When I started my fire career we did not have a week dedicated to our fallen firefighters. We did not have qualifications recorded in Position Taskbooks or the Lessons Learned Center. We did not have formal after-action reviews, the Interagency Response Pocket Guide, Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, our Leadership Series, Safety Management Systems, SafeNet, SafeCom or even LCES (Lookouts-Communications-Escape Routes-Safety Zones). We did not have many of the tools we have today. Don’t get me wrong – we did post lookouts, had communication, established our escape routes and had safety zones, because they were embedded in the Fire Orders and Watchout Situations (10 and 18). For the most part, we memorized the 10 and 18’s and always tried to do our best.
I remember when South Canyon happened: We were working on a fire in the desert of Nevada, and word came over the radio, 14 lives lost – hotshots, smokejumpers and helitack. I was a hotshot and thought “How could they have died?” We are all the most highly trained wildland firefighters in the country and across the world. It was puzzling for me I was a young firefighter still learning about the dynamics of fire behavior and culture.
Through the years, I learned that fire is both simple and complex and that fire operations are inherently dangerous – a fact that will never change. Despite the best weather predictions – conditions can change unexpectedly. Even being in top physical condition, I was challenged by steep and unforgiving topography. In addition, I had to understand fire behavior in the varying fuel types across the country. I soon realized, as a firefighter utilizing the best available science, equipment and training, I could still suffer serious injury or death, as Mother Nature is ultimately in charge.
Unlike when I started my career, now we have this Week of Remembrance. We honor all our fallen firefighters by making a commitment that we will continue to learn every day, on every fire, with every decision we make.
Let’s all make time today to learn about the history of wildland fire and those who have sacrificed their lives. Please continue to always do your best and look out for each other, and take time to think and learn about safety.