know. You’re just not. So, you’ve really signed-on to learning for at least the rest of your career—and, hopefully, for the rest your life.

Because just about the time that you think you know enough to be safe out there, you hear about something—or something happens to you—and you realize: “Well, actually, I didn’t know that. I didn’t realize that.”

So, it’s a lot bigger and more complicated than we sometimes make it out to be. We want simple solutions and get clouded by hindsight bias at times. To keep learning, we need to avoid assumptions and try to have a beginner’s mindset where many outcomes are possible.

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