[This is the “One of Our Own” feature on Heath Cota that is in the Latest Issue of Two More Chains.]
In this rich conversation with Kelly Woods, Heath Cota shares many important insights on a wide range of significant subjects, including: how to turn dialogue into action; the importance of fostering an inquisitive mindset; and his own take on critical thinking. Besides his wildland fire background—that includes hotshot superintendent, District FMO, and Director of the National Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program (WFAP)—Heath also shares revealing insights into his personal life, and how his professional work has helped influence and enrich his own life, what Heath calls his “human journey.”
By Kelly Woods, Director
Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
Kelly: “I really appreciate you doing this. It’s my pleasure to get to talk to you.”
Kelly: “I have some questions in front of me trying to focus a little bit on the “Dialogue” Pillar of Learning in the Wildland Fire Service. But at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center we’re also just interested in you and your evolution as a leader, as a fireman, and what you’ve learned along the way.”
Heath: “I totally get it. Let’s just have a conversation between good friends. I have no shortage of gopher holes to chase with you on this subject.”
Kelly: “It’s awesome how you’ve covered so many things in your career. So that’s where I want to start. I’d like you to tell us who you are and where you work.”
Heath: “Like Eric Carlson’s existential question of who am I and why am I here? [Eric is a retired U.S. Marine who works with the company OMNA to develop and deliver staff rides and leadership training.] I’ve found this to be a very profound and appropriate question and I’m in agreement with Eric. It’s a question we should ask ourselves often.
So who am I and why am I here? I’m currently the Branch Chief for Workforce Development, Training, and Education for the U.S. Forest Service. And I’ll explain the education piece as we go on, but that’s not who I am—that’s what I do.
Who I am is, I started in 1994 on a hotshot crew, the Kern Valley Interagency Hotshots. That initial year was startling for somebody coming in off the streets.
I had a daytime job. I was a file clerk for the Superior Court at Kern County. And I’d been taking forestry classes at Bakersfield Junior College. That file clerk job was killing me because I was literally working in the city of Bakersfield’s old bomb shelter and filing. That’s all I did, file all day long. It was this gigantic dark place. All they did is run files up and down a dumb-waiter. I would receive them. Go file them, pull files. That’s all I did.
You know, I really just had this moment of like: ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ Like I need to find a career. And this isn’t it.
I literally had one of those, you know, breakdowns on my hands and knees—like, show me a way, God. I knew at that moment I had to make a change. So, I called Rick Haffenfeld, the Fire Management Officer for the Bakersfield Bureau of Land Management District and one of my teachers at Bakersfield Junior College, and said: ‘Hey, Rick, I was your student last semester, and I really want a job fighting fire.’
It’s 1994. So, it’s an epic season. And he was like: ‘Great, you can start on Monday.’
When I told Rick I would quit my job with the county and be there, he said they could only hire me as an AD [administratively determined employee]. I had no idea what that meant. But he explained that he could only guarantee me two weeks of work. I told Rick: ‘You don’t understand, this is going to work out.’
I got off the phone, went upstairs, and quit my job. The only job I’ve ever walked out on with such short notice. Rick told me I needed boots. I went out and bought a crappy pair of boots. At that time, I didn’t have the money to spend on a pair of Whites.
I showed up Monday for duty at the fire station. I swept the cache and showed up Tuesday and swept the cache . . . I started questioning this new job.
Then four other folks working on the District and I got a call to go on an interagency Type 2 crew. We jumped on a bus and picked up all these people and went to the Horizon Fire in Yosemite National Park. I started that night as a firefighter on this Type 2 interagency fire crew.
After I got home from that assignment, I got a call from Anthony Escobar, the Superintendent of the Kern Valley Hotshots who I had met in my Introduction to Forestry class at the college when I had no idea what a hotshot crew was. Anthony said, ‘We have a fire assignment, and we want to take you.’
After a few weeks, when we were on the Idaho City Complex, I just knew that I had found my path. There was a pivotal moment. I called my girlfriend from the camp phone super early one morning and said: ‘Let’s get married. I’m going to do this for the rest of my life. I found my career.’
‘When does fire season end?’ she asked. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘They won’t tell me.’ I finished the rest of the season with Anthony and the crew.
