Stories: Why We Need Them and Why They are Never Over

[This article was originally featured in the 2021 Summer Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Erik Apland, Field Operations Specialist (Acting), Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

Mark Twain supposedly said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Whether he said this or not, it nevertheless seems absolutely true.

I’ve been working on a special assignment that entails reading, indexing, and making notes on the reports of entrapments in the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center’s (LLC) Incident Review Database (IRDB). In reading these, you run into so many things: surprises, heartbreaking stories, thoughtful analysis, callousness. The first reaction I have when I read about fire entrapments that seem eerily similar is: “Oh, this is just like…”

But, of course, it isn’t just like it.

Different people made different choices for different reasons in different places at different times. My mind wants to put these things together. The similarities are, superficially, very strong: Inaja (1956) and Cedar (2003) in the same river canyon less than two miles apart; Tuolumne (2004), Ponderosa (2001) and Mt. Murphy (1982) involving nearly the same sequence of events, all in the Sierra Nevada foothills, with different outcomes.

“This is just like that,” “This is why they did that,” are just stories we tell ourselves. In the past 15 years we have become better at acknowledging that. No longer are events written as if by a narrator objectively observing the action from above—a viewpoint you could call “God’s Eye View.”

The ‘God’s Eye View’ Mindset

Two reports from this previous “God’s Eye View” mindset struck me. The first was the Lake Mountain Fire on Idaho’s Salmon-Challis National Forest in 1985. The first of two large-scale entrapments during the 1985 Idaho fire season, Lake Mountain involved the deployment of 85 fire shelters (with no fatalities or serious injuries). In the report, intense focus is placed on the belief that a fire shelter deployment is incontrovertible evidence of avoidable mistakes. The report goes on to admonish firefighters only to use shelters when absolutely necessary, even though the report itself admitted the deployments under investigation were necessary.

The second striking report from this era was the Coffee Pot Fire in New Mexico in June 1994. Members of a hotshot crew were overtaken by fire on a trail down a steep slope. They used fire shelters for protection. Only weeks before the earth-shattering South Canyon Fire, the investigators wrote: “All five individuals involved in the shelter deployment said they felt uncomfortable as they went down the switchbacks, but they went anyway. All firefighters, especially ‘Hot Shots’ have a ‘Can-Do’ attitude. This is both positive and necessary but cannot be allowed to compromise personal safety.’” Written by an investigation team only three weeks before South Canyon, these words are eerie beyond belief. They could be lifted directly from the subsequent South Canyon Investigation.

Unexplored in the Coffee Pot report (as well as the original South Canyon report) is whether it truly is just a “Can-Do” attitude that fueled the fateful decision to go down the line, or if there were other social, political, and psychological factors at play. Take, for instance, this quotation from a firefighter who survived an entrapment in Southern California: “Danny Street…remarked to me as we looked down into the canyon, ‘Kenny, I don’t like the idea of going down there.’ I told him, ‘I don’t either, Danny.’ Thinking to myself that Jack Kern of the Los Padres [National Forest], who really knows his fire, had been there all day must have thought it OK…I said something to that effect to Danny.” This statement was recorded by the team investigating the 1956 Inaja Fire. Danny and Kenny made it out of the canyon, but eleven others did not.

This deference to respected colleagues, and our (mistaken?) perception of someone else’s comfort level with an assignment is surely important in our risk management calculations, then and now. The Inaja Fire was one of a string of fatality fires that prompted a task force by the U.S. Forest Service that developed, among other things, the 10 Fire Orders and 13 Watchout Situations (increased to 18 in 1987). But deep in the Inaja report was this insight into human factors, 40 years before South Canyon’s aftermath initiated a transition to the culture we recognize today.

Deep in the 1956 Inaja Fire report is a revealing insight into human factors and decision-making–40 years before South Canyon’s aftermath initiated a transition to the culture we recognize today.

Reading Their Stories with a Seriousness that Empathy Demands

The uncertainty of our contemporary reports acknowledges the uncertainty of reality, unlike many past documents that narrate, pass judgement, and point over and over again back to the rules: Here’s where they broke the rules, you’ll be fine if you follow the rules. In 1987, at the height of a five-year period of mass shelter deployments, one investigation team even recommended adding a label to the fire shelter: “CAUTION: Violation of Any 10 Firefighting Orders May Require Use.”

On the Bell Valley Fire (1973) and the Coal Canyon Fire (2011), a firefighter lay down prone in the middle of a road rather than retreating a few feet to safety. In 1973 the reason is left indeterminate, inexplicable. In 2011 the human factors are explored in depth. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Those rhymes we only find by looking back on the work done by generations before us, by reading through their stories with the seriousness that empathy demands.

Another Entrapment Story Not in the IRDB

We tell stories for a lot of reasons. A lot of the stories have the premise: “This is how dumb I am,” or “I was so f***ing scared.” We tell these stories because they are stuck in our heads. These stories say something about who we are as people and what we value. But they are also a challenge to us. Stories ask us: What do you make of this?

There’s a story a friend told me about a firing operation in northern Washington that went totally sideways (actually it went down, then came back up). This is an entrapment story. The smoke column they made collapsed; the fire ran downhill. I laughed, gasped, expressed relief at a happy ending.

Since then, I have thought about what that story meant. This was a story about a plan that had to work. It was a story about a “No-Alternate” plan that didn’t work. It was a story about why that ended up being OK, even when it didn’t work. This entrapment, like innumerable others, is not in the IRDB.

The Story is Never Over

Several years after I had last worked in northern Washington’s Methow Valley, I returned before the fire season started to visit old friends. We went to an old haunt and told new stories. It was early 2016.

In years gone by, we had spent countless hours under this roof talking and listening and laughing. Returning to sit and listen to an old friend was like coming home. I listened to a story about a fire up Twisp River Road that didn’t have a happy ending like my friend’s entrapment story. As the crow flies, these two fires are only a few miles apart, separated by 12 years and the greatest barrier human beings can imagine.

With both of these fires, I feel responsible to take what I heard and what I think it meant and continue to chew on it. To try to figure out what to make of it, and to come back again and again as my perspective changes with the years. 

We are all accountable to our brothers and sisters. When they tell us about the time they were in a bad spot, we owe it to them and to ourselves to figure out what the hell to make of that. That’s true of these entrapment reports, too. Not just the big fires we train on and think we know the best (but do we?), but also the small ones that we may have never heard of before: Bell Valley, Mack #2, Coffee Pot, Fish Lake.

Even when the report authors wrote as if they had concluded the story, it is never over. Hopefully, you can find the firefighters in these reports, in these stories, and try to listen to them.

All of Us Getting Together

When I think about all the stories housed here in the LLC’s IRDB, and all the stories I have heard and remembered—or heard and forgot—I think about all of us getting together around a big campfire, or maybe on a big project fire.

We sit at those long folding tables under the canvas tent roof and drink one more cup of coffee before heading to demob. Everybody is there: the crews fresh off the lines from Idaho in 1910 and 1985 with the cat drivers from Florida, Wisconsin, and Virginia. Smokejumpers from 1949, 1994, and 2002, comparing gear and whistling like they inexplicably do.

Crouching on the saw-chip floor and spitting tobacco or sitting back in the plastic chairs with their heavy black boots up on the table. Wearing cotton logger shirts, or green Nomex, or blue uniforms with gleaming badges.

Then we can all say what we thought all this was about, what really happened—and why.

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