The Realities of Managing Risk

[This is the “One of Our Own” feature that appeared in the 2023 Spring Issue of Two More Chains.]

Check out this enlightening conversation with Kelly Woods, Director of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, and Erin Phelps, currently acting as the Fire and Aviation Management Assistant Director of Doctrine, Learning, and Risk Management for the Washington Office of the U.S. Forest Service. Erin, a former hotshot and Forest Service district ranger, shares her unique perspective on the evolution of risk management, agency administrator engagement, and taking care of people.

Erin on the Mormon Lake Hotshot Crew in 2006.

 “When I think about Yarnell, it is such a daunting topic because it’s so complex. There are so many factors and there’s so much emotion and passion. Ten years later, we’re still processing and coming to grips with what really happened there and how it affected everyone in different ways.

I felt conflicted about even talking about Yarnell in this interview. Do I have a right to even speak to it? And that part of it was at the forefront of my mind. It kept me up at night a couple times as I thought about doing your interview because everybody owns a different piece of it.

I remember getting annoyed when I would go through a traumatic event—whether it was when I was still on a crew or as an agency administrator or just in life—and I’d hear different people’s reaction and think, ‘Well, why are you affected? You weren’t even there. You weren’t even involved in this. You were in a different state.’

I would like to think I’ve emotionally matured somewhat in the last 10 years. This includes realizing and acknowledging that somebody else’s grief or processing doesn’t take away from your own. Everyone was affected by Yarnell. In my mind, it was the defining event for my generation of fire. And I think we’re still figuring out what that means.”

Erin Phelps

Kelly: So, Erin, tell us about who you are and where you work, how you got your start in this business. Give us your background.

Erin: I work in the Washington Office of the U.S. Forest Service under Fire and Aviation Management as the Branch Chief for Fire Operations Risk Management. I’m currently acting as the Assistant Director over Doctrine, Learning, and Risk Management. I am a remote employee based in southern Idaho.

Prior to this job, I was a district ranger on the Payette National Forest for about three years. And prior to that, I was a district ranger in Montana on the Ninemile Ranger District of the Lolo National Forest for about three years.

I started in this business with the Bureau of Land Management back in 2003 when I was going to college at Eastern Oregon University. I did summer jobs on engines out of Boise BLM for two seasons. The year after I graduated college, I was lucky enough to get picked up on a hotshot crew out of Arizona. It was the then-called Pleasant Valley Hotshots out of Young, Arizona. I was quickly introduced to the Forest Service and hotshot world.

I did that for a season and then decided Young, Arizona was a little bit too remote. I moved to Flagstaff to work on the Mormon Lake Hotshots for the next couple years. Next, I did a season of rappelling on the Kaibab National Forest, and then went back to hotshotting with the Flagstaff Hotshots as a permanent there. I did that for a while and then kind of had a little bit of a quarter-life crisis with like, “What am I doing with my life? I want to use my degree.” I started to become aware of some of the impacts that the wildland firefighting profession was having on me both physically and personally.

And so, my hotshot superintendent at the time, Bill Kuche, was really supportive of me trying different things. In the offseason, I did a writer/editor detail with the Flagstaff Ranger District. Long story short, I eventually competed for the job and got it. I made a pretty quick transition over into NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) writing, which was really jarring. I know I’m not the only one to move from fire into NEPA, but man, it is a small group of us.

Kelly: I bet that was pretty jarring!

Erin: It was! In all seriousness, it took me a solid three years to come to grips with that transition, and I was still going out with some of the hotshot crews on the Coconino National Forest to help fill in for their numbers and to help me, frankly. I would also fill in with engines during the weekends or during high fire loads because I still needed that sense of community and wanted to keep my quals up. At that time, I still wasn’t sure where I wanted to go with my career.

I did that for a while and moved into a project manager position for the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project. After that project got through the major planning hurdles, I was encouraged and eventually made the decision to accept a detail opportunity in Montana as a district ranger in 2015. From there, I competed for the job and got it. And so, that’s kind of completing that circle. Went to district ranger land and then came back to fire at the national office, into the Branch Chief job in late 2021. I’m now focused on wildland firefighter health and wellbeing as well as risk management.

