Hannah Coolidge

Rules and Risk in Wildland Firefighting


ISSUE 52 | FUN GAMES | MAY 2015

“It’s all fun and games until [X].” - a concerned parent

“You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” -William Blake, Proverbs of Hell

Two Stories

You know that cliché, “people are afraid of heights because they’re afraid they might jump?” I never really believed it. Phssssht, I think I’m more worried about tripping and falling, or getting knocked off-balance by a sudden gust of wind than some unpredictable death-impulse I might be harboring half against my will. But then once while searching for chanterelles I found my first Death Cap and I felt nearly the same thrill that you might know from standing too close to the edge of a cliff. And of course there would be no “sudden gust of wind” to blame if I ate the thing.

Speaking of cliffs: my former climbing partner died last summer while climbing alone in the High Sierras. He fell about 500 feet and I hope he died quickly. It’s easy for me to imagine, though, that he was having fun, great fun, up until the moment that he slipped. I don’t believe that he wanted to die but I do believe that for him the fun in climbing was in defying all the rules but his own—including rules about how to do things safely—in pursuit of that ecstatic friction between not-slipping and slipping. (There’s the obvious physical friction between the gravitational pull to fall and your muscles working against it. But there’s also the psychic friction that exists between the part of you that absolutely doesn’t want to slip and the part of you that wants to get just a little bit closer...) So I won’t say “he died doing what he loved” or anything so sentimental—but he died doing what he wanted, I’m sure of that.

On Rules and Risk-Taking

Why would anyone willingly and repeatedly put themselves in situations that significantly increase their chance of dying? is a fair question. It’s an especially fair question when we’re talking about risk-taking for the hell of it, and not, say, risk-taking to save lives or to defend your people’s freedom.

But remember also that we're caught up in a game that we never agreed to play in the first place, and the first rule of that game is that we will die, whether or not we're ready and willing when the time comes. We don’t have a lot of say in what happens to our bodies and at the same time it’s very hard not to care what happens to them, but we can find some solace in the feeling of control that comes with the decision to put our own bodies at risk, on our own terms. So what we find in “dangerous games” is the pleasure of defiance, the pleasure of discarding our own rules and the rules of others for the sake of copper on our tongues or for the satisfaction and security of having decided that whatever happens, we brought it upon ourselves…

It’s not unreasonable, though, to want the feeling of owning your own death without actually wanting to die. (I can imagine praying, If I must die let me have brought it upon myself—but please, don't let me die.)1 Here, rules come in handy. Rules—specifically rules relating to safety “best practices”—provide a formula to reduce the chances of a negative outcome, which in turn allows for maximum engagement in certain dangerous games while minimizing the loss of life.

Wildland firefighting is one dangerous game that is heavily mediated by rules of engagement. I’m currently in the middle of my third season working as a wildland firefighter for the federal government; I worked on a small (Type 6) engine in Wyoming my first year, and since then I’ve worked on a hotshot crew out of New Mexico. (Hotshot crews are highly trained hand crews of about 20-22 people. In a typical season these crews will see more fire than any other resource type, and they’re usually assigned to the most difficult or dangerous sections of large fires around the country.)

Even though I’ve never been in a situation fighting fire where I genuinely feared for my life, the work can be disorienting and sometimes frightening. We often work in heavy smoke, which makes it difficult to see and breathe, as well as think clearly and figure out how get out safely if that becomes necessary. We work long hours—16-hour shifts are the norm, but in some situations we’ll work 30+ consecutive hours—and we’re often sleep-deprived and physically exhausted from the work. It’s natural for individuals who are struggling (from heat or injury or physical exhaustion) to isolate themselves from the group instead of asking for help, and there’s also the danger that the group will suffer from tunnel vision and fail to recognize that they’ve committed themselves to a situation they might not be able to get out of.

Fire behavior can change suddenly, especially in light, flashy fuels like grass and brush. It's often difficult to move quickly, especially on steep terrain or in thick vegetation, and we’re usually carrying between 45 and 65 pounds of weight on our backs. The wind can pick up or change direction, which might dramatically increase flame lengths and rate of spread, or push the fire in a new direction entirely. Fire-weakened trees are everywhere, and although it’s unlikely that any given tree will fall on someone, it does happen and can result in serious injury or death. Some of these situations can be exciting, as they present new challenges to overcome, but when too many problems add up people die.

