Above: Watt Draw fire IA, Custer NF/Miles City FO, 2006.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the books that have inspired me throughout my career, and I think I’ve found a few that have influenced me the most. The next few blog entries will focus on a few of the titles that have resonated with me.
The first book about firefighting that hit home with me was John Maclean’s Fire on the Mountain. When I read it for the first time, I was in transition in my fire career. I had just accepted a position on the Fort Howes helitack crew of the BLM’s Miles City Field Office, leaving behind my familiar mountains for a summer in the Tongue and Powder river breaks, not too far from the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I was leaving the slow-burning timber fuel types of the mountain forests of the Northern Rockies for the fast-moving fires of the grasslands and broken pine hills of Southeast Montana.
As I read Fire on the Mountain that summer in the bunkhouse after work and on weekends, it really hit home to me that I shared some things in common with those who fell on Storm King. No longer could it happen to “someone else, somewhere else,” it could happen to me, right here. Before, I’d worked on the slow districts in western Montana, where a fire was most often either close to the mop-up stage, or off to the races with a team on order, and rarely in-between. I found myself realizing that I was in a spot where I could easily end up in a situation not dissimilar what the helitack crew found on that brushy ridgeline in 1994. I too was working on a BLM helitack crew in a place where fire moved quickly, and it was easy to imagine myself in the shoes of those helitack folks of twenty years earlier.
That realization hit me pretty hard. I was motivated to undertake some pretty serious self-improvement, in everything from my fitness level to my understanding of fire behavior. Fire fatalities were to me no longer something that happened to other people – they could happen to me. That realization scared me into becoming more diligent in everything I did that related to fire.
Taking a job on a helitack crew also played a role in my new-found desire to be a better student of fire. All of a sudden, I had a whole lot more personal responsibility than I’d had in years past. I couldn’t rely on my engine boss or other senior crewmembers to watch out for me any more. Now I could expect to occasionally work independently of my supervisor and crew, and my safety would be in my own two hands.
Now, as I’ve gained experience as a leader, I try to keep my perspective fresh, to think of ways that I can use the lessons of South Canyon to keep my folks safe, and how I can act as a buffer to prevent anyone working for me finding themselves in that situation. I also think of what I could do as a follower, just another helitacker on a helispot, not fully engaged with the fire but still there watching things unfold, to look out for others as well as myself.
Fire on the Mountain was my first gateway book in that it fundamentally changed how I viewed my place in the fire world. Identifying with the BLM helitack crew at South Canyon made me realize just how easily I too could be put in that situation, and made me think about what I would do if that happened to me. That spurred me to be more aware of (and learn more about) fire behavior, weather, and human factors.
While I read a lot for personal reasons, I also read a lot for work. Not because I have to, but because reading is just another tool in the toolbox, whether it’s for aviation, human factors, case studies of fatality fire, or fire behavior and ecology. The way I look at it, why not use all of the tools available to help me become a better firefighter and leader?
For more book ideas, check out the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Professional Reading Program… it’s another set of tools that are available for anyone to use.
Until next time…