Cherise and I decided we’d get married on Veteran’s Day weekend—Saturday, November 11, 1994. Twenty-eight years later, I’m fully rooted in service and dedication to my family, my wife, and my three kids.”
Kelly: “Wow, that’s a wild story.”
Heath: “You know, when I look back at 1994, I didn’t have the words to describe what I was experiencing on the crew. Today I do. I saw leadership. I saw team cohesion. I experienced being a part of something that was bigger than myself. And I saw service to communities and a greater good.
I became absolutely enamored with it. I knew that this was what I would do for the rest of my life. And so that started my career in wildland fire. I spent 10 years there on Kern Valley. They were amazing years of my life working for Anthony Escobar, Ron Napoles and with Leif Mathiesen.
In 1999, I got the apprenticeship position with Kern Valley. I became a permanent fixture. This is when I really started growing as a leader and a hotshot. Part of the power that was there under Anthony’s leadership was that we devoured books at an astonishing rate as a group. We would sit in the office and read books and have dialogue and conversations about the concepts. We would try to implement these concepts. We would test things and hone our skills every summer.
We would ask the question: ‘What does this mean to us?’ We studied business leadership. We studied operational leadership. We studied everything from the battlefield to the ‘General Electric Way’, looking for ideas to incorporate innovation and creativity from the corporate world to the tactical world. It was such a rich environment.”
Anthony had us teaching a Basic 32 Fire Course—a recruitment effort, an eight-week night course designed to prepare wildland firefighters for their first assignment—at Bakersfield Junior College. He, Ron, and Leif would initially do most of the instruction. A few of us on the crew would do all the prep work. It was this crawl, walk, run approach—and then eventually, you know, hey, you’re teaching Unit 2. Anthony and Ron would give us feedback on our presentation and our instructor skills. They were such great examples and helped to develop our skills.
Anthony modeled this continual learning aspect. He was going to school; he was improving himself. He never stops and he’s still seeking that today. And so, as a young impressionable hotshot crew member, that’s what I saw. It really sparked me to recognize as young people, we model our leaders. Anthony and Ron modeled continuous learning, improvement, investment, and all of those things into our lives.
It was powerful and so formidable. It shaped the rest of my career and who I am today.
Back in those days on Anthony’s crew, we presented sort of a mystery to people who would come into our office from the outside. It was like, what are you guys doing? We’d have dry erase boards on every wall with stuff like design elements. We’d be brainstorming all the time based off whatever book we were then reading. How do we implement this? How do we design the best hotshot crew and how do we build the next best tool? How do we build the perfect superintendent truck, how do we best modify the buggies? It was just this spirit of innovation and creativity.
It was constant learning that I will always feel blessed to be a part of.”
Kelly: “That’s so awesome. What a great way to get started in your career. And really plant that curiosity and the dialogue, as you say, because so much learning happens there. Curiosity and Dialogue are two of our Pillars of Learning.
What does learning in the wildland fire service mean to you?”
Heath: “Ooh. I love the document Learning in the Wildland Fire Service. It really is a doctrinal piece of wildland fire. It’s a cornerstone in a learning organization and speaks to what it should be like in our line of work. It’s a primer. It sets a foundation for everything that we’re trying to accomplish—the inquisitive mindset, creating opportunities for learning and practicing the dialogue. Training, education and experience are all such cornerstones. A key thing that I have been trying to drive is the training and education continuum that’s outlined in that document.
In my position today, training is one aspect and education is the other—they’re 50/50.
As time goes on and experience is gained, the need for education increases. I think, culturally, we kind of lump everything into training, right? But we have intentionally added the notion of education into the mix. There’s so much of what we’re doing right now—or are in the process of developing—that is truly education. Stuff like staff rides, our leadership courses, after action reviews, sand table exercises, tactical decision games . . . All of that is education because it hits a different aspect of what goes on cognitively, influencing our behaviors and our attitudes.
Like it says in the Learning in the Wildland Fire Service document, in education the question is more important than the answer.