Following a predetermined set of rules encourages us to set aside our superstitions and our instincts (whether to run away in fear or to plow forward at all costs), and instead act according to lessons learned from past successes and failures. By creating a common standard for action and hopefully reducing unwanted deaths, rules increase both the sustainability of wildland firefighting as well as its respectability.

A Brief History of US Wildland Fire Management Policies

Wildfires have always been a natural part of the combustible landscape, and people have been introducing additional fire to the land for nearly as long as there have been people. (Whether intentionally—for agriculture, fuel reduction, and hunting—or accidentally.) But since the early 1900s US wildland fire suppression policy has vacillated between ideological extremes: from full fire suppression to “wildfire is natural so let it burn,” both of which have had their costs.

In the United States, light burning—setting small, frequent fires in surface brush and open forests to reduce the amount of fuels available to burn—was still popular well into the 1900s, but as federal agencies began to take control of public lands and federal foresters were given the responsibility of “protecting” these lands, policy moved in the direction of full fire suppression. The Great Fire of 1910—which, over the course of two days in August, burned over 3 million acres in Idaho, Washington, and Montana and killed 87 people, mostly firefighters—confirmed to federal foresters (the ones who were already pro-suppression) the evils of wildfire, and by 1935 the “10am policy” was in effect nationwide: foresters should plan to control every fire—no matter how it started—by 10am the day after the report was called in, and if that failed they should plan to control it by 10am the next day, and so on. (This was made possible in part by the extensive manpower provided by the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps.)

During World War II forest fire suppression became increasingly identified with national defense—the timber was needed for packing crates to ship military supplies overseas (along with other military uses) and when Japanese submarines fired shells on an oil field near Santa Barbara in 1942, close to the Los Padres National Forest, people worried that enemy shells fired on the Pacific Coast could start raging forest fires that would destroy the nation’s timber resources. After a research study found that nine out of ten wildfires were started by humans, the Wartime Advertising Council developed a number of fire-prevention slogans such as “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy” and “Our Carelessness: Their Secret Weapon.” (The WAC also came up with the idea of Smokey Bear in 1944, after using Bambi’s image on fire prevention posters for a year with great success.)

The full suppression policies of the 1930s and ‘40s lasted until the late 1960s, when many ecologists, civilians, and foresters began to rethink (and idealize) the concept of "wilderness," which included the idea of unchecked wildfire as an integral part of forest health. Fire ecologists argued (correctly) that half a century of total fire suppression had cluttered the forests with excessive fuels—thick ground vegetation and dead fallen trees which, once exposed to fire, would create wildfires of such intensity that they would be more difficult and expensive to suppress than ever before.

The Park Service abandoned the 10am policy in 1968; the Forest Service followed a decade later. In place of full suppression, the federal agencies in charge of fire prevention began to implement prescribed fire and thinning regimens to reduce the amount of exuberant fuels in the landscape and so reduce wildfire severity. Many forests also initiated policies to simply monitor certain “natural” (i.e. lightning-caused) fires in remote areas, while allowing them to burn themselves out.

But the ideology of natural fire didn't provide an easy solution, either. It’s often more expensive to monitor a small fire than to simply put it out, and heavy smoke from wildfires becomes a public health concern and impacts tourism. More importantly, prescribed burns sometimes escape, creating expensive and difficult-to-control wildfires, many of which have resulted in lost homes or dead firefighters. The Yellowstone Fires of 1988 are perhaps the best example of a well-intentioned “let natural fires burn” policy gone wrong: that summer, a number of small fires (which had been intentionally left unchecked) quickly spread out of control due to extreme fire weather conditions, creating a singe large fire that consumed nearly 800,000 acres and cost $120 million—$240 million in today’s dollars—to suppress. (No firefighters were killed.)

Fire policy in the US still allows for a combination of “fire use” (i.e. letting natural fires burn in appropriate conditions), prescribed burns, and manual fuel reduction, depending on the circumstances. But even as we accept or encourage the presence of fire in the landscape, this acceptance is premised on one assumption: that if a wildfire or prescribed burn “gets out of hand,” we’re prepared to put it out. And so even as the perspective on wildfire has changed dramatically over the last century, the job of wildland firefighters remains much the same: fires are burning as fiercely as ever, there are ever more homes built in areas affected by wildfire, and nobody wants fire in their backyard. As always, the job of firefighters is to put out fires when they're out of control.

