Reflections on South Canyon

In recent months several things have conspired to lead me to write about South Canyon, my perceptions of the lessons learned, and the lessons we’re forgetting.  I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert on the fire – my career didn’t start until 2001, I didn’t read Fire on the Mountain until 2005, and I’ve never been on the staff ride or even visited the site.  So take my ideas and opinions with a grain of salt… I’m sure some things will ring true with many people, and I’m sure I’ve missed some things that are important to others.

It started as I was sitting in the fire cache at the Lowman RD, on the banks of the South Fork of the Payette River, attending a session of the annual fire refresher training.  When we got to the section on the Yarnell Hill fire video where Ted Putnam spoke, it occurred to me to ask how many people knew who he was, and why his opinion mattered.  In a room with 30 or so people, ranging from first year firefighters to seasoned hands, nobody raised a voice to answer.  To me it seems a minor tragedy in its own right that the man who championed human factors after South Canyon was an unknown in that room, on one of the busiest fire forests in the region.

That got me thinking, probably more than I should.  Twenty years have passed since South Canyon, and many of the fresh faces on the firelines this year may not have even been alive when that event took place. While fires like South Canyon have made their impression on our policies, our training, and our regulations, it seems that in some places, the personal lessons are not being passed on to our young firefighters.  They know “the rules,” and the safety reasons for doing the things we do, but it hasn’t been made personal for them.  They know the what, but not necessarily the why, and I think as leaders and followers we should take steps to change that.

After the refresher, I watched Eric Hipke’s video on South Canyon.  I re-read Fire on the Mountain and some of Ted Putnam’s articles on mindfulness and South Canyon, and I attended several forest events where leadership was a topic. All of these things have led me to try and come up with some ideas about the legacy of South Canyon, and what we can still learn from that fire today.  The things I’ve thought most about in the last few weeks as I’ve read and re-read about those events twenty years ago can be summed up in a few lines of thought.

First is the idea of legacy, of remembering what those who came before us learned at great cost.  It seems to me, from my experience, that we’re going through a generational shift that puts us in danger of losing touch with our history, and forgetting the lessons of our forebears.  In some ways it’s because as our firefighters get younger, and technology and culture change, so do our habits.  Storytelling and reading during slow times on the job have shifted to playing games on tablets, and checking the latest gossip on social media.  Reading, while never especially popular among the personality types that tend to be attracted to fire jobs, has become more unpopular than ever.  How then should we approach the topic?  How can we pass on not only the knowledge, but the personal connection to those lessons?

I’m lucky that I have had personal connections to several tragedy fires. A close family friend was a Missoula jumper when Mann Gulch happened, and I got to hear the story of the days following that fire from someone who was there.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several of the South Canyon survivors speak at leadership classes I’ve taken, and I’ve heard their stories, seen the emotion in their eyes as they relive those terrible moments.  Those connections make it real for me, not just something I read about in a book or saw on a powerpoint presentation.

Second is the idea of instinct, gut-feelings, and our subconscious.  During a recent all-employees meeting on the Boise NF, retired Intermountain Regional Forester Harv Forsgren gave a presentation on safety and risk management, and made a comment that I liked a lot – “Instinct keeps us from going extinct.”  As I read through Fire on the Mountain, and watched the video from the NIFC WFSTAR, I kept seeing and hearing the phrase “I was uneasy.”  A lot of people at South Canyon were uneasy about the situation, but their feelings never got addressed in a serious manner.  Everyone kind of went with the flow, and put aside their unease.  It was a different culture then, and we’ve made strides to improve our ability to speak up when something doesn’t feel right.  But it’s hard to deny that even today there still is extremely strong peer pressure to not speak up about concerns, especially if it’s something from the subconscious that we haven’t clearly identified.   Nobody likes being the one to say “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” if they can’t articulate why.

It’s important to recognize that little voice, that little alarm bell, and ask not only ourselves but others, why?  What’s going on that my conscious, thinking brain hasn’t recognized, but my primitive, survival-programmed brain has?  As outlined in two of my favorite books on human factors, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, our “gut” instinct is often more perceptive than we’d like to admit.  While they can be fooled, it’s important to recognize that our instincts are there for a reason, and it’s our duty as leaders and followers to ask that question of others – Is it just me, or is anyone else feeling like this isn’t right?  If enough people have a bad feeling, maybe it’s worth trying to find out why.  Sometimes our collective situational awareness can become group think, and we need the divergent views of individuals to point out the obvious.  Similarly, sometimes our individual situational awareness can be off from reality, and we need to bounce ideas off of the group to make sure it’s not just us.

The third idea that has been strong in my mind is one of small actions adding up.  Think of the Swiss Cheese model for accidents, and how at South Canyon there were a multitude of small actions, small decisions, and an absence of seemingly small actions that ultimately led to what happened.  Taken individually none of these actions or inactions was a direct cause of the tragedy, but collectively they were.  The same can be said of many of our recent fatality fires – Cramer, Thirtymile, and from what we know so far, Yarnell.

