Monday, April 22, 2024

Fighting fires: Sometimes it's better and safer to back away from disaster

by Robert Mutch
| September 24, 2013 10:42 AM

• On the Dude fire in Arizona, 1990, six firefighters died in their fire shelters while trying to save homes.

 • On the Esperanza fire in California, 2006, five Forest Service firefighters from Engine 57 died while trying to save the unoccupied Octagon House.

 • On the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona, 2013, 19 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots died in or near their fire shelters while trying to save homes.

I am still reeling from the recent tragic calamity near Prescott, Ariz. It is hard to cope with the number 19 — almost the entire Granite Mountain Hotshot crew failed to go home from the fire. A posting at the Wildfire Today website on July 5, 2013, said: “The fact is that firefighting is dangerous and deaths are unavoidable even if protocol is followed to the letter.”

At the trial following the Esperanza fire (as reported in John Maclean’s book on the fire), a defense attorney asked a CalFire Battalion Chief if anyone should have been sent to a place like the Octagon House, which was marked by a red warning dot on a fire map, unoccupied, and was very difficult to defend?

 “Yes,” the Battalion Chief said. “Honestly, about every house out there could have been a red dot under those conditions. We still are going to send resources out to defend homes. There are a lot of homes we saved that day.” (With hindsight one can ask, “but at what cost?”)

 These comments shed light on an unfortunate belief that is all too prevalent in some wildland firefighting circles. This longstanding belief equates wildland firefighting with war and acknowledges casualties and fatalities as inevitable. When people adopt this stance, their view that death is an inevitable outcome too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is another and more reasonable option available for firefighters. Instead of running toward danger, it is OK to retreat from danger until conditions become more favorable for safe and successful fire-suppression efforts. This scenario is predicated on the idea that everyone who goes to a fire deserves to go home to family and friends.

 Firefighter safety really could be quite simple if firefighters recognized conditions for very high to extreme fire behavior and “just left the line” until the situation lessened and it was safe to re-engage the fire.

 During a Fire Behavior Conference, I was touched by a presentation that recounted one man’s experience from the Dude fire and how it felt to be at the shelter deployment site while six people died around him. As he finished the first thought that crossed my mind was “why don’t we just leave the line when conditions are aligned against us?”

If we had placed more emphasis on human lives rather than on human homes, would these fallen firefighters still be with us? During the Dude fire, rain drops were felt by some on the fire just prior to the burnover, a precursor to a collapsing convection column and strong downdraft winds. Did anyone on the Yarnell Hill fire experience those same telltale raindrops prior to the wind shift? We must adopt the principles of a High Reliability Organization, always mindful of signals that might give everyone the opportunity to survive.

How about putting an end to the practice of placing a higher priority on saving houses rather than on saving lives? Let’s place the priority on safeguarding the sanctity of life as our modus operandi.

At the 2005 Safety Summit in Missoula, the goal of Zero Defects was proposed. In other words, no injuries or fatalities during the conduct of our fire business. Such an undertaking leads us away from the unmindful position that firefighting is dangerous, people will make mistakes, and bad things will sometimes happen.

Under that premise we can simply say “I told you so” when the bad event occurs. With a commitment to zero defects, when an injury or worse happens, we are immediately placed on notice that an intolerable action has occurred that must be corrected. Or better yet, we will become so much more mindful because we are anticipating the worst that we prevent the unwanted outcome from happening in the first place.

(Robert W. Mutch is chair of the Painted Rocks-West Fork FireSafe Council. The article is submitted as a part of FireSafe Montana’s Enough is Enough Campaign.)