Rules and Risk in Wildland Firefighting

The corpse was just being looked at. I was just looking. To know that looking (the act, that is, of looking at someone, as one ordinarily does, without any special awareness) was such a proof of the rights of those who are alive, and that this looking could also be an expression of cruelty—all this came to me now as a vivid experience. Thus did the young boy, who never sang loudly, who never ran about shouting at the top of his lungs, ascertain the fact of his own existence.
Yukio Mishima, Temple of the Golden Pavilion

The answer to the question, how many firefighter deaths are acceptable in the Forest Service this year? can only be zero, but the number of deaths is never zero. We all agree that the job simply isn’t worth dying for, and yet still people die on the job.

There are currently about 40,000 wildland firefighters working in the US in a given fire season, if you include federal and state employees, inmate crews, and contract firefighters. At an average of 19 deaths per year since 1990, the fatality rate in our profession is about 47.5 deaths per 100,000 workers—significantly higher than the average rate for US workers at 3.2 deaths per 100,000 workers per year, but still less than half the rates for the most notoriously high-risk jobs—logging, fishing, and aviation—which typically range from 90 to 110 deaths per 100,000 workers per year. (Although in 2013—a particularly bad year for wildland firefighters—the fatality rate was 85 deaths per 100,000 workers, exceeded only by loggers at a rate of 91.3 deaths per 100,000 workers during that year.)

It’s difficult to determine historical fatality rates of wildland firefighters since there isn’t much data on the number of active wildland firefighters before the 1990s. We do know that more firefighters are dying per year—probably just due to an increase in the number of active firefighters on the ground—but that fewer firefighters are being killed by fire. In the early years of fire suppression (between 1910 and 1957) eighty-five percent of wildland firefighter deaths were directly fire-related, due to entrapments and burnovers,2; between 1990 and 2013, only 20% of wildland firefighter deaths were directly fire-related, compared to 24% medical fatalities and 45% transportation-related fatalities (divided evenly between aviation and ground transportation accidents) during that time.

The reduction in firefighter deaths by burning occurred partly through advances in technology—such as the development and improvement of fire shelters,3 and the introduction of surplus military equipment from World War II and the Korean War (for example, bomber planes converted to air tankers capable of dropping several thousand gallons of water or fire retardant onto a wildfire)—but changes in safety culture and rules of engagement have also contributed to the reduction in deaths.

One example of the industry’s safety culture is that wildland firefighters are expected to follow two sets of rules that were developed in the late 1950s: the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and the 18 Watch Out Situations, known among firefighters as the 10-18s.

Standard Firefighting Orders (current version)4

  1. Keep informed on fire conditions and forecasts.
  2. Know what your fire is doing at all times.
  3. Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.
  4. Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known.
  5. Post a lookouts when there is possible danger.
  6. Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively.
  7. Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces.
  8. Give clear instructions and insure they are understood.
  9. Maintain control of your forces at all times.
  10. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.

18 Watch Out Situations

  1. Fire not scouted and sized up.
  2. In country not seen in daylight.
  3. Safety zones and escape routes not identified.
  4. Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior.
  5. Uninformed on strategy, tactics, and hazards.
  6. Instructions and assignments not clear.
  7. No communication link with crewmembers or supervisor.
  8. Constructing line without a safe anchor point.
  9. Building fireline downhill with fire below.
  10. Attempting frontal assault on fire.
  11. Unburned fuel between you and fire.
  12. Cannot see main fire; not in contact with someone who can.
  13. On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below.
  14. Weather becoming hotter and drier.
  15. Wind increases and/or changes direction.
  16. Getting frequent spot fires across line.
  17. Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zone difficult.
  18. Taking a nap near the fireline.

The Firefighting Orders were developed in 1957, after eleven men (seven inmates, one correctional officer, and three Forest Service employees) were killed in a blow-up,5 on the Inaja Fire in Southern California. ,6 It wasn’t by any means the first significant tragedy fire in the Forest Service but it was the first to spark a large-scale internal investigation searching for common denominators in firefighter deaths. Robert McCardle, Chief of the Forest Service at the time, requested an investigation of the incident and afterwards dispatched a Task Force to Recommend Actions to Reduce the Chances of Men Being Killed by Burning While Fighting Fire, which studied all of the tragedy fires and near-miss situations in the USFS between 1936 and 1957.

