Painful Progress

 By Travis Dotson, Analyst

Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

[This article originally appeared in the 2023 Spring Issue of Two More Chains.]

2023 marks the 10-year anniversary of the heartbreaking deaths of 19 fellow firefighters on the Yarnell Hill Fire. Everything “Yarnell” is an especially difficult bundle of turmoil to revisit for a variety of reasons.

The mood at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC) in early July 2013 was somber—dark even. It was brutal. We were stunned and felt lost. Some of us wondered about our worth as an organization. It was hard not to question our value after a wildland fire tragedy of this magnitude.

We were born of a similar event in 1994. Some voiced the perspective that the LLC existed “so something like this never happens again.” But it did happen again. It was a tough pill to swallow.

Ten years seems like an important marker and an opportunity to face some hard questions head on. Did we learn anything? Has anything changed? Are we honoring the fallen? Those are brutal queries because they acknowledge the possibility of an honest “No” answer. For us here at the LLC, a “No” is hands-down failure.

The Yarnell Hill Fire was traumatic. Obviously, those people in the proverbial bull’s eye—the families of the fallen and the folks on scene—took the biggest hit. The ripples ran right through the rest of the fire service. You’d think we would come together and bond in healing. Instead, much of our community divided itself into factions and busied themselves tearing each other down. The continued existence of those rifts is discouraging.

From the perspective of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, a single element of the post Yarnell climate is most concerning: The notion that nothing was learned. The prevalence of that perspective is disheartening. It’s also not accurate.

Learning in the aftermath of tragedy is guaranteed—at least at the individual level. Survivors learn to cope with their new reality. Those directly involved learn the level of support they can expect from their employer and their community. This level of learning is not what is meant when people say: “We didn’t learn anything from Yarnell”. In most cases, the learning they feel is missing is at the organizational level—as evidenced by the conspicuous absence of new policy, programs, checklists, courses, or equipment.

The Natural Arc of Improvement

Complicating the problematic notion that nothing was learned is the fact that many feel there is no need to learn from this event. They suggest the lessons available are merely reinforcements of previously existing knowledge such as “Don’t hike through the green” or “Follow the 10 & 18”. Fair enough, not bad advice.

But, for so many, that view lacks depth, compassion, and the humility required to learn. Consider this excerpt from the “Student of Fire” section of Learning in the Wildland Fire Service:

“A student never assumes they have it all figured out. A student looks for the lesson. A student is willing to question their own beliefs.

This is humility.

Are you a student of fire?”

Yarnell seemed to reveal just how far we had progressed on the journey toward the elusive label of “Learning Organization”.

Previous tragedies revealed that human dynamics are complicated, and fire doesn’t always do what we think it’s going to do. Post Yarnell conflict confirmed that we are not all on the same page about the most beneficial view to take in reviewing fireground decisions. While some feel it is useful to look back and point out what should have been done, others insist we focus on trying to understand how the decisions in question made sense at the time. While this gap in philosophical perspective has certainly been illuminated in the tumult surrounding Yarnell, it did not stymie the natural arc of improvement.

The passage of time will always result in change, regardless of the circumstances. What, if any, change can we trace directly back to Yarnell? And of that change, what can be seen as growth? Growth feels positive. It seems important to spend some time in the realm of positivity at this juncture.

So How Have We Grown?

1. We Expanded Who “We” Are.

Our hearts were softened by the enormity of the grief. Not unlike the rampant patriotism after 9/11, our community came together and identified as one big family in the immediate aftermath of a horrific event. Of course, we also fell into divisiveness, pandering, and conspiracy theory just as fast. But an element of widening the circle of who we acknowledge and include did remain.

We instinctively knew that Dispatchers were indeed in the trenches and suffer the impacts of trauma in every way. We grappled with unspoken beliefs about who was and was not a “real” hotshot crew. We had to face the federal ego as it wavered between “Not our problem” and “We want influence”.