That’s the value in it. The critical thinking and using judgment and how we look at the problem. It’s not a multiple-choice question or a fill-in-the-blank. It’s deeper than that. It’s that mind, body, and spirit we are training with a holistic approach. And I think that is the piece that the Learning in the Wildland Fire Service document really draws out.”
Kelly: “When we ask that question—‘What does learning in the wildland fire service mean to you?’—most people don’t go straight to the document and the principles within it. It’s impressive that you went right there.”
Heath: “That document nails it. It hits the values-based approach to learning. We have a responsibility as leaders to create opportunities for learning every chance that we can get.
There’s also another important piece. That leaders are always under observation. Like Eric Carlson says, we have to practice what we preach. So, there’s this ownership of it. It heightens it—the responsibility for modeling what we teach.”
Kelly: “What is the relationship that you see between the three Pillars of Learning—Inquiry, Opportunity, Dialogue—and workforce development? How do they connect?”
Heath: “You know, it’s fostering that inquisitive mindset. Providing the opportunity to practice and experience something outside of the normal classroom environment. Being willing to generate and listen to dialogue. Venues like staff rides with their ‘preliminary study’, the ‘field study’ and then the ‘integration’ hit on all three of those elements. And I think about the Dialogue Pillar as the mortar between the bricks.
When you look at all of the Pillars of Learning, there’s the Dialogue piece that ties all of that in. The dialogue is like the sensemaking of the situation. We really value that dialogue in a training course, what happens in the hallways after
class. You know, where we’re sharing ideas and discussing the content and trying to make sense of it all. Culturally, we are all about dialogue through war stories, the ‘no sh*t, there I was’ things we’ve passed down through time. It’s all dialogue.
Inquiry, Opportunity, and Dialogue are not only improving our technical and tactical competencies, but also our behaviors and attitudes. The one piece I think that’s missing is: What is the end? What does it all mean? Is it qualifications-based? Is it trying to get to the next point in my career?
To me, I think it crosses so many professional and personal and social values. I think it would behoove us culturally to identify what is the end state that we’re trying to achieve.
I’ve thought about this long and hard. I think in a holistic training and education system we’re trying to develop leaders. We’re trying to develop communicators. We want persons of character.
We want people to be physically and mentally fit throughout their career. We want people who are technically and tactically proficient. It’s about developing the whole person.”
Kelly: “You just said something that really stuck with me. That the dialogue is the mortar between the bricks. I love that because that’s how I am. You know me, I talk my way through things. That’s how I get some clarity and perspective. So can you recall a conversation that you’ve had during your career that has really stuck with you and shaped you?”
Heath: “Yes. I’ll give you a couple stories.
The first one is about my first Father’s Day after my first child, my daughter Cameron, was born. I grew up without a dad. I was raised by a single mom. So, when I came to the hotshot crew, I didn’t have a breadth of worldly experience. I didn’t know how to catch a pop fly. I didn’t know how to do much of anything, you know. I was just this kind of goofy kid off the streets. Honestly, I learned everything on the hotshot crew.
And growing up without a father, Father’s Day didn’t mean much to me. We were on a fire in Northern California somewhere, huddled around Anthony for a briefing. Then he ends with: ‘Cota, you’re staying here.’
What’s going on? What did I do? And the rest of the crew takes off.
Anthony looks at me and tells me: ‘It’s Father’s Day. Here’s my cell phone. You can get three bars at the top of that hill. You’re going to go up there. You’re going to call your wife. You’re going to spend some time. Talk on the phone and then come back down when you’re ready.’”
Kelly: “Wow. That’s amazing.”
Heath: “So I hiked to the top of that hill. I made the call, talked to my wife, heard Cameron, my infant daughter say, ‘Goo goo’ and ‘Gaa’ on the phone. I was elated. I came back down to tie-in with the crew. Anthony told me: ‘Stay here. Monitor the radio. This is a special day.’
I’ll tell you why that conversation stands out to me, that dialogue. It came from an interpersonal place not just from a learning the job standpoint. As leaders we’re responsible for the whole development of our people, not just tactically or technically. But—in mind, body and spirit. As leaders we have to know our people. That’s powerful dialogue.
Anthony knew my wife’s name. He knew my daughter’s name. He knew all the important things. He was invested in my life as a person. This was such a pivotal moment in my development.