In its report, the task force concluded that tragedy fires occurred when “men who knew better just did not pay adequate attention to good fire fighting practices that seem like small details but could become THE critical item in an emergency.” Based on these “sins of omission” the report created the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders. The idea was that if the firefighters who’d died by burning had followed all of these rules they would have remained safe, regardless of the objective hazards present at the time. (The 18 Watch Out Situations were developed shortly afterwards, to describe specific situations that expand on the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders.)

The Firefighting Orders were developed to help firefighters pay attention to dangers that they might not have otherwise noticed, and so avoid getting themselves killed, but as early as the 1960s accident investigation teams were using violations of Fire Orders and Watch Outs to neatly explain tragedy fires without also adequately looking into organizational responsibility for the deaths. This practice became especially controversial after the South Canyon Fire in 1994 when fourteen hotshots, smokejumpers, and helitack crew members,7 died in a highly publicized incident on Storm King Mountain in Colorado. Some of the firefighters were building line downhill while others were reinforcing line on the ridgetop when a dry cold front moved into the area bringing sudden extreme winds. The fire picked up and eventually spotted,8 across the drainage beneath the firefighters, where it moved quickly towards them up the steep slope through highly flammable Gambel oak. Thirty-five firefighters escaped out the east drainage or survived by deploying their fire shelters, and twelve died when they failed to outrun the flames. (Two helitack crew members also died on the ridgeline while trying to escape.)

In a report that was echoed by newspaper headlines, the investigation team concluded that

The ‘can do’ attitude of supervisors and firefighters led to a compromising of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and a lack of recognition of the 18 Watch Out Situations.

Some families of the dead, as well as others in the wildland fire community, were outraged by this conclusion and argued that the investigation team had placed excessive blame on the dead firefighters—who, after all, were not alive to make the same mistakes again—while disregarding major operational failings on the part of the agencies involved.

It’s true that the firefighters “violated” many of the Standard Firefighting Orders and Watch Out Situations: among other problems, their escape route was too long and safety zones were not clearly established; the firefighters continued their aggressive engagement with the fire in spite of increasing winds and temperatures; and the crew was unable to see the main fire and had no lookouts who could see it well. But while the report goes into great detail regarding the mistakes of the firefighters, it only briefly addresses organizational failures that also contributed to the firefighter deaths: for example, the organizational stigma against dropping packs and tools, which led firefighters to continue carrying all of their gear (50+ lbs) even while running for their lives, or the Red Flag warnings for severe predicted winds (which caused the fatal blow-up) that were faxed repeatedly to the Grand Junction District Office but were never communicated to the forces on the ground.

Since then—in part because of the backlash from family and friends of the dead firefighters— the culture of accident investigation has changed: now, federal wildland firefighting organizations take great pains to avoid criticizing the dead. The current Interagency Serious Accident Investigation Guide warns against “hindsight” bias and recommends that investigators “refrain from conducting a separate analysis of the ‘Standard Firefighting Orders’ and ’18 Watch Out Situations,’” because violations of these rules should be considered “symptoms, not causal factors” in firefighter deaths.

The dialogue and debate that occur around tragedy fires offer some insight into the ways that both on-the-ground and administrative wildland firefighters perceive risk (as well as what constitutes “acceptable risk”) in the profession. Shortly after the South Canyon Fire, a Missoula smokejumper and law student named Quentin Rhoades (who had survived the blowup on Storm King) published an op-ed article in his local newspaper entitled, “Effective firefighting calls for bending rules sometimes.” He wrote:

[We] often violate the “Standard Orders” to push the envelope when our judgment and experience tells us that we can. That willingness is calculated. We do it to protect lives and to conserve resources to effectively complete our task—to put out forest fires.

Some call this a “can-do” attitude. Others term it overzealousness. Nonetheless, the attitude prevails among hotshots and smokejumpers. As long as firefighters continue to be effective at keeping forest fires as small as possible, and at putting them out, those of us on the ground are going to continue to violate the “Standard Orders” on occasion when conditions dictate.