Wildland fire is a big family—one big, blended, dysfunctional family. We suffer together whether we like the set up or not. Yarnell put our “Us and Them” mentality on blast. Some folks doubled down on exclusivity. Many took the opportunity for self-reflection concerning our attitudes and actions regarding the vast diversity of our family.

This ultimately resulted in greater inclusivity. Dispatch, Fire Departments, ALL IMT members (not just Ops)—those people so often excluded from the composite persona of “Wildland Firefighter”—are more a part of the picture now than ever before. I see them at the table. I hear their voices in critical places. Collectively, we have gotten better. We have grown our definition of “Us”.

2. We Grew Some Acceptance Around Risk.

Discussions about risk, acceptable loss, and normal work had certainly been ongoing long before June 30th, 2013. But in the immediate aftermath of Yarnell, the context, interest and intensity of those conversations expanded. At the same time, there was legitimate fear that nothing would change—no lasting lessons would emerge or take hold.

As a result of that fear, and sensing a window was open, our culturally-condoned “Bias for Action” kicked in. The following excerpt (below) is from the introduction to the most recognizable and influential piece of writing to emerge as a direct result of Yarnell: “The Big Lie” essay by Mark Smith, published on the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program blog in June of 2016.


Coalescing in the wake of the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire and loss of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Honor the Fallen (HTF) is a collection of roughly 30 “seekers” within the wildland fire community.

What the group seeks is best explained by one of its founders:

“One of the few acts of free will that tragedy leaves within our control is the chance to grow. Our brothers have given us such a precious and hard-won opportunity to learn new knowledge and apply lessons. We realize and seek to highlight that cultural and other human factors risks are just as profound and potentially deadly as physical risks on any incident.

The results WILL be repeated unchecked unless we commit to looking inside, to looking deeper at how we think, how we talk and how we perceive ourselves.

Our end state is that the group’s efforts became a catalyst for continued cultural introspection into how human factors affect our decisions. The engagement generates a watershed event from the fire, having provoked thought, dialogue, questions and explorations in all corners of the wildland fire community. Yarnell Hill leads to a stronger, more self‐aware and more resilient wildland fire culture.

Our effort was perceived as having rendered due honor and respect to the Granite Mountain Hotshots.


“The Big Lie” was a well-timed torpedo that blew up the debate about “Safe”. It served as both enlightenment and as a universal reference point in all discussions of risk in the wildland fire service. In the Fall 2016 issue of Two More Chains, Dave Williams, currently a Regional Risk Management Officer, who was a District AFMO at that time, said: “The biggest revelation I had reading ‘The Big Lie’ was understanding and admitting to myself that this job can’t be done safely.”

This revelation was experienced by much of our field-going workforce and, somewhat surprisingly, by a significant portion of our agency administrators. It was a proverbial dunk in the ice water followed by an intensive stare session with the mirror. The post Yarnell climate led a lot of horses to water. And Mark Smith pushed a bunch of them straight into the deep end.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots’ gear displayed at their memorial service at the Prescott Valley Event Center on July 9, 2013. Photo by the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

Can We Claim Any Sort of Cultural Catharsis?

Growth from the ashes of Yarnell occurred on many fronts in many individual lives. In most cases, preceded by dark days and deep despair. Not everyone made it out of the hopelessness. But as a community, can we claim any sort of cultural catharsis? I submit that we can.

The combination of a bigger “Us” and acceptance around the absence of “Safe” has, in fact, grown our ability to engage on multiple fronts in a more thoughtful and realistic manner. Organizational preparation for casualties in all corners of our community is proof of progress. We have taken enormous steps forward on our journey toward truly “taking care of our own”.

To be clear, these efforts had champions well before 2013. But the resistance they faced was steadily eroded in the aftermath of that tragic year. On the last day of June ten years ago, our collective heart broke open and through the tears we have steadily put one foot in front of the other.

Let’s claim the growth and use it to fuel more.

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