Insights on Learning from the Redding Hotshot Crew Superintendent

By Alex Viktora

Assistant Director, Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

[This article initially appeared as the “One of Our Own” feature in the 2022 Spring Issue of Two More Chains.]

Dan Mallia knows a thing or two about learning in the wildland fire service.

This man has served as the Superintendent of the Redding Interagency Hotshot Crew the past 13 years. Dan started as a crew member on the Redding IHC in 2003 and became a Captain on the crew in 2005.

As most of us know, the Redding IHC is a “developmental crew” that provides its members a concentrated fire management training one-season detail opportunity. Potential fire management personnel detailed to this crew at an early stage in their careers gain experience and training that might take years to receive—or never be obtained—at their home units.

They train in multiple areas critical to wildfire, including: leadership development, large fire tactics and strategies, medical emergencies, and All-Risk incidents.

The structure of Dan’s crew enables individual crewmembers to supervise a Type 1 Hotshot Crew in the role appropriate to their development (Squad Leader, Crew Boss, Task Force/Strike Team Leader, or Type 4/5 Incident Commander).

As the Redding IHC website informs: “This provides an opportunity to observe and evaluate various levels of performance among peers and to understand crew production. This increases self-confidence and leadership abilities, important qualities with which crewmembers return to their home units. This enhances career progression to greater responsibilities.”

Dan’s crew also has nine permanent overhead: his Superintendent position, two Captains, two Squad Leaders, two Leads, and two Senior Firefighters.

Besides his super solid wildland fire operations and wildland fire learning and teaching background, Dan is no stranger to the halls of academia. His degrees include: a Bachelor of Arts in History with an emphasis in Westward Expansion; and a Bachelor of Science in Recreation Administration with an emphasis in Parks and Natural Resource Management, both from California State University, Chico. 

Dan Mallia

What does the phrase “Learning in the Wildland Fire Service” mean to you?

If you stop learning, that’s when I think problems start to happen. One of the cool things about the program here at Redding is how all of our crew members come from different units every year to learn from us—the overhead.

And I think it works both ways. A lot of the time we’re learning from them as well—including learning how to deal with different people in different scenarios.

The big thing for me is to ensure that the learning never stops. For instance, I like to check out and read case studies, FLAs, and various incident reports and try to learn from them. I’m always looking to see if there’s a nugget that I can pull from to share, to teach.

And then there’s the general learning from every assignment when we go out on fires. Seeing what was different, what might have changed. In the last four years or so, I’ve learned a lot about tactics. In those spots where we used to stop fires, we aren’t stopping them like we used to anymore. We’re having to change things up a bit.

So, yes, I guess I’d emphasize to always be learning—never stop learning.

How do you formally do learning with your Redding Hotshot program? Can you a talk about some of these learning tools that you have in your toolbox?

For the first six weeks of the program when the crew first comes onboard, we’re not available for incidents. We’re building on a lot of things. That first week is basically orientation—the history of the crew, why we do this, why we do that, how the overhead works, all that good stuff. During this time, there’s also that important learning curve of everyone getting to know each other.

The second week of the program, we go to the Rattlesnake Fire site and do a Staff Ride [Rattlesnake Fire Staff Ride]. It’s conveniently located an hour-and-a-half from our base. Often times, the Mendocino Hotshots help us out with that. Even though that fire happened almost 70 years ago, there’s so many important learning points—so many common denominators—that you can still study today from that incident via the Staff Ride experience.

The rest of that week—for four days—it’s medical training and dealing with the wildland fire environment. Our instructor, Bill Masten, a retired Los Angeles County Fire Captain and Medic, runs the crew through extensive classroom training and simulations for situations they may encounter in the wildland fire environment—such as tree strikes, heat injuries, burns, allergic reactions, and vehicle accidents.

Unfortunately for us, in 2019 we put this training into full-on reality mode when we rolled one of our buggies.

The crew had completed their medical training that week, just a couple days before this rollover incident. So they quickly jumped into action. I was very proud of them for how they responded. This was a great example of taking the training—then using it! [To learn more about this incident, see: IHC Buggy Rollover FLA.]

Image from the IHC Buggy Rollover FLA.

Another big thing for us, we do the M-410 Facilitative Instructor NWCG course. If you’re going to be developing as a leader, you’re going to have to get comfortable talking in front of people.

Our training topics include: spike camp, operations, helicopter operations, chain saw—basically, everything the crewmembers will need to know about while they’re on the crew.