The government agencies pushed right back: a 1995 volume of Fire Management Today began with a “zero tolerance” memo signed by both the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior:

We are committed to “Zero Tolerance” on carelessness and unsafe actions. The commitment to and accountability for safety is a joint responsibility of firefighters, managers, and administrators. No resource or property values are worth endangering people. All land management plans and all suppression plans and actions must reflect this commitment. Individuals must be personally committed and responsible for their own performance and accountability. Please join us in adopting firefighting’s code of safe practices:

Safety Comes First on Every Fire, Every Time.

The Ten Standard Fire Orders are Firm; We Don’t Break Them; We Don’t Bend Them.

All Firefighters have the Right to a Safe Assignment.

Currently, on-the-ground firefighters are more in line with the agency’s “zero tolerance” policy than with Rhoades’ op-ed—we’re expected to have the Firefighting Orders memorized, and typically we take them very seriously—but Rhoades nonetheless points out some important internal contradictions in wildland fire management: we’re asked to put out fires quickly and we’re asked to do it safely, but firefighting is inherently dangerous work and there’s no way to get the job done while eliminating risk entirely. And even when we fully embrace the policy of putting “Safety First,” it’s easier said than done—there’s a lot of internal and external pressure for crews to engage with the fire and control it as quickly as possible, especially to protect structures and other “values-at-risk.” And it’s not just the firefighters on the ground who make mistakes: even though the overhead on large fires are genuinely concerned with firefighter safety, and can face serious professional consequences if firefighters die on their watch, sometimes in the pressure to protect values-at-risk they overlook or disregard major safety hazards. It’s ultimately up to the crews themselves to turn down or ask to modify the assignment in these situations—the key is for the crews to recognize their own limitations and avoid getting caught up in the same get-it-done-no-matter-what attitude.

On Wildland Firefighters

Although people die fighting wildfire at a higher rate than in many other professions, it’s worth noting that most of the time firefighting doesn’t feel particularly dangerous—as with most semi-dangerous activities that become part of everyday life (driving, for example), it’s easy to forget the underlying perils as long as things are going smoothly; it’s not until we have a close call or an accident that we really feel the extent of the risk we’ve been taking all along. (My superintendent likes to talk about “bad decision/good outcome” scenarios—how it’s easy, once you’ve developed bad firefighting habits, to forget how dangerous those habits are when you engage in them repeatedly without negative consequences.)

In a paper titled, Can Acceptable Risk Be Defined in Wildland Firefighting?, David Clancy writes that “firefighters need to be risk-averse individuals—not risk-seekers.” Inevitably, though, wildland fire attracts people with a wide variety of orientations towards risk, most of them positive. You don’t go out looking for wildfires if you don't get a little bit excited at the sight of trees bursting into flames. There are plenty of firefighters who are serious risk-seekers on their own time, and there are also firefighters who love risk but who love it because they love to control what should be uncontrollable. Where risk-seeking types show their contempt for danger by seeking out ever more dangerous activities, these “risk-averse” types show their contempt for danger by averting it. They take great pleasure in choosing the safest way to achieve an end—even if it means doing nothing—and for them the satisfaction of risk management is in resisting the impulse to act immediately, in choosing a more conservative option in spite of pressure to do otherwise.

But even the wildest risk seekers at heart don't necessarily behave more dangerously on the job than the more risk averse types—though often it seems that when they do follow safety practices it’s less out of a healthy concern for their own physical well-being than out of habit or from a sense of obligation to their colleagues. And this makes sense. The culture of wildland firefighting seems to push people gently over time into an equilibrium between risk-seeking behavior and “risk aversion.” Irrational fears abate with repeated exposure, and irrational fearlessness is discouraged.

Wildland fire safety culture (which includes, but is not limited to, the 10-18s) reminds us of the risks that we face, so that even when we don’t feel that we’re in danger we’re trained to always be looking out for potential hazards and to communicate these hazards to one another. Changes in weather or fire activity, slippery terrain, dead branches caught up in trees, and dead or fire-weakened trees are all noteworthy observations that reflect actual danger and are quickly communicated to an entire crew. Wildland firefighter training also recognizes “human factors” as a source of potential danger. We’re taught to recognize and point out hazardous behavior in ourselves and in our coworkers, whether someone is overly fatigued or just cranky. If the whole crew is excitedly engaged with the fire and seems to be overlooking safety concerns, it’s expected that someone will speak up and remind the crew back off for a minute and revaluate the situation.