Kelly: Do you remember where you were when you first heard about the Yarnell Hill Fire and the events that took place there?

Erin: Yes. I was actually helping staff an engine from the Coconino on a pretty small lightning fire on the north end of the Prescott National Forest, near where the Coconino and the Prescott national forests join. We were down in a hole on that fire. The IC, a longtime friend, pulled me aside to let me know separately what had happened. I remember not knowing how to feel. It was so unreal. I don’t think I was unique in that response. It’s like, “19? How do you absorb that?”

I remember standing there for a while and then going back to mopping-up and still not knowing how to respond. We hiked out eventually and got into cell phone service. We all stayed there for probably a solid hour just trying to reassure family and friends that we were okay, but then also trying to get more information and trying to understand what had happened. I think everybody was, “How could this happen?”

Erin on the Flagstaff Interagency Hotshot Crew in 2009.

Kelly: I think you’re right about many folks having that reaction to not really know how to respond. The shock and the overwhelming nature of it. It was very hard to process.

Erin: For me, that continued throughout. I was in this weird limbo where I wasn’t a primary firefighter. I wasn’t a hotshot anymore, but that was still what I identified as my community. I was still in that process of trying to redefine myself outside of my identity as a hotshot. I felt this weird guilt over who am I to have a reaction, and who am I to feel this kind of strong emotion and to not know how to deal with it.

I wasn’t the most emotionally intelligent in my 20s, either. I couldn’t really put words to it. I wasn’t sure who I could talk to about it. Because, again, I didn’t feel like I had the right to some of that grief or that response. Speaking of the Coconino in particular, we tried to respond and figure out how to, I guess, move forward to things like the memorial. I remember I was bouncing between the district office, which is where I worked, and the fire office. I even had a non-fire district person say—just to me—”Well, I don’t really understand how this is a big deal. I mean, people die all the time.” I don’t think he realized the impact.

That felt like an invalidation of my own feelings. I just felt this weird push-pull and I ended up not attending the memorial because I didn’t feel like I had the right to that kind of grief. I watched the memorial from the weight room of the fire office by myself.

Kelly: Yeah. I think that the diverse reactions still exist and some of them have been fairly divisive. Did you feel those divided reactions at the time, or even still? What effect do you think that divisiveness has had on our community at large?

Erin: Yes. I kind of wonder how much of the divisiveness I feel right now can be traced back to some of the initial responses to Yarnell. I think, in some ways, thinking of my experience as a hotshot in Region 3, we had a different relationship with state or the nonfederal hotshot crews. I don’t feel like it was a hugely strong “Us versus Them” scenario. We had started to overlap with members from some of these nonfederal crews.

There are always close connections. It’s a small community. But I felt like Yarnell really did highlight that we’re all in this together. It prompted us to ask ourselves, “Is there anything that they did that we wouldn’t have been doing?”

It also felt like there was some finger-pointing at the people making decisions. Why were they there? How could this have happened? Why weren’t we watching out for them? And those same comments, I feel, still ripple through our community today. That divisiveness, that divide, between the folks making decisions and the folks in charge of implementing those decisions is real, for sure. That’s something that I’m really interested in. I’m also really interested in how we made those decisions, what risk management really looks like at the strategic level, and then how we take care of our folks. Not just when things go bad, but when the accumulation of the weight of the job starts to be realized. Because that is real.

I don’t know how to ever get over it completely. I think if we can work to understand each other, it would maybe go in more of that positive direction. When you go through something traumatic, you do tend to huddle with your peers. I remember having that response myself. I wanted to be with my former brothers and sisters on the shot crew. I wanted to be with them and not necessarily with my family or my outside friends. It was more of that fire community that I really wanted to be close with again. I had to really learn how to be more open and vulnerable with my non-fire friends and family to solidify—for me—a healthy support network. And it took me a very long time and some broken relationships to figure that out.

Kelly: When there is an event in fire, some unintended outcome or some very upsetting incident, it does seem like we group. It’s like, our families can’t necessarily understand, but our fire families can. That’s a huge coping thing.

What influences do you think that the years prior to Yarnell with incidents like Thirtymile and Cramer and the way that those fatalities, outcomes, and reports were handled had on our reaction to Yarnell?