We also teach the S-244 Field Observer course. We have an excellent instructor, Ron Marley, who also teaches the M-410 course. For our field observer class, Ron teaches the crew map orientation, compass use, GPS use and everything that entails.

Basically, you know how a lot of us have fallen into the “Avenza trap”—using this mobile app map technology on fires—rather than “old fashion” paper. I fought it forever. I’m a big paper map GPS guy.

When Avenza first showed up, I was like: “Oh, I know where I am now every day because there’s a blue dot”. So I think we were starting to lose some of those skills—having folks figure out where they are on a paper map and being able to make decisions based on that when we’re out in the field. In our Field Observer class, we get this key training.

Another significant component to our initial training is a one-week learning experience called “the Spike”. It’s basically our crew cohesion/team building time. On this crew, we don’t have the luxury of having a group of core people returning to be on the crew year after year. We therefore need to build our team rapidly and develop cohesion rapidly. So we go out into the woods for a week and do that.

And, of course, the culmination of our crew’s training is the South Canyon Staff Ride. That’s where a lot of tremendous lessons are learned up on that hill during this Staff Ride experience.

Could describe your history and your involvement with the Staff Ride at South Canyon?

The crew started going in 2003 when I was a crewmember. It was a smaller group of people. For the most part, it was just our crew, some at-large folks, and a number of Redding Smokejumpers.

My Conference Group Leader that day in 2003 was Mark Linane [former Los Padres IHC Superintendent who retired in 1999]. That was pretty cool having Mark lead us around on the hill and getting his perspective on things. Mark was also a Redding Hotshot back in the day.

Dan with his Large Format Launcher.

When I came back on the crew as a Captain in 2005, the number of participants on the Staff Ride started to grow and we started to bring an additional crew with us. For a few years, the Redmond Hotshots—the other “developmental” crew on the West Coast—came out to Colorado with us.

We also started to bring in more at-large folks, more forest FMOs and Agency Administrators and other firefighters—not only from the federal government, but also from our cooperators.

For a while there, we didn’t have any of the South Canyon survivors participating on the Staff Ride. Then, in 2006, Tony Petrilli [Missoula Smokejumper at South Canyon] and Alex Robertson [Prineville Hotshot at South Canyon] joined us. Alex went home and told his former mates on Prineville about what an awesome experience the Staff Ride was. That’s when more of the former Prineville folks started to join us: Brian Scholz, Kip Gray, and Kim Lightley.

Eric Hipke [North Cascades Smokejumper at South Canyon] also wanted to join the Staff Ride. But when he was still jumping it always conflicted with his refresher training. Once Eric moved to his Audiovisual Specialist job at NWCG in Boise, he, too, started to join us on the Staff Ride. 

For more of their stories and lessons that have been highlighted in past Two More Chains from these South Canyon Fire survivors, click on their links: Tony Petrilli; Brian Scholz; Kip Gray; Kim Lightley; Eric Hipke

A couple years ago, Steve Little also joined us. Steve had been on the Western Slope Helitack Crew at South Canyon. Prior to that, we’d never gotten that aspect of the South Canyon story. When Richard Tyler, Butch Blanco and Don Mackey took their recon flight and came back, Steve was standing right there with them when they had their talk about the plan for that day. Until Steve joined us, that was something we never knew about.

So we now have quite a group of “Learners”—a term that Kip Gray has coined for us. That’s what we now call the South Canyon survivor Staff Ride participants—they are the “Learning Group”. I think the participants take so much from, you know, being on the ground with them. From listening to South Canyon survivors share their stories and their experiences. That’s what truly makes this Staff Ride such a beneficial learning experience.

How do you return to the South Canyon Staff Ride year after year and continue to learn?

That’s a great question. It’s really interesting. Every time we go, we—I—learn something new about that event.

We hear a lot of personal stories from people tied to the event, things that aren’t in the reports or the books. New information and new insights that emerge and enlighten on the Staff Ride each year. And it could be something that the survivors are talking about among themselves—that hadn’t previously been shared or known.

In addition, one of the big things for me—and I know this is probably true for all the overhead—is during the Staff Ride’s “Integration Dinner” when everyone talks about what they are taking away from the Staff Ride. These responses from the Staff Ride participants are amazing. It’s really cool to see second-year firefighters come up with something that floors the old gray beards in the group.

So, yes, we bring new people to the Staff Ride each year, and new information and new conversations surface. There’s always something new to be learned every time you go up there.