What I hope to take away from this concept of small actions is how they can impact our lives in a positive way as well, and this is where I hope to bring the “meat and potatoes” of this blog entry to the reader.

I feel strongly that leadership is not only about the big, flashy, obvious leadership roles, but about the smaller, quieter, and more mundane things as well.  While we obviously need somebody to be up front, taking the “lead,” we also need followers who make dozens of positive small actions to support their leaders.  Not to pick on anyone who was at South Canyon, or any of the other fires I’ve mentioned, but think of the many opportunities where a small action or two could have changed the outcome.  Now think of the small ways that you or I can have a positive influence on our crews, on our fires, every day.

While it may not seem like much, or even worth the time, think of how collectively we can change our fire culture if we all do small things.  For example,  I challenge everyone to read or watch something about South Canyon this year, and think about how you’ve seen similar situations in your career, where small actions or inactions led to bigger problems.  Think about all the times when the weather forecast was late, or the crews you ordered didn’t show up on time, and think how close we’ve all been to making that one more mistake or decision that could have led to disaster.  I know I’ve been there before.

We know that fire reacts to wind, fuel, and terrain.  What we seem to have trouble with is knowing how we’ll react to fire.  All too often we find ourselves in harm’s way.  Fire will typically do what it’s going to do based on conditions, but we can control what we do, and if we’re in the way.  Human factors involve an incredible number of variables, and I think that while we’ve started down the path to understanding why and how we make decisions on fires, we have a long way to go.  Always remember that even small decisions can have a big impact, and that being safe on a fire involves more than just understanding fire behavior and weather.  Our own actions, big and small, are what put us at risk, expose us to hazards, and those same actions can mitigate the risk.  A better understanding of why we take action can only lead to smarter decisions.

Nineteen years ago, after South Canyon, fire leadership got together and said “never again.”  Well, it happened again at Yarnell, and will continue to happen if we let it.  Big campaigns and fancy slogans sound good, but it always comes back to our small actions and our perceptions.  We are our own worst enemy, and our own strongest ally.  We should all be mindful of our actions, and how we are all responsible for our safety.

Nobody tells us when we start as rookies that in the course of our career we will be impacted by tragedy.  Nobody tells us that people we know, people we’ve worked with, will die on the job.  Maybe it won’t be someone we know very well, but it’s a small enough community that it will happen.  My agency has set a goal of having zero fatalities.  While on a large scale that may not be practical (I’ll follow up on that idea eventually, but in the meantime check out The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for ideas on highly improbable events), I very strongly think that we can reach that on a small scale.  It’s up to us as individuals, and as crews, to start small and make those little micro-decisions that keep us safe.

So to summarize this long-winded, rambling essay, it really boils down to three things, for me at least.

1)  We should study history and learn from those who went before.  Don’t forget them, or the lessons we’ve learned from their experiences.  Be a student of fire, of leadership, and of human factors.  It should be our professional goal to better understand why we do the things we do.

2)  Recognize what our instincts and “gut” feelings are telling us.  They’re here for a reason, and if we’re uneasy about an assignment or a situation, we should ask ourselves why, and if others have the same feeling.  Gut feelings are often our subconscious, warning us of hazards our conscious mind hasn’t spotted yet.

3)  Small leadership actions add up.  Everyone makes a difference, and collectively our small difference-making efforts can change the culture.  If we all stepped up in a small way, think of the impact we could have.

To paraphrase what Tom Shepard said at the end of the South Canyon video, everyone has a voice, and everyone has a choice.  What are you choosing?  To lead, or go with the flow?  Leading doesn’t have to be big, it can be as simple as speaking up when something doesn’t feel right, or asking a question for clarification.  It doesn’t have to be making presentations on leadership to a class, it can be reading a book or an essay during your down time that makes you think about what you do and how you do it.  Take those small leadership steps that lead to bigger changes, even if it’s not the popular thing to do.  Don’t let peer pressure keep you from growing as a leader, even if it’s just by being a better follower.

Until next time…

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About Justin Vernon

Fire and Aviation Specialist (aka jack of all trades) for the US Forest Service, based in Boise, Idaho. I'm also an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest. All opinions voiced are mine alone and do not represent those of the US Forest Service.
This entry was posted in Garden Valley, Leadership, Wildland Fire. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Reflections on South Canyon

  1. Keith Mitchell says:

    Keep up the good work Justin! I’ll be sharing this with my seasonals.

    Sincerely,
    Keith

    OZAR, Winter 2008

  2. Jim McMahill says:

    Justin,
    Thank you for your thoughtful reflections and I hope that you will consider sharing this with the wildland fire community on the WFLDP Blog as I’m sure many would appreciate this as much as they liked your introvert blog.
    Jim McMahill

  3. Thanks guys! This will be on the WFLDP blog at some point. Not sure when it’s scheduled, but it’ll be up eventually, probably closer to July.

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