Erin: This is a little bit from an outsider. Because I wasn’t in the thick of it like a lot of folks were. But it seems like, from what I could see, there was still that sense of who’s to blame here? There’s got to be somebody that made the decision that needs to be held to task. I think part of this is that we, as an interagency community, are still trying to figure out how to learn and gather information and build that trust and overcome some of that tendency to want to have a mindset of: “If we had just done X, nothing else would’ve happened. So if we fixed that X, this will never happen again.”

And I think on those events like Thirtymile and Cramer, they did try to find the X in a lot of ways. The Forest Service and some of our other partners have learned that doesn’t really work for us. We’ve learned that we have to ask different questions and we have to look at things differently to understand how we got to where the decisions were made and not try to pin it on a certain event or person or a component of situational awareness. We have to try to figure out what do we do as a system to contribute to this event.

I think those previous events also led us into understanding that we couldn’t come into Yarnell with that same kind of lens. I would say what we have collectively learned after Yarnell is that we can’t just have a checklist of things. We can’t control all the variables to a point where we will never have a bad outcome. Within the fire environment, there’s always going to be the complexity of human factors that you cannot always account for 100 percent.

Acknowledging those human factors and having that more deliberate entry into risk management conversations is the best chance of us managing what we do have control over.

Kelly: Changing gears just a little bit, do you remember reading Mark Smith’s essay “The Big Lie” when it first came out?

Erin: I do. I had moved to being a district ranger by that point. I’d had my first foray into agency administration over a wildland fire and was learning what that role was. I remember reading “The Big Lie” in 2016 and having this kind of sense of relief like, “Yes. Yes, this is spot on. Somebody is finally saying this. This is what we all kind of already know.”

I felt like it was the first time the reality of the job was actually articulated on paper, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I remember I had taken M581, Fire Program Management, and became the co-lead instructor for the Northern Rockies course for the agency administrator side. I leaned heavily on “The Big Lie” because I felt like agency administrators needed to read this. They need to understand it. And not just agency administrators. Everybody that touches wildland fire needs to understand that this is the reality.

Erin on the Mormon Lake Interagency Hotshot Crew in 2007.

Kelly: Since Mark first shared his “The Big Lie” essay, how do you feel like putting that discussion or that understanding into the room has affected wildland fire?

Erin: I think it’s really helped that conversation between line officers and fire in general. It’s helped to bridge that gap and understanding. I think it’s also led to, or influenced, things like the Forest Service Purple Ribbon Campaign which has evolved into A Preparedness Guide for Wildland Firefighters and Their Families. I remember I had a very similar reaction to the Purple Ribbon Campaign when I read it. It was this sense of, “Oh, thank goodness. We’re actually going to arm people to talk with their families about what this job really is.” I was proud of our agency for going there.

It feels like there is now this little bit of light in the tunnel for these really difficult conversations. It’s not just, “Oh, agency administrators don’t get it. No one gets it outside of the crew/engine/whatever.” I think it’s also that agency administrators and family members don’t know how to navigate some of that stuff. Because nobody wants to say, “Yeah. It’s okay if we lose a life,” or “Doing X to protect this value is worth a life.” That’s never a place where we’re going to be comfortable being. But how do we navigate the fact that that’s a reality, that there are people that are going to get hurt on our fires?

I think the response is: make sure that it’s a really well-thought-out decision, that there’s a value out there that is important and is worth taking on risk to protect. And, by God, we better be prepared to take care of these people when they get hurt.

I believe something else that came out of Yarnell is also the acknowledgement of the real need to take care of the survivors. And how do you take care of their families? And how do you work cross-boundaries? And who can do what for whom? The acknowledgement of what trauma does to us as a community has just really evolved since Yarnell. I think that’s a really good thing. We’ve needed to evolve. And we still do. We’ve seen how, when left unchecked or unaddressed, the trauma doesn’t just go away. It’s a responsibility of us all to make sure that we do have some support networks in place and take proactive management action. And, not to get too “WO-ee”, but right now we have the attention and support from folks in Congress and across Departments that we need to have a robust mental health program, beyond EAP. We are in a time of attention and support for conversations that we haven’t been in before, which is amazing and daunting and overwhelming—but, mostly, really darn encouraging.

