[This is the “One of Our Own” feature that appeared in the Summer 2022 Issue of Two More Chains.]
By Alex Viktora
Assistant Director, Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
Alex: George, could you start by telling us a little bit about your background in the world of wildland fire?
George: Yes, sir. Thank you, Alex. I’m currently the Fire Training Officer for the Florida Forest Service. I’ve been with the agency over 25 years. I started in fire as a Forest Ranger, then a Senior Forest Ranger, and now I’m in my current position, beginning in 2015.
And I’m also very fortunate to work on the NWCG (National Wildfire Coordinating Group) Leadership Committee.
Before my career with the Florida Forest Service, I served in the United States Marine Corps, in which I became a non-commissioned officer. I learned a lot about life and leadership.
My first taste of wildfire was an impromptu, fairly quick class I took when I was at Camp Pendleton in the early 1990s. Some U.S. Forest Service folks came in and taught us how to use wildland fire hand tools. It made a positive impression on me. In 1996 when I got out of the Marines, I happened to go in and talk to the Florida Forest Service—and the rest, as they say, is history.
Alex: Awesome. Thank you for that background. Can you talk to us about what the phrase “Learning in the wildland fire service” means to you?
George: For me, the Learning in the Wildland Fire Service publication—which I love—and the Leading in the Wildland Fire Service publication, both illustrate that learning in wildland fire is a never-ending process.
Just last week we taught S130, Firefighter Training; S190, Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior; and L180, Human Factors in the Wildland Fire Service. We’ve taught these classes many times. The other facilitators and I will always discuss how we learn something new in every class because the fresh sets of eyes are coming in with different questions. Like I say, it’s a never-ending process—that we need to always be open to. I think you can always learn from anybody—whether it’s the “old hat” or the newest person.
And, of course, the flipside of learning is to ensure that you pass it on.
Alex: Let’s shift gears here a little bit and talk about one critical component of learning in the wildland fire service: Staff Rides. Could you tell us about the Florida Forest Service and what inspired your agency to build your Blue Ribbon Fire Staff Ride?
George: Our inspiration behind the Blue Ribbon Fire Staff Ride was overarching. It’s a phrase that folks in the Florida Forest Service know well: “Train them right and don’t let them forget”. That was a challenge that was given to us by Mollie Burch, Joshua Burch’s mom. Joshua and Brett Fulton lost their lives on the 2011 Blue Ribbon Fire. Mollie challenged us with that heartfelt vow—to learn from her son’s line of duty death.
The “Living Legacy of the Blue Ribbon Fire” video is dedicated to Joshua Burch and Brett Fulton,
the two Florida Forest Service tractor/plow operators who
lost their lives on the 2011 Blue Ribbon Fire.
Our director at the time, Jim Karels, also really inspired our organization to do this staff ride. In 2013 when Jim was leading the Yarnell Hill Fire’s Serious Accident Investigation Team, one of the recommendations in that report was that they would do a staff ride on this fatality fire.
Jim is one of those folks who believes that if you’re going to ask somebody else to do something—in this case, a staff ride—you should also do so for your own. That’s when it was decided we would do our Blue Ribbon Fire Staff Ride. Fortunately, we were given access to several staff ride SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) through the NWCG’s Leadership Committee, the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, and the National Staff Ride Development Workshop—including a whole lot of help from the fire community on how to build our staff ride. And then it just went from there.
Through our Blue Ribbon Fire Staff Ride we wanted to share our lessons learned—passing on valuable information to our current and future teammates. At the same time, we wanted to provide an emotional and healing process, honoring the ultimate sacrifice of the brothers we lost in 2011.
Alex: Can you talk about how your organization has changed with this new tool—the staff ride—in your toolbox. Reflecting on the potential differences in learning before and after the staff ride?
George: It has always been prevalent in this agency that we learn. I think it’s also important to note that we have the Florida Fallen Wildland Firefighter Memorial where I’m stationed here at the Withlacoochee Training Center in Brooksville, Florida. There are 12 individuals honored on that memorial who paid the ultimate sacrifice on wildland fire in Florida. Four are cooperators and eight are our own folks from the Division of Forestry and Florida Forest Service. We’ve always honored all of them and tried to learn from their line of duty deaths.
We’ve always gone in and asked: How can we learn? How can we pass on the knowledge when we’ve had these near misses—or God forbid—the fatality fires? The development of Blue Ribbon started with an LCES working group. LCES is an amazing tool that Paul Gleason gave to us.