There is a personal piece to this work, too. It’s such a human journey.”
Kelly: “For sure.”
Heath: “The other story that really comes to mind is when I was working as a Type 3 IC under Curtis Heaton, who was an Operations Section Chief with the NIMO program at the time. I am being a good trainee driving Curtis around. We pull into the gas station for fuel and I’m doing all the good hotshot stuff. I’m washing the windows, topping off the fuel, cleaning up the trash. I look over and Curtis is chatting it up with a couple guys who had pulled up to the pump in their water tender.
Curtis is just spending time there talking to them. I’m done doing my stuff and he jumps in the truck. I asked him if he knew those guys. He said no. Then he told me the story that they’ve been on the fire for about seven days and where they’re from. It was clear he had made a connection with those guys.
And when he was done telling me about the water tender, he told me: ‘Don’t ever pass up an opportunity to talk to firefighters.’
And that stuck with me. It’s the human factors and the human nature of the business. There’s a direct tie into trust relationships with those stories. Frank Guzman recently told me: ‘Take time to build your trust relationships because you never know when you’re going to need them.’ [Frank retired in November 2022 as Assistant Director, Fire and Aviation Management, U.S. Forest Service.]
There’s a lot of power to that statement. We operate in a dynamic high-risk environment. How often does a simple conversation matter? And that’s all dialogue.”
Kelly: “Those are great examples of the power of dialogue. How do you turn dialogue into action or learning?”
Heath: “There’s a couple different facets to that. I think you can look at the sensemaking around ideas and brainstorming and coming up with innovative ideas that comes with conversations. You can better frame the problem you are working through with dialogue.
But, personally, I think the power lies in the reflection. Leadership is this lifelong growth or learning. It’s a process. And so, reflecting on these conversations and my actions, my decisions, and how can I improve those things and feedback elicits a change. It elicits action.
I therefore think reflection is vital.”
Kelly: “And it takes time.”
Heath: “Yes, and then it has to turn into action. At some point we have to try things. You know, I failed a lot. I’ve tried things that just landed flat. There’s some of those things that I would do over and there’s some of those things that were part of the learning and growing process that I wouldn’t change.”
Kelly: “In your various career stops, what are some ways you have been successful in using dialogue to help people to learn and grow?”
Heath: “I go back to the idea of investing in our people. We all have the same amount of time—taking that time and investing in a conversation, getting to know someone. And sharing in that dialogue goes a long way. I think sharing a vision, purpose and direction is a key to motivation and a key to leadership.”
Kelly: “One key to dialogue that we haven’t mentioned is listening. It can be hard to be a good listener. How have you honed your skills as a listener?”
Heath: “I’ve been married for 28 years. If you talk to my wife today, she will tell you what happened after I took L380, Fireline Leadership and learned about active listening. She will tell you that it was a life-changing event in our marriage. And so that’s where I was going earlier. It’s not just our professional lives, but all of this also saturates into our personal lives.”
Kelly: “Absolutely. I feel like my leadership skills at work and as a mom translate back and forth. Learning to have dialogue, to create opportunities, to listen and provide guidance is what we’re trying to do as parents. And it’s what we should be doing as leaders, as peers, and as subordinates. These are good life lessons that apply well beyond the work environment.”
Heath: “Yes. It’s a holistic approach. Socially, professionally, and personally—that’s where our values come into play and how we determine how to navigate the fields in which we operate. At the end of the day, we want to be good people.”
Heath: “We have to be listening to connect with folks. To understand their perspective, you have to seek it.
The Forest Service Round Table is a cool event that we in the Training and Workforce Development group have been hosting. Kelly, you’re a coach for us. You’ve seen how incredible it is to hear from the GS 5-9s from all over the country. We travel to unique places like the historic Harpers Ferry and Antietam battlefields or to the Dude Fire and Yarnell Hill Fire sites.
As an agency, we have invested in folks with the Round Table. It’s an opportunity for dialogue with subordinates, peers, and senior leaders. It’s investing in our people. It’s the holistic approach to learning.”