Kelly: What would you say to somebody who says, “The lesson from Yarnell is don’t leave the black. Maintain LCES”?

Erin: I would say that’s a pretty strong disservice to what happened. It really ignores so many of the human factors and those really key learning points that we should take from that event. And it’s not just risk management alignment between decision-makers and folks on the ground. It’s all of those things that factor into a complex environment in which we interact. I feel like Yarnell really, really daylighted: “This is complex.” You can’t oversimplify it and just say: “If they would’ve just stuck to the black or if they would’ve just done LCES—none of this wouldn’t have happened.”

Kelly: How do you think our collective relationship has changed regarding the concepts of “safety” and “risk management” since Yarnell or “The Big Lie” was published and pushed the conversation?

Erin: I would say that there has been more of a desire to invest in risk management-specific positions. Part of that is because I think we collectively were recognizing that our approach to safety, with it being more compliance-based, does not capture the complexities of the environment. It’s not leading to necessarily better outcomes, and it’s just really missing the mark. That’s not a dig against safety. There’s obviously a role for safety in everything that we do. But it just wasn’t hitting the mark of a more enlightened approach, like: “Okay. So how do we actually manage a complex environment in a way that leads us to making the most informed decisions possible, recognizing that there’s always going to be factors outside of our control?”

Following a checklist is never going to get us there. Trying to follow a compliance kind of mindset is never going to get us there. So, I feel like there was this big acknowledgement that we need to take a different approach. We started seeing more and more risk management positions. And even to this day, there is that question of: “What is risk management and what is safety?”—because they overlap a lot. I also believe that the safety community has really evolved. It can’t just be compliance. Or, if it is compliance, then how are we picking up all those other pieces?

It’s also really led us to that hard look internally. Getting people in leadership positions to make those decisions to acknowledge that things are not necessarily always going to be accomplished or managed correctly with a checklist.

And it’s not a comfortable place to be. I’ve shared with agency administrators what I experienced as a wildland firefighter and what I observed from Yarnell. And, next, how I moved into an agency administrator role where we did have bad outcomes on my fires and on my forest. I became a bit of a zealot about the fact that you have to be prepared.

That is my number one advice. To make sure you are thinking through and communicating the values on the landscape, and the firefighters know why they’re there. As firefighters, I think we all have asked ourselves: “What the hell are we doing? Why are we here? This makes no sense. We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

That’s something I feel like all agency administrators, regardless of who you work for, need to hone-in on. You need to communicate why folks are there and what values they are protecting.

Personally, that launched me on this campaign of what is the value of an agency administrator. It’s not to tell jokes at briefing and it’s not just to defer to the Ops group when they’re telling you what’s going to happen out on the landscape. It’s to be involved in really uncomfortable conversations and to push and to understand how the strategies and the tactics fit in with that vision of why folks are there in the landscape. And then getting in front of firefighters, community members, etcetera, and owning those decisions: “Here’s the reason that we decided to bring you all here to help accomplish this strategy. This is why your work is important.”

I found that that helped bridge that gap with the fire folks on the ground. It also helped open-up conversations around risk management at a real-time level that I wasn’t able to have without understanding that role and that value of an agency administrator.

The Pleasant Valley Interagency Hotshot Crew on the Sawtooth National Forest in September 2005. Erin is in the front row second from the end on the right.

Kelly: That’s great. I think it’s acknowledging the risk you are asking folks to accept and explaining what the value is. It’s not just saying, “Safety is the number one priority. Now, go do this really dangerous work.” It’s active engagement.

Erin: It’s the acknowledgement that things are going to happen and how do you show up and how do you prepare. I’ve found that if I ask these three questions, whether to an IA IC at any level or my duty officer before we respond, or it could be to an Ops group: One–What is the connection to the values at risk that I outlined? Two–What’s our probability of success? And that’s an interesting one because while that’s really hard to pin down, it can lead to really good conversations. And, Three–Then how are we getting folks off the hill when something happens?

It’s a fatalist viewpoint. But it helps really spark some good conversations because it’s like, “Okay. If our only option is to rely on a short-haul ship to get somebody off if they twist an ankle, is it worth it? Is that really worth it?