So really, we were doing the things that we had done when we’ve experienced our other unfortunate circumstances dealing with line of duty deaths in the past, prior to exploring staff rides.
But in 2011, with the Blue Ribbon fatalities of Brett and Josh we had this “new” experiential learning tool, the staff ride. We saw the opportunity to take our learning a step farther than we had in the past. And we developed this staff ride with all of our fallen in mind.
I’m a little biased, but I think staff rides might be one of—if not our best—tool for experiential learning.
An important component that I’ve seen with staff rides in general, but especially on Blue Ribbon, is there’s a lot of healing. This staff ride has really helped give some people some closure. And I think it’s helped people personally and professionally as well as helping the overall organization.
When you’re facilitating during the staff ride and we’re talking about things, you suddenly see folks have this special moment—especially when you do the Integration piece.
Of course, the staff ride experience is different for each person who attends. But everybody ends up getting something out of it. And the healing seems to be one of the keys.
Alex: From your seat, what is a “learning opportunity” and how do we get better at seeing them?
George: I think learning opportunities are all around us. I’ll bring up Paul Gleason again. I love that “Leaders We’d Like to Meet” interview with Paul in the Wildland Fire Leadership Development program’s online toolbox. He talks about mindfulness. I think this is a concept that we don’t talk enough about. I think that there are always “lessons” all around us. We just have to be open and receptive to them.
I like to say that there’s no “born on” date. When you hire into forestry, we might have gotten somebody that retired from the military. Or, just this last week, I had somebody sitting in this class that retired from Disney. There’s a lot of lessons there. There’s a lot of good things to hear—and learn.
It’s all about the people, not the process. The process happens, but I think it’s about the people. If we’re open minded, the learning opportunities are always there. And, of course, it works both ways. Not only the new folks that have been around for a minute learning from us, but us learning from the new folks, too. I think that’s super important.
Our learning—God forbid—doesn’t have to come from a tragedy fire. I think having that fantastic prescribed burn that went really well, or even the things we normally do, like those RT-130 Annual Refresher Trainings and coming up with something creative and tying-in with WFSTAR or whatever. They’re all learning opportunities. They’re all around us.
Alex: How do you respond to the phrase that there’s opportunity in tragedy?
I think the initial reaction by some people might be negative. Because when there’s a tragedy you want to honor the fallen. I’m a member of the Florida Forest Service Honor Guard. We want to honor our fallen. Therefore, it might be difficult for some people to connect those two words “opportunity” and “tragedy” together.
As my doctor would say: It’s in the delivery of what we’re trying to get across.
If you look at the word “crisis” in the Chinese language, I’ve heard that there’s two characters that are used for this term: “danger” and “opportunity”. With tragedy, there’s high-risk danger, but there’s also an opportunity to learn.
Unfortunately, in the last couple years, I’ve learned that tragedies happen to all of us, whether it’s personal or whether it’s professional. In 2020, over a three-month period between October and December, I lost my parents and my wife. I have been on my own mental health journey. And, honestly, it’s kind of redefined “resilience” and how I perceive it.
Once these events happen to us, we need to try to learn how we can best honor those who are no longer with us—and keep trying to push forward. That’s something a good friend of mine keeps telling me: “Just push forward; always forward”.
We owe it to ourselves, and we certainly owe it to our fallen, to take that tragedy and transition into the opportunity of saying: How do we keep this from happening again? Fortunately, I’m around the families of our fallen and it’s a blessing. I think they sometimes end up helping us more than we try to help them. And the biggest lesson I keep hearing from them is that same thing—don’t let it be for nothing. Don’t let them be forgotten. Pass it on because it’s their legacy. If we can help somebody else, then they—the fallen—are still helping us.
Alex: Another word we grapple with in the wildland fire service, among other places, is this word “Failure”. Recently, one of our staff described failure as the “seven letter F-word”. What is your reaction when you hear the phrase “Embrace failure. Approach unintended outcomes with learning in mind”?
George: That’s a tough question. When you look at it at face value, you say, okay, “Failure”. The word just kind of jumps out at you. And I think that we’re action oriented, if you will. We approach everything from a standpoint of wins, right? You often hear that talked about: We got to get this win. We’ve got to talk about this win. And when you throw “failure” in, it’s almost the opposite, right?