Kelly: “Absolutely. You’ve got all three Pillars there. You create the Opportunity; you provide them content to make them curious and have Inquiry. You follow up with incredible Dialogue. It’s an amazing program. I feel very lucky to get to participate in it.
Is there any point in your career when you wish you, or someone, had initiated some dialogue or had a hard conversation that didn’t take place?”
Heath: “That’s a big one, Kelly.
There’s been times when I wish I would have handled something differently. Where I felt so unprepared for a circumstance, you know. I’ll share this with you. You know the one thing that I look back on the most is when I was an FMO and I had an engine captain take his own life. And that was a point in my life where I found myself trying to reconcile what I should or could have said. I think about what I had said—and what I didn’t say. And I’ll never know what I could have done differently.
I struggled with that for years. And you know what? The powerful thing was when we got the notification, I picked up the phone and called Brit Rosso [then Director of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center and former Superintendent of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshot Crew]. And Brit said, ‘Call Kurt LaRue’ [former Superintendent of the Diamond Mountain Hotshots]. When I called Kurt, he told me: ‘OK, I’m on my way. Call Vicki Minor’ [then Director of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation]. You know, my friends showed up.
It was in the early development of the CISM [Critical Incident Stress Management] program. Suddenly, I was surrounded by hotshot buddies who were there to support me and to talk with me. They also invested their time with my people.
But that’s when I always wonder: ‘What could I—or should I—have said?’”
Kelly: “That’s a heartbreaking story.”
Heath: “Yes. And, again, it highlights the importance of the very personal human aspect of all of this.”
Kelly: “With your career progression from hotshot to FMO to national-level program leader positions, what is something that you miss about being at the tip of the spear?”
Heath: “That’s a great question.
I always thought the hotshot superintendent job was the best job in the Forest Service because I had this sphere of influence operationally with all these young people that were coming in. I have this opportunity to pour into them whatever experience I had to offer them. That was the best part.
You know, it’s kind of weird. I think there was a time where I was potentially on the cusp of maybe becoming ineffective as a superintendent. I was getting frustrated with what I couldn’t change. What I couldn’t influence. And that’s what drove me to become an FMO where I might have more opportunity to influence change at a higher level in the organization. And that drive is what ultimately pushed me to the national WFAP [Wildland Firefighter Apprentice Program] job and to my current job.”
Kelly: “What’s the most important aspect of your current job? Where do you put the most energy to exercise your influence?”
Heath: “The boots on the ground are my soul. It’s why I do this.
You know what I couldn’t change as a hotshot superintendent, I tried to influence as an FMO. And then when I when I reached the limits of an FMO, I knew that I had to think bigger and about where I could have more influence. So, I went to WFAP with 450 students a year. I could directly influence future generations of leaders, managers, and FMOs. All of that to say, being the superintendent of the Sawtooth Hotshots was probably, honestly, the most rewarding position I’ve ever held as a steward. That is when it dawned on me that I am a steward.
You know, I think there’s a piece there where we value taking ownership in the crew and the district, and you have to have ownership. But as a superintendent, it dawned on me that I’m a steward of this position.
And the day I leave, somebody else will fill this role and they will carry on. And you know, when I left, Mike Krupski took the crew to a fire as the superintendent and they passed me on the highway. I saw them drive by and it was like I am a steward of these positions. As a steward, that changes the mindset one needs. I have a responsibility to everybody who came before me and everyone who will come after me in this role because I won’t be here forever. It’s not mine. I’m a steward.”
Kelly: “That’s an awesome perspective. I really like that because that’s the best we can do is look at it that way. It’s about providing the service, carrying on the mission, improving the program. But it’s also about identity. If your identity is in what your job is, it’s hard to leave and it’s hard to stay fresh and grow and offer new opportunities and bump your influence up to a different level. That’s a tough thing.”
Heath: “Yes, it’s not about me. It’s about the greater good and asking where your experience and what you have to offer can best influence the future.
That’s what’s really important.
My son works for the U.S. Forest Service today. You know, I want to build a better fire organization for my son and for generations to come. That might sound a little altruistic, but it’s the truth. That’s just the way I operate. You know, that’s my motivation.”
Kelly: “Do you have a biggest or most important lesson you’ve learned to date in your career?”