And are there other options there?” And it’s not to say, “Oh, if we have a short-haul ship, then that mitigates risk and we should go ahead and go forward.” It’s more the accepting of, “Okay. There is risk here, and it’s probably at a Red level. Let’s talk through that. Is that still worth it?” Prior to some of this evolution, both within the fire community as well as the non-fire community, there was a sense of we can mitigate things away and everything is Green in a GAR (Green-Amber-Red) model, maybe some Yellow. But if it’s Red, we can mitigate it away and get it to Green so everybody is comfortable and happy and fluffy.

I think more and more, we’re recognizing sometimes there is Red and there is no way to mitigate that away. Is it worth it? Let’s make hard decisions and go into it with our eyes wide open. Having that conversation with the fire community allows everyone to understand that we’re acknowledging that there’s risky work that they do, too. We owe it to them to be prepared.

Kelly: I think something important to embrace is the concept of work as assigned versus work as performed. What’s it really like out doing the job. Things rarely go according to plan. But understanding that gap and that things happen is so important to building trust. It’s risky work. It’s variable work. There are a million different things that can happen when you put humans in an environment with all kinds of hazards. And so, to not expect that some accident might happen and to not be prepared is a pretty silly way to find yourself.

Erin: My own personal evolution on this is, I feel like in 2016, when Justin Beebe, a Lolo Hotshot, died on the Strawberry Fire. That rocked us on the Lolo National Forest.

I remember my FMO calling me and letting me know. I sat down on my bed and tried to absorb that news. Very similar, I feel like, in some ways, to how I responded to Yarnell. It was like, “I don’t know how to react to this.”

I remember even at that point wanting to go back with my fire folks, my fire friends, and those people I knew on the Lolo Hotshots. I very strongly pushed away my family and my fiancé. I was going into the basement and watching Game of Thrones on repeat in a dark, dark place.

I didn’t know how to deal with Justin’s death because I couldn’t quite rationalize it in my own mind. I wasn’t on the crew. I didn’t know Justin personally. I knew a lot of the crew members. But why is this affecting me so strongly? In hindsight, it hit me hard because I had an additional lens at that point. Not only did I still identify on some level as a hotshot, but now, as an agency administrator, I was in the seat of making strategic-level decisions about how and why to engage with wildfires. It could have easily been my fire that Justin died on. I had to sit with that, process and figure out what to do with it. It’s not a comfortable place.

We entered into a lot of conversations around, “All right. How are we going to talk about risk? How are we going to approach things differently this year going into the 2017 fire season?”

There was this commitment with the leadership group and the fire community. I remember having really robust conversations with my folks at Ninemile about, “All right. Where are those areas that we know we’re going to talk about differently before we enter into them, that we’ve already identified for fuels treatments because we know they’re so bad? We’re not even putting specialists out there to survey because they are gnarly areas, so we’re not going to just launch firefighters. We’re going to circle those areas with a pen and have a different conversation before we respond.” Thinking we had it kind of figured out entering that 2017 season—we had a really wet spring and we had starts up in those areas—and we said, “All right. We’re going to practice what we preach here.”

I felt like we did all of that. And then we didn’t get rain for weeks and it got really hot. They called it a “flash drought.” Who could have foreseen that? And, all of a sudden, things started just falling apart and everybody had a fire.

I’ll say this about the leadership group. We got numb to all of the incidents. We had a tree strike fatality on the hike into an IA. And then we had the tree strike fatality going indirect. And then there was this onslaught of things like bee stings and burned-over equipment and entrapments and probably far more things that we never heard about. It was just one thing after another. I just got kind of numb to it. I didn’t know how to respond other than to compartmentalize and move forward.

Going into the flash drought, I thought: “Okay. We’re making decisions to do the right thing. We’re not just going to default to the easy option. We’re going to think about this in a way that makes more sense from a strategic and risk management standpoint.”

And yet we still had such bad outcomes. It was just such a difficult reckoning for me.

Something I carried forward in talking with other agency administrators is you can do everything you possibly can to manage risk and you will still have really, really bad days. And that impact is real. And how do you take care of your folks throughout that? And then how do you take care of yourself as you go through that? I still get kind of shaky when I think about that season, because it was really, really rough.

