‘Human Topography’ – A Concept We Can All Learn From

Bryan Scholz was among the five individuals who received a 2014 Paul Gleason Lead By Example Award from the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee for their “commitment to a learning organization”.

[This is the “One of Our Own” interview with Bryan Scholz that appeared in the Summer 2015 Two More Chains. When we reached out to Bryan for a 2022 update, here’s what he relayed: “I’m in the ‘recovering firefighter program’—retired—and still go through withdrawal when an airtanker flies over, which these days is every ten minutes. I’m still honored to be part of the South Canyon Staff Ride. This was year 17 for me. I’ve got two new knees just so I can make it up the hill. It’s the most useful thing I do all year.”]

By Travis Dotson

Bryan Scholz is currently the Assistant Fire Management Officer on the Prairie Division of the Crooked River National Grassland/Ochoco National Forest in Oregon. In 1994 he was the Assistant Superintendent of the Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew and was present at the South Canyon Fire. “Human Topography”, or the social lay of the land, is a concept Bryan has talked about passionately in recent years.

Give us the standard fire class introduction (your career in a nutshell).

Grew up in Chicago, came out west to be a fire guy. I was going to forestry school and a buddy of mine says: “Hey, let’s get a job on the hotshot crew.” I said: “Great. What’s a hotshot crew?” A week later, we’re out digging line in the desert and it’s a bazillion degrees and I’m trying not to throw up on my Whites. Welcome to Prineville.

What is ‘Human Topography’?

Human Topography is part of the social environment that exists on fires. It extends around the fire, through the overhead, the fire management organization, dispatch, and we navigate our way through it.

It is the nature of our job that we are thrown into high-risk operations with strangers. We have to quickly develop trust (or not), evaluate risk, and depend at least partly on strangers for our safety, which makes ours a strange and unique occupation.

What role did Human Topography play at South Canyon?

At South Canyon there were jumpers from three bases, a local district crew, a helitack crew, and a hotshot crew—none of whom knew each other. Imagine the outcome if the fire had not blown up that day. We all spend the night on the ridge eating beanie weenies and yakking it up, and then have issues with tactics the next day, having already gotten to know each other. Maybe a whole different ending.

The Prineville Hotshots on July 4, 1994. Bryan, the crew’s Assistant Superintendent, is in the middle row, far right. This crew photo was taken in Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park two days before they will be assigned to Colorado’s South Canyon Fire—that will take the lives of nine crew members.

In your experience, how does the concept of “Us and Them” play out in Wildland Fire?

It’s one of the first traps young firefighters fall into, especially after they get a season under their belt. The only fire guy smarter than a second-year jumper is a second-year hotshot. “The Div. Supt. is a knucklehead, the plan sucks, these guys don’t know what they’re doing . . .”

This gets aggravated when the boss breaks the “Saving Private Ryan” rule, which is Don’t Bitch Down. The boss does not voice complaints about overhead to his subordinates. It’s poor leadership. It sets the wrong example—and it doesn’t solve problems.

This is why we need more women in fire. They make us smarter.

Are there any benefits to the “Us and Them” mentality?

Firefighting is a team sport. A bit of “Us vs. the World” helps build crew cohesion. Every crew out there should, by nature, want to be better than every other crew out there. But that doesn’t mean you act like it. A little humility is OK. It shows that we don’t have all the answers, which we don’t, and maybe we can’t do everything, which we can’t. Be confident, not cocky.

What are some practical ways to navigate Human Topography?

Practice active listening; be a devil’s advocate. Offer alternatives; help other people be successful when they need it. Don’t assume others have your level of experience. Don’t assume you have more. In fact, don’t assume anything. And lighten up. Few situations can’t be improved with a little humor.

Before South Canyon we were students of fire. South Canyon made us students of people. You have to learn how to read people. Quickly. On a fire, we often ask others if a situation is safe—whether or not we believe their answer is a matter of trust. What makes us trust someone we don’t know? Sometimes, it’s all in the presentation. My old crew boss once asked a guy coming up out of the hole if it was safe to go in. He said: “Well, you can’t see, you can’t breathe, and its steeper than the back of God’s head. Other than that, it ain’t too bad.” That was good intel.

Bryan in 1992 with his two-year-old son, Dan August Scholz. Sixteen years later, Dan ended up working five seasons in fire on the Ochoco National Forest, becoming a member of the Prineville Hotshots in 2012. Dan is currently in the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Combat Medics School. [2022 Update: Dan is now an instructor in the Special Operations Combat Medics School at Fort Bragg.]

What do you teach new firefighters on these types of subjects?

I teach the 10 & 18. The 10 & 18 gives the devil’s advocate a common language to communicate avoiding entrapment. “We can’t see the fire, we don’t know what it’s doing, we don’t have commo; so how about we get a flyover or send a guy with a radio up a ridge and establish some commo before we head up.”

Tell us a funny Human Topography story.

Navigating Human Topography is all about clear commo. One year, the crew came off a fire and got R&R in Walla Walla, Washington. My sawyer says: “Let’s go have a cocktail at the Past Time.”

I said: “You’ve never been to Walla Walla. How do you know they have a Past Time?” He said: “This is the West. Every town has a Past Time.”

He was right.

Several hours and a hundred bucks later, we made it back to the motel. There were three of us and we each had separate roommates. The plan was that one guy would throw open the door, one guy would pull the sheets off the sleeping roommate, and one guy would throw the bucket of ice water onto the sleeping roommate.

It was a fabulous operation. Came off without a hitch. My roommate, Grant the Squady who was built like a fire hydrant, just lay there. Without opening an eye, he says: “Scholz, I will get you for this.”

Three years later we come down into camp off a fire on the Salmon. Most of the crew heads for chow, but I haven’t had a shower for 12 days so I beeline for the shower truck. This particular truck had a line of shower stalls on one side and benches on the other, except for one stall on the bench side down at the very end, which was the only one open. So that’s where I went.

A few minutes later, I hear Grant the Squady say: “Scholz, you in here?” I say: “Yeah, down at the end”. As soon as I said it, I knew I was screwed.

I can hear Grant walking down the aisle toward me, I can hear five gallons of ice water sloshing in a bucket—and I have no escape route. The next thing I hear is some guy yelling because a total stranger has whipped open his shower curtain and—without looking—thrown five gallons of ice water on him—in the other stall at the end.

With Grant being built like a fire hydrant, the poor guy couldn’t do much but stand there and shiver while his crew, having figured out what happened, howls with laughter. Grant shrugs his shoulders, says: “Oops. Sorry” and shuffles off. I always wondered who that guy was. Regardless, I had given what I thought was clear commo, but had failed to ensure that it was clearly understood. My bad. Lesson learned.

Bryan sharing his thoughts during the South Canyon Staff Ride.

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