Many of you may already know Thom Taylor. For those that don’t, Thom is a regular contributor to the Lessons Learned Center blog. He has a storied career in wildland fire and is a Fire Operations Specialist on the Payette National Forest. He’s also an Operations Branch Director. But behind all the quals, boots, greens, and yellows, at his core Thom is a musician. An artist. In this blog post, Thom explores the similarities between music and fire, how band members come together in a moment in time and either create contemporary music or re-make an old classic. Just the same as how firefighters come together on initial attack and create something out of nothing, or how IMTs take over a large incident and create their own version of a classic.
Kick back, relax, and enjoy Thom’s latest tune.
“I got green, and I got blues
And every day there’s a little less difference between the two
I belly-up and disappear
Well, I ain’t really drowning cause I see the beach from here”
By Thomas R. Taylor
Fire Operations Specialist
Payette National Forest, Council Ranger District
What’s next? I’ve been back on my island since October whatever 2021, the ski areas are still closed, and S*&t is definitely weird in the world. As is ritual for me, last fall I went into the office a few times, it was raining and snowing, and it appears the 2021 season for me had ended. I went to the beach cabin to stomp around and trade wildfire for crazy storms, high tides, and crashing waves. One extreme to another. Feeding that rush I’ve chased tiredly for well over 30 years and for me can only be satiated with good ol’ Mother Nature. After all, I am a mamma’s boy.
The woodstove is cranking and heating the manor on this clear and frigid fall day, just as the stereo is heating my soul. Jason Isbell, Mike Cooley, and Patterson Hood, all members of the band Drive-By Truckers, is cranked on the stereo. They recently released a live performance from 2013 that was only available on crappy YouTube videos, but is now available on Vinyl and iTunes.
I’ve been a fan of the Drive-By Truckers for quite some time but can also relate to those three individual songwriters and their different phrasings and songwriting formulas as solo artists. The sum of all parts made/make them who they are collectively but is easily separable for them individually. Their collective lives and strife reflect off nearby Payette Lake in this moment just as my life and strife reflects off a lake of fire. (For me, it is the Nirvana version of Lake of Fire, who interpreted the original song written by The Meat Puppets.)
I think back how my last fire assignment reflected off the original plans formed by the previous Incident Management Team.
There is a longing loneliness that I feel when I stare out the window of the truck on the way back from an assignment. The sum of all parts has come and gone, just like musicians writing and performing a song. And in that loneliness, I recall our song starting with a verse. The first verse, whether on a fire or in a song, has most often already been formed by the original players and their initial emotions or feelings. In some cases, the entire song may already be finished by the time I get there. It often started months earlier and has been on a dreadful repeat for the home unit, face-in-a-blender style, filled with verses and droning chorus of out of tune chords from previous players.
“The last group of session players played these chords” is something I hear and see all the time. One thing last year I thought was weird is that session times were starting at 0700 (Bankers Hours)? What the hell? Split briefings? Session starts at 0700, then folks split off and meet at a different studio, drummers at Studio B, guitars players across town at Studio C? How can they feed off each other and harness the collective emotion that when rigged up properly can be the only success? Sign of the times I reckon.
Is anyone following this zany rant? It’s getting weird I know.
I’m saying that feeding off the players when I arrive on an incident which has been playing for weeks or months is that the song is already written and I’m merely providing a remix or a fresh verse, and when I’m enroute back to the manor the chorus plays in my head of yesterday’s song.
Coming into an incident that is already in motion can be trying, easy or both, depending on the current cast of characters. (I do mean characters because there is a whole slew of them.) Also, transitioning into the off season and a new set of emotions can be trying, easy, or both. Emotions and Wildfire, breathes and moves like a song. We all experience it on the line or at the house as a new Crewmember, Squad Boss, Engine Boss, AFMO, Lover, Husband, Wife, Son or Daughter.
What feeds it?
What feeds you?
If ya come in like a “hot hand-off” or super aggressive get-r-done guy or like that time Steve Vai (legendary rock guitarist) came forward in a Les Paul tribute concert and started playing blistering solos, it won’t end as one would expect. In Steve Vai’s case, he came in hot only to have Les Paul look over his shoulder and mute Mr. Via’s strings and excuse him to the back of the stage. Things will not go in your favor. Just as they won’t go in your favor with emotions or coming into a new assignment with the same tempo as the previous one. Read the room, do your homework, gather intel, and listen to the original song first.
I came in hot on a fire in 2020 and got “Les Pauled” hugely by the players already in the session and hit many sour notes. It still sends shivers down my spine when I think of that snowy incident. I had choice words with one of the local players, all the while the IC was watching our interactions. It didn’t go well, and the IC came over to me and asked how it went. Which is now hilarious because the size of the Skoal pinch in my upper lip was proof enough that it didn’t go well. So, in short, considering these reflections of the many pieces of Humble Pie I’ve ingested, it is best for me to relax the shoulders and take a breath before entering the session or incident so I can play the proper notes and not come in too hot.
Like a drummer who doesn’t try to play over the solo or a new Squad Boss who doesn’t power hike the squad out of the hole after watching everyone work all day, we are all in it together. Sometimes we can’t choose who we are working with or where our emotions go, but we can choose to move the song in a different direction.
The verse we are currently in as a society and as an Agency was started by players from times forgotten. Some were The Beatles, but most were The Monkees. The chorus that some players are still stuck in are the same players that dismissed the Blues, Jazz, and Hip-Hop. You as the future, or Us that are keepers of the flame must take all those original songs and push them into the verses of today and choruses that will be sung in the future. Better pay, support to those of us who are injured mentally and physically, family support, guidance and mentorship, trust and understanding—all notes to that song’s potential.
I am me, and we are us.
I played in a band called Lopez in the 90s. I left the band just before a tour, just as I left Flagstaff IHC in the middle of the season in 2004. Both decisions swam in human factors, and both groups had remarkably similar cultures. A bunch of Randoms driving around all smelly, hungry, and spending way too much time together, putting everything on the line. “Emotion based decisions” such as those have consequences. Typing this, I’m justifying those choices in part due to being human. Good, bad, or indifferent there will always be a fight or flight mechanism instilled in life and our chosen profession.
Disengaging from where things go is a choice. Looking out for yourself, Communication, and utilizing the Escape Time by carefully listening to all the notes and making it back to the Safety Zone. The same in life as it is on fires.
When the band Drive-By Truckers added Jason Isbell to the mix, things went in a different direction. They didn’t change their sound or ethos, but their vigor was fanned by the wind of this new addition. Their metaphorical column stood up and like some relationships, eventually capped out. We need to add patience to our band. Adding patience to where we are as a society, culture, and as an Agency could increase our vigor and extend our time on this planet before we inevitably cap out.
Or, just maybe, we go back to playing that first album or song to remind us why we chose to be where we are now instead of tapping out before we cap out.