I think that season broke folks at a bunch of different levels just because of all the long duration and all the different complexities and factors that went into it. We were trying to make the best decisions. Even so, we were still having horrible, horrible outcomes.

I work really hard to arm administrators and our fire leaders with awareness and the tools to handle those kinds of situations because, unfortunately, they’re not unique. It’s one thing to know logically that bad things can happen; it’s another thing entirely to live through them.

Erin with her husband and daughter on a trip they took to Burren, Ireland earlier this year.

Kelly: How did your time as an agency administrator prepare you to lead the Forest Service risk program in wildland fire?

Erin: I feel like my time as an agency administrator really helped round out my understanding of the complexities of the fire environment. It’s not just when we have a fire on the landscape. It’s all of the pre-ignition work and planning and then all of the post-ignition implementation, too. Because for me, prior to that, just being a firefighter, you show up, you accomplish good work, you see results, and then you move on to the next one.

I had to learn about what it means to host incidents, especially long-duration incidents, and the complexities of decision-making where you can’t only pay attention to only one hazard. I also had to learn how to navigate the existing systems in order to take care of my firefighters.

Then there’s all the political and social pressure, and how you deal with that. How do you stand up and lead through those really, really awful public meetings where you are getting torn down but you know you’re making the right decision? And figuring out how to be the leader that your folks need you to be and how to weather through and heal relationships on the tail end of some of those decisions.

I definitely had to learn how to do some of that. In retrospect, I definitely damaged some relationships through decision-making with community members, and probably others. And I’ve had to figure out how to show up afterwards and be vulnerable and be human for those folks on the other side, too. You get a piece of the pie when you’re in fire, and I think you get the rest of it as an agency administrator. I believe that it’s really helpful to have both perspectives.

My time as an agency administrator also helped me to consider how I could affect change at a broader level. During both of my district ranger positions, my relationships with my fire folks were critical. I had to build trust and show them where I was coming from.

And our folks aren’t just responding to Forest Service incidents, they’re responding to state incidents or county incidents and private land incidents. It’s like, they’re adopting the mission of the jurisdiction of which they’re responding to. Right now, up in Canada, they’re doing the same kind of thing.

And so, I really started staying up at night wondering: “What am I doing that can help with that conversation?” As a district ranger, you have a strong influence over your land base and you can affect change on that land unit. And that’s fulfilling because you can see real-time results.

But, even so, I couldn’t get past the fact that I wasn’t affecting change. And this wasn’t about me. It’s just the fact that I could see this gap at a broader level and I didn’t know how to get into that conversation. That’s when I started thinking more seriously about the branch chief position and talking to Julian Affuso, the Assistant Director over Doctrine, Learning, and Risk Management for Fire and Aviation Management with the U.S. Forest Service at the time—before I decided to put in for that job. I said, “I don’t want to just disappear into the black hole of the WO.” I wanted to know that I could make a difference and I wanted to be a part of conversations in which I could see a need for that engagement.

In the almost two years that I’ve been at the Washington Office, I feel like I draw upon both my experiences—fire and agency administrator—equally. Probably more with agency administrator work just so I can bring that into the room a little more and help flesh out some of the question marks, as well as the gaps. For instance: “Okay. Well, wait a minute. I think what we’re talking about here is actually indicating a gap in the understanding of the agency administrator level. How do we tackle that at an interagency community level, too?”

And I think, especially during the last few years, we’ve moved it from being a Forest Service-centric conversation around risk into more of an interagency arena. Those same systems for taking care of our folks that I mentioned earlier have continued to improve. Luckily, we have amazing people in key positions that listen and learn and affect change. And now, with BIL (Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) all the attention from Congress and others, we have the authority and the expectation to really look at our systems and figure out the best way forward. Just that acknowledgement that something new is needed was another place where I personally felt a sense of relief. Firefighter suicide has risen to the forefront more and more, along with other mental health and physical health issues, like cancers. Now we’re talking about all the very real hazards of the profession in ways that we weren’t even two years ago. We all have been affected by those hazards. That’s how small our community is and how real the problems are.