The question becomes, how do we go about embracing that?
I recall a quote from Mark Stanford (the now retired Fire Chief of Texas A&M Forest Service) that was something to the effect of: “My folks have a servant’s heart with a bias for action”. I think, when you look at it from that standpoint, and you wonder how you embrace failure, it’s with that servant’s heart. Even though we are hurting, we owe it to our fallen and their families and to our teammates to “serve”—to continue to find a way to find the “wins” in our failures. Investing in our people, making sure we do all that we can to help even just one person, we must find a way to do that. Our bias for action in this case becomes finding a way to capture and share those lessons for the greater good.
And there’s some other appropriate words. Ironically, the letters for the following words can be found in the word “Failure”: “fire”, “fear” and “life”. I think that, unfortunately, some of the hardest lessons that you face in life, you have to learn through resilience in how we come out the other side—and what that process looks like. That’s where we learn the most from “failure”.
It’s definitely a hard word to swallow when you hear it, because—like I previously mentioned—I think our culture is based on wins. But we need to flip that around and say, how do we find the win in the failure? How do we mitigate it? How do we best move forward from here?
Alex: What’s the biggest, most important, perhaps most surprising, lesson you’ve learned on your journey in the wildland fire service?
George: The biggest lesson that I think I’ve learned, and it’s been reinforced, is how you can look at the L Curriculum from L180 to L580 and it is really all about relationships. All of it. I mean, you look at communications, you look at teamwork, you look at our incident management teams, and everything really all boils down to relationships.
Once again, it’s the people, not the process, right? It’s the people in the process. For instance, our Florida Forest Service’s Basic Fire Control Training. I’m super proud of our cadre. We’ve been able to do four iterations of our basic training during the pandemic.
And the cadre members came up with a plan for that and implemented the training. But when we were trying to figure that out, the one thing that I knew would work, was the team. I knew the people on that team would be able to work together when faced with these new challenges.
Throughout my career, it’s been reinforced over time that it is the relationships that count. Whether you’re dealing with loss, whether you’re pushing forward—it’s the resilience, the endurance that you find through relationships.
Those special people in your lives who are more like family—the small community represented by the Florida Forest Service—those folks who rally to you.
I wouldn’t say that’s been a surprising lesson. But it’s my biggest one. How people and relationships are tied into just about everything.
Alex: That’s excellent. After all this time in wildland fire, you might presume you have something that jumps to the top that’s associated with weather or the physics of fire or something like that. I think plenty of folks, for whatever reason, don’t want to acknowledge that this is a human endeavor, first and foremost. It’s about the people you do the thing with, right? The human topography.
George: Absolutely. What we call the “human factors”, or maybe the “soft skills”, the people stuff. I think that it’s the soft skills that hold the hard wiring together. Like you just mentioned, Alex. You could consider weather or equipment or tactics. But, to me, it keeps coming back to the people doing it and their relationships.
Alex: Do you happen to have a funny lesson that’s emerged in your experience over the years?
George: I’m a big proponent of the concept of “leaders are readers” and I always say please support your local public libraries. There’s a reason for that, very near and dear to my heart. My late wife, Michelle, “Misty”, was a librarian. The library system is my family. So one of the lessons that I’ve been laughing about lately is how people who know me know that I’m a Harry Potter super fan.
One of the lessons that came out of the book “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is embraced in this quote from the book: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”. I think when we’re going through these tragedies and difficult times, you have to find those learning opportunities. You have to find those quote/unquote, silver linings, and turn on the light—or those “wins” we discussed earlier.
And I’ve also adopted some new activities that are outside of my “normal” box that have helped the most. I’m now doing a lot more selfcare with yoga. I’m going road biking. And I’m taking care of plants and opening my office up and putting some plants in the office—this has also helped.
Spending time with my son, Eli, and our dog, Dakota, is also very important to me. Dakota—or “Snip Snap” as Misty nicknamed him—has become my emotional support/therapy support teammate.
I don’t always have much of a beard or much hair—but, for various reasons, I do now. I find myself going to hair stylist appointments and, believe it or not, that little bit of selfcare, that little bit of an escape, has been probably the quote/unquote funniest lesson.
So just trying to find those lighter moments has been kind of an amazing thing for me. My selfcare and some knowledge in Harry Potter just might be the funniest things I’ve got to offer here.