But the hazards can never be eliminated completely. In June 2013, nineteen firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed on the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but we do know that the crew left what was considered a good safety zone, hoping (we imagine) to reengage elsewhere with the fire, which at that time was making a strong push towards the town of Yarnell. (127 structures were eventually lost in the town.) The crew was traveling through thick brush, out of sight of the main fire, when a thunderstorm outflow reached the fire's perimeter and sent flames running at the crew at an estimated 10-12 mph. The fire caught the crew two minutes after they saw it running at them, and no one survived the burn-over. The Serious Accident Investigation Team came to the following conclusion:

Although we will never know for sure, we considered how the Granite Mountain IHC might have reasoned: If they stay in the black,9 they do no good. If they move, they might do some good even if they do not know what the good will look like. They think they can move without it being especially risky [...] A culture of engagement and a bias for action is part of wildland fire identity and a factor in their success, and in this case, a bias for engagement may have prompted them to move.

Wildland firefighters talk a lot among themselves about Granite Mountain, and why that crew made the decisions they made. The crew knew that the wind was picking up and changing direction, and that the fire was extremely active. Their lookout was gone, since his position had been threatened by the fire activity, so they had no contact with anyone who could see the fire. They chose to move through heavy brush (I’ve heard that the brush was 6-8 feet tall and difficult to walk through), with a large amount of unburned fuel between them and the fire, which meant that if the fire made a move in their direction they would have no chance of escape. Their final radio transmission is chilling and difficult to listen to:

Granite Mountain: Breaking in on Arizona 16, Granite Mountain Hotshots, we are in front of the flaming front.
Operations: Bravo 33, Operations, you copying that on air to ground?
Granite Mountain: Air to ground 16, Granite Mountain, Air Attack, how do you read?
Operations: Granite Mountain, Operations, air to ground.
Granite Mountain 7: Air Attack, Granite Mountain 7, how do you copy me?
Bravo 33: Operations, Bravo 33, I was copying that traffic—traffic on air to ground.
Operations: —3, Operations, on air to ground.
Bravo 33: Okay, I was copying a little bit of that uh, conversation, uh, on air to ground. We’re, we’ll do the best we can. We got the Type I helicopters ordered back in. Uh, we’ll … what we can do.
Operations: Bravo 33, Operations, air to ground.
Bravo 33: Operations, Bravo 33.
Granite Mountain 7 (yelling): Air Attack, Granite Mountain 7!
Bravo 33: Okay, uh, unit that’s hollerin’ in the radio, I need you to quit and uh, break, Operations, Bravo 33.
Operations: Okay Granite Mountain 7 sounds like they got some trouble, uh, go ahead and get that, he’s trying to get you on the radio, let’s go ahead and see what we’ve got going on.
Bravo 33: Okay copy that, I’ll uh get with Granite Mountain 7 then.
Division Alpha (Granite Mountain Superintendent): Bravo 33, Division Alpha with Granite Mountain.
Bravo 33: Okay uh Divison Alpha, Bravo 33.
Division Alpha: Yeah, I’m here with Granite Mountain Hotshots, our escape route has been cut off. We are preparing a deployment site and we are burning out around ourselves in the brush and I’ll give you a call when we are under the sh—the shelters.
Bravo 33: Okay copy that. So you’re on the south side of the fire then?
Division Alpha: Affirm!

In hindsight—knowing that their sense-making and decision-making processes turned out to be fatal—it’s easy to recognize hazards that the crew must have overlooked or misjudged. And, knowing what happened, it’s easy to think that we wouldn’t have made those same mistakes. But Granite Mountain had the same safety training as any other crew, and the same desire to live. Even when we refuse to judge the deaths, the problem remains the same. On Storm King it was the firefighter’s “can do” attitude; at Yarnell, it was their “culture of engagement” and “bias for action”—traits that all wildland firefighters have, and must address.

The safety culture of wildland firefighting—the Standard Fire Orders and Watch Out Situations, the “Six Minutes for Safety” discussions that we have every morning, the gatherings we have to discuss any near misses that might have occurred over the latest operational period—is what makes the work possible. All these considerations reduce