Kelly: What are some general positive areas of growth in the wildland fire service in the past 10 years? And what do you see us gaining ground on in the future?

Erin: I think about two things right off the bat. One of them is more a bit of the operational side. I think even when I was first starting to venture into agency administration, when I was detailed in as a district ranger, there was a sense of this outsider relationship with an incident management team. That’s when—depending on the IMT—it could be like, “Good to have you here, but as agency administrator, your role is basically to step back and let us solve your problems. We’re just going to basically tell you what we’re doing and we’re going to have the answers to put your problems to bed.”

I think that approach was a disservice on both sides. It didn’t reflect the realities of, like we’ve been talking about here, the complexities of the environment we work in.

As a community, we have evolved. I think this has really been demonstrated in some of the conversations around the Incident Strategic Alignment Process where we talk through the complexities first and anchor into the “why” we’re even here, why we’re responding.

It’s not just to put the fire out. It’s not just to manage a fire on a landscape. It’s because of these important things on the landscape. How are we actually going to engage with the fire in a way that makes sense and has a higher probability of success based on some real thoughtful conversations and not just gut reactions and experience? I feel like, more and more, with prescribed fire or wildfire, we are in a totally new baseline every year.

And then the other thing is the mental health side as well as the physical health side of things.

We’re having more of those conversations around mental health and fatigue that crosswalk between physical recovery and mental health. We’re trying to understand and dig into how you manage that effectively and then how do you also support folks to make those decisions for their crew and for themselves. We’re trying to get over the stigma of: “You’re a Teflon. Suck it up and just deal with it for six months and then take the rest of the year to do whatever to ‘recover’.”

I think that conversation has really evolved in the last 10 years, particularly, and then also more recently, too, the understanding of the long-term health impacts of our occupation. The presumptive illnesses and cancer portion of the ‘23 NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) is another example of a hardcore acknowledgement of the hazards of being a wildland firefighter, and a spot for us all to launch from in terms of figuring out how to manage, mitigate, and take care of our folks.

Erin and Greta on a camping trip in southern Idaho in 2022.

Kelly: We always like to end on a light note and I thought it would be fun to hear from a leader in risk management about a time when you took a professional risk that had a great or fun outcome.

Erin: That’s a real hard one. I have two things that come to mind. I feel like I’ve taken some risks in hiring where I saw folks that were willing to really ask hard questions and be innovators and think outside the box. I have taken some risk hiring these people into positions where they could affect change. Sometimes they come with a little bit of background with learning and growth about how to enter into conversations and not ruffle too many feathers. And, in those cases where feathers might be ruffled, understanding how there can be a benefit to that, too.

I’ve been really, really proud of some of the folks I’ve hired into positions that are now even above where I hired them. These people are now affecting change at a broad scale. Huge dividends.

Getting those innovators into the right places is such a cool place for us to invest our energy.

I’d say maybe my other big risk that worked out well is just honestly agreeing to do that district ranger detail back in 2015. I had zero interest in being a line officer. I had watched my district ranger in Flagstaff and thought, “That looks like hell. I have no desire to be ripped to shreds in front of a county commissioner meeting and dealing with interdisciplinary team dynamics and all of that kind of stuff.”

And I was still coming off of my hotshot mentality of “I hate people”. I had to outgrow that kind of mindset, too. I preferred to deal with my little bubble and manage interactions. The thought of being a district ranger just sounded horrible. But I got talked into it. And I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. Of course, part of that reality was because I had fantastic people at Ninemile. They were seasoned and it was a safe place to land and to grow.

Part of that growth was understanding the value of an agency administrator who is involved in fire in a way that can really affect some change and do good and be connected back to that community in a way that I felt like I was.

I really, really enjoyed that.

Kelly: It’s great when you can love your job.

Erin: Yeah. I do miss it. It was like when I was a hotshot. I loved being a hotshot and I defined my whole personality—which has had its own risks—as a hotshot. And I don’t think that’s atypical.

I did something kind of similar as a district ranger. I really identified myself as a district ranger. And then I also decided to become a mom—a joint decision made with my husband. And I had that reckoning of: “Okay. I’m going to be a mother. How can I show up and be a mom in a way that I want to be and be the district ranger that I also have been and want to be?”