Dan and his crew on the 2020 Hog Fire on the Lassen-Modoc Unit.

How are the participants in the South Canyon Staff Ride different today? During the last five or so years—with our monster fire years—how are fifth-year firefighters different today?

When I first came to the crew it was my fourth or fifth year. I have to say, these firefighters today are a lot smarter than we were. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. But I think it’s true.

Something I preach religiously to these folks today: “Hey, if you see something; say something”. There’s a tremendous amount of stuff going on in the fire environment today. So, yes, if you see something; say something. And it may not be anything or it may be something that we missed. So just know that you shouldn’t be afraid to speak up.

I think we’ve empowered those younger firefighters to speak up and learn. To strive to be that student of fire.

I sometimes wonder if today’s social media has something to do with that. There’s a lot more information out there for people to grasp and get their hands on. I don’t think that has to be a negative. I believe it’s just another aspect of things that helps with making these folks a little smarter than we were back in the day!

After all your years in the wildland fire service, how do you stay curious?

First off, I have the best job in the U.S. Forest Service, hands down. One of the advantages I have over other hotshot crews, I basically get a new crew every year.

This year we’re going to be getting 16 new people. Over the years, that number has ranged from 13 to 17 fresh, new faces. So one of the key aspects of keeping me curious is being able to be with these new folks—developing and sharing those special “Aha” learning moments with them.

One of the things I really enjoy is working with the Crew Boss Trainees. They ride around with me and I get an opportunity to instill some knowledge. But once we get on the line, they are with the crew running the day-to-day operations. They’re Crew Boss Trainees, not Superintendent Trainees. They would definitely learn a few things with me when I’m out doing what I’m doing, but that’s not the intent of that position.

I want them worrying about the work objective for the day and implementing that—leading the crew, working with their overhead, working with adjoining resources, etcetera.

Then, later during the shift or at the end of the day, on the drive back to camp we talk about what worked that day. And if they made a mistake—failure is an opportunity to learn. We discuss what they did, why it didn’t work, and how to remedy it.

It’s also nice that our crew now has the full complement of nine permanent overhead.

They also get to assist in developing these younger firefighters. At the same time, our overhead members are also developing—our Senior Firefighters, the Leads, the Squaddies and the Captains—they’re also developing and learning. Who knows, maybe one day they’ll be the Superintendent of this crew. I think that’s pretty cool. That’s something else that keeps me fired up—keeps me going.

From your perspective, how are humility and learning in the wildland fire service related to one another?

One of the things one of my former Captains, Pat Bell, would talk about on his first day with the crew is the “Four H’s”: “Work Hard, Be Honest, Be Humble, and Have Humor”—because in our line of work, humor makes the tough days easier.

So, of course, that concept of “humility” is huge. I don’t think you can ever learn if you’re not humble. We’ve all been humbled in this job. If you say you haven’t—you’re a liar.

I know recently, in 2020 during the North Complex, when that fire made its “intergalactic” 30-mile run, we all got humbled that day. I never thought the fire was going to do what it did.

I learned from that experience. Even though I’ve been around for a long time, I learned from that. I think a lot of people learned from that.

If you’re not humble and you can’t open yourself to criticism, you can’t open yourself to, “yes, I made a mistake”, or I didn’t think that was going happen, it’s going to be detrimental and serve as barrier to your learning.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in this business?

I think the biggest thing for me is the mental wellness side of things.

I’ve always tried to a good job of practicing what I preach. I tell my folks to take time off when needed. Don’t miss your family reunions, don’t miss weddings—because you’re never going to get those back. Fire assignments will always be there.

I’m really fortunate. At the end of the season, once the crew is gone, I spend a lot of time in the outdoors by myself hunting. That’s my decompression, my, like, Zen time.

I enjoy spending time hunting with friends and family. Don’t get me wrong. But I also need some “alone time” out there, whether its chasing bucks with my bow or sitting in a frozen swamp with the dog—my black Lab, Jake. There’s just time I enjoy doing it by myself.

I spend seven months every year taking care of 20 people’s needs, keeping them safe and sound.

So there’s times I just want to worry about me and Jake. [Dan laughs here.] I make sure I have my “selfish” time for that. I’ve seen a lot of people burn out from this job. I therefore believe that taking time for yourself is truly important.

That’s probably one of the most important things I’ve learned over the years. You need to really take care of yourself. Because when you don’t, it not only affects you, it affects everyone around you.

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