Heath: “I think fire is the canvas or the medium in which we execute our art. We are trying to perfect the art, the art of leadership, the art of suppression skills, incident management skills. Whether you’re learning how to perfect the art of swinging a super pulaski or managing a Division or becoming an IC or an FMO or a Duty Officer, it’s all perfecting the art.
And it’s a journey, and it’s a process. It’s all about leadership, relationships and character. Fire is just the medium.”
Kelly: “We always like to end our ‘One of Our Own’ interviews on sort of a light note. So, I would like to hear about one of the best shifts of your career. You probably have lots to choose from and lots of variety. Maybe it was tough duty when you were leading the crew. Maybe it was when you were, you know, running a saw all day. Maybe it was the day the contract was finalized to move WFAP to the Southeast at Solon-Dixon. We started this conversation talking about who are you and why are you here. No pressure, but your answer could be revealing.”
Heath: “Oh my gosh . . . there’s a lot.
There was a shift in San Gabriel Canyon in 1996 on Kern Valley. We had this really diverse crew. It was a motley crew. But Anthony and Ron had done such an immense job, everybody had bought into the mission.
On this shift, crews were stacked up to start going direct on this piece of ground. We anchored in and we cut line all the way. It was so steep, nobody could bump because they would just kick rocks. This became a safety concern.
Four other crews had to take a nap that night because our crew was just going after it and there was no feasible way for anybody to hike up around us and take a bump. Our crew cut line all the way to the top of San Gabriel Canyon. The next morning, they put rappellers in along the ridge to insert crews over there. They were going to cut line toward us. But we had cut line all the way up and three-quarters of the way across the ridge before those other crews got flown in and even pulled rope.
The other superintendents on the hill that day just looked at Anthony, shook their heads, and walked away. It was like we were so unstoppable. It was such a defining moment for me physically, spiritually, and mentally. I don’t even know, you know, like the brush was so thick and it was so gnarly.
And so that was like this defining moment for me in that arena that was like: ‘Dude, if I can do that, there’s nothing I can’t do’.”
Kelly: “That’s awesome.”
Heath: “In more recent years, I was with WFAP. I had just been at the Academy and gone to visit my family in Bakersfield. And my mom, my sisters, and I were all at an Olive Garden restaurant. We were waiting in line for our table. This young man approaches me and says: ‘Excuse me. Do you work for the Forest Service?’ I said I did. He started talking. He was one of the apprentices that had come through the Academy. He told me: ‘What you had to say at that time was so impactful to me. I just want to say thank you.’
That sent me back on my heels. It was like, wow, you really can make a difference as an individual in this big giant system of wildland fire.
It totally reinforced how you can positively influence peoples’ lives.”
Kelly: “That’s amazing. And it also reinforces that as leaders we are always under observation.”
Heath: “Yes. You never know.”
Kelly: “What did your mom say? Was she just glowing with pride?”
Heath: “She asked: ‘Who is that?’ I explained he was one of my students from two years ago. She said: ‘And he remembered you?’
It was interesting for her to see that. Because, honestly, I don’t know that moms never really, truly know what we do.”
Kelly: “That’s for sure. As you said earlier, it’s the human journey of it all. It’s about who am I, and why am I here, and the scope of influence.”
Heath: “The training and education continuum over time and experience, that’s what we’re trying to achieve. We are developing that leader, communicator, person of character, physically, mentally fit, technical and tactically proficient person.
The other piece is to instill humility in folks. Humility is one of my personal core values. Given my humble upbringing, I’ve always approached my job from a state of humility. I don’t pretend to know the answers. I don’t. I have some good ideas.
And I really draw in from others to improve and shape and foster those ideas. But I think humility is key. For one, it gives me the stance to recognize when I’m wrong. I might not be seeing things appropriately. And then the other key in the context of learning is to recognize that I will never be done—you’re always learning.
I learn something new every day and in every conversation. I think there’s always these interesting pieces that make me step back in thought and force me to keep an open mind to the fact that I don’t know everything. And I will never be done learning and it’s perfecting the art.”
One thought on “Perfecting the Art of Leadership and Learning”
Thank you for posting this excellent interview. It is inspiring.