I had a really hard time thinking through how I was going to manage those two efforts, those two realities.

It was really fortuitous that this risk management job came along when it did. Sometimes I think there’s these opportunities that come along that you really need to pay attention to because the timing is aligning for a reason.

So, I made the shift and found myself involved in really complicated, higher-level conversations where it is difficult to think through solutions. They’re not obvious. But that’s also where the opportunity really lies. When I feel defeated or I worry about, “What am I doing here?” and “Is this enough?” and “How am I going to show up?” and “What is the value?” I think about some of the predecessors in this position like Larry Sutton (retired U.S. Forest Service Branch Chief for Fire Operations Risk Management) and how he helped the interagency community think through learning and changing the rhetoric around investigations versus having a learning environment, among other things. That was his opportunity to shift a system.

I think a lot of the challenges that we’re facing right now can translate into new opportunities. Like we talked about with mental health, physical health, all of the acknowledgements of the risk of the work. This is our opportunity to shift the system in another way, too. There’s no place I’d rather be than at the table for those conversations. And, thankfully, I have a very supportive husband, who’s a forest supervisor, so he keeps me grounded. When I start getting a little bit too fluffy on WO, he’s like, “Wait, wait, wait. Let’s talk through how this will actually affect me on the ground as I implement those decisions.”

So I can’t understate the benefit of that enough, too, and then having my daughter, Greta, and just that kind of counterpoint to all of this really high-level system stuff.

At the end of the day, having a little human being that you’re in charge of and managing and trying to be present for—I think that’s really helped me stay grounded. Deciding to have a child a little bit later in my career was a big risk decision, too!

Kelly: Nothing like a little kid’s television programing like “PAW Patrol” at the end of the day to make you forget the issues of the day, right?

Erin: Yeah. It kind of puts everything in perspective. Calms things down and realigns energies.

Kelly: Thank you for making time for us today, Erin. I really appreciate it.

One thought on “The Realities of Managing Risk

  1. Erin, you stated: “I felt conflicted about even talking about Yarnell in this interview. Do I have a right to even speak to it? And that part of it was at the forefront of my mind. It kept me up at night a couple times as I thought about doing your interview because everybody owns a different piece of it.”

    You’re kidding, right? Were you given supervisory direction restricting you? Aside from the few USFS employees on the YH Fire adversely affected by the restrictive “Touhey Principle” and the archaic 61-page “Federal Housekeeping Statute” when are you or anyone else prohibited from exercising your First Amendment right of Free Speech and speaking about the YH Fire and GMHS debacle? The USFS and others on the YH Fire were prohibited from speaking about it which hindered the SAIT alleged “investigation.”

    “The head of an Executive department or military department may prescribe regulations for the government of his department, the conduct of its employees, the distribution and performance of its business, and the custody, use, and preservation of its records, papers, and property. This section does not authorize withholding information from the public or limiting the availability of records to the public.” (Pub. L. 89–554, Sept. 6, 1966, 80 Stat. 379)

    And you also stated: “Everyone was affected by Yarnell. In my mind, it was the defining event for my generation of fire. And I think we’re still figuring out what that means.”

    I agree with you on how the YH Fire affected all of us. Yes indeed, “It was the defining event for my generation of fire.” And the reason you all are “… still figuring out what that means” is because of the shoddy, i.e. criminal, handling of the entire matter by the USFS funded SAIT and their bogus SAIR concluding they “… found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations or policy or protocol.” So then, how is it possible to do everything right, and yet kill 19 Prescott FD GMHS in one fell swoop? IT’S IMPOSSIBLE!

    High Country News nailed it (

    I think about these men every day and do my part to reveal the truth (and lies) about the June 2013 YH Fire and GMHS debacle on a regular basis. You have the means to make a huge difference from your position, even as the Acting WO Assistant Director of Doctrine, Learning, and Risk Management. As a retired SWA Hot Shot Supt. please join myself and most others setting matters straight and learning “complete lessons” from this predictable and preventable tragedy reducing the number of inevitable wildland fire deaths; because we consider it the biggest cover-up, lie, and whitewash in wildland fire history!

    Thank you for the opportunity to share.

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