Opening a Space for Dialogue that has Never Closed

[This is the Cover Story featured in the Latest Issue of Two More Chains.]

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

“Erik, come up here.”

The Assistant on my Fire Module called me over the crew freq. to come to his location. What Scott wanted I couldn’t really guess. We were on a large fire—my first large fire as a crew boss trainee—trying to scout a slopover to start putting in line to tie it back into a road. As it turned out, the slopover wasn’t really a slopover, it was the entire north flank of the fire. The fire had started to build and move up the slope.

I walked up to near where Scott had been and gave a shout. I angled toward his reply and got closer and closer to the flank of the fire, which I judged to be building for a run. I was starting to get a little nervous—why was he calling me up here?

Soon, we stood side by side, watching the fire torch groups of fir trees, flare up into the scattered patches of brush, and send small cascades of embers up the hill, parallel to us. He offered me some Skittles. “I just wanted you to see this.” We stood there together in silence and watched embers land, then take life, then grow. The fire didn’t run while we were there, it just pulsed, threw embers, and gobbled-up new ground as the spots all grew together through the tightly-packed needle cast.

When I think about that year, this interaction is usually one of the first memories that come to mind. I remember it fondly. Our plan—pick up the fire edge and tie it back into the road at the bottom with handline—wasn’t going to work. We took a few minutes to just sit back and watch fire carry out its plan for the day. I remember it so vividly. But what I don’t remember is, what did I learn? Because in those minutes, I learned, no doubt about it. We didn’t stand idle long. We soon made a new plan, and with more resources, engaged the fire again. Ultimately, the pulsing torching and spotting returned and developed into a crown run. After a brief time sitting in a rock scree, the crew walked out our escape route and watched the fire go to the top.

Six wildland firefighters at night facing the glow of a fire.
A small contingent of the crew watching a night firing operation on the Reading Fire.

Memory vs. Reality

Part of me doesn’t even want to go back to that memory and try to reverse engineer what I took in. The reality is that whatever I learned, my brain has piled on layers and layers of experiences and lessons and misconceptions on top of it.

I live near where that fire, the 2012 Reading Fire in Lassen Volcanic National Park, burned. In early October of 2022, I went back to look for these places that have lived in my memory and changed as I recreate the memory, again and again.

The Reading Fire area largely reburned in 2021 in the nearly one-million-acre Dixie Fire. I returned there hoping to find a legible story, something like: “It burned less severely here because this is where we fired-off that hillside, way back in 2012.”

In reality, the complexity of fire effects and of my own memory conspired against me and what I saw was a muddle. Some places had nuked, some lightly underburned and some were seemingly untouched. That hillside where I had stood with Scott and watched the spots that day was now dense brush with bleached snags. It burned severely in 2012 and not at all in 2021.

What Lesson was Intended? What did I Learn?

When I look at the decade of my career that followed that fire, I can see wins and losses, miscalculations and good calls that came, in part, from watching that fire grow. The obvious analogy is that moment was an ember, and from it, and all the others, the spots came together over time. But is that true? What lesson did Scott, the Module Assistant, intend? And what did I take in? It could be that many embers landed on dirt.

What I learned from watching that fire and eating those Skittles continues to change and be reinterpreted and recontextualized. If I had just walked down the hill, tied-in with the crew, and come up with a new plan, we would have watched from afar as the column grew and the fire steadily marched to the top of the peak. As it is, because I was told to “see this,” I think back to that moment and what it meant. To put it in terms of the Pillars of Learning from Learning in the Wildland Fire Service, the spirit of Inquiry and the seizing of the Opportunity were there. The Dialogue we had was minimal at the time, but now would likely be copious, hours-long.

What did it mean to me at the time? I think it meant, among other things: I was part of a club now; a man I respected immensely thought I was worthy of being shown something that he (correctly) didn’t think I had had the opportunity to see up close before; and that fire is dangerous but it isn’t magical—it can’t get you just because you dared to look at it.

A colored topographic map that shows the location of the 2012 Reading Fire, the 2021 Dixie Fire, and the 2012 Chips Fire.
Significant fires in the Northern Sierra in the last 10 years.

A Turning Point

Years later what do I see? I see the value of mentorship and how the high turnover in our organizations can short-circuit that. (Two years later, neither of Scott nor I worked on that Forest.) I see how as much as I sought experience and skills, I sought identity just as much.

Opportunities like this over the next several years of my career made it possible to re-engage that mentorship with new mentors in new settings. The accumulation of moments like this one also, over time, helped me understand what identity means to me. Conversations on hillsides, at helispots, and on long drives changed the way I saw myself and my career; not all at once, but slowly and steadily.

Another vivid memory from that same assignment on the Reading Fire in 2012 was standing on a high point at the top of a steep stretch of line and looking out to the south, where the view was uninterrupted for many miles.

In front of me were the westward-sloping ridges of the Northern Sierra, with green forest visible as far out as my eyes could resolve. In my recollection, a DC-10 flew over, high up, not intended for this fire. On the southern horizon was a column of smoke that, at the time, was one of the largest, most defined, tallest columns I had ever seen. Later, I learned that a fire had gone big on the nearby Plumas National Forest, a fire in the North Fork Feather River Canyon called the Chips Fire. No doubt the tanker was heading loaded from Redding to drop on it.

Standing burned trees with their burned ground, as well as green ground cover vegetation. A living green tree is in foreground and green trees surround this meadow opening in the distance.
Variable fire effects where the 10-year-old Reading Fire area burned in the 2021 Dixie Fire.

Within the context of these last ten years, I see the Reading Fire as a turning point, both in my career and in my understanding of what was beginning to happen in the Sierra Nevada. It is hard to wrap my head around the fact that the entire area that was burning under that big Chips Fire column reburned in 2021, and that the Dixie Fire had filled that whole space between me and the horizon and had kept going. In a sense, these fires were in conversation with each other, in the same way all ecological processes are a cacophony of voices—some shouting, some whispering.

I had to get back this fall, before snow closed the Lassen Volcanic National Park road, to see these places again and try to understand what the fires had wrought. The curse of an introvert is that we are always in dialogue, but that much of that dialogue never leaves our own heads. I wanted to enliven my dialogue about the Reading Fire by seeing it again, beautifully underburned or nuked, and correct the drift that had built up over these years through my repeated recollections and embellishments.

Knowing the kind of firefighter and leader I was at that time, and who I strive to be now, I know that I struggled, and still struggle, to initiate and sustain dialogue. Through awkwardness and complacency, I let my natural tendency for introspection to allow opportunities for growth to pass by. I often find it more palatable to observe and think deeply than to ask the question and test my own observation against those of the people around me.

Scott and I said very little to each other in that moment that day back in 2012 on the Reading Fire, we were just observing. But Scott had seized that opportunity and, in so doing, he opened up a space for dialogue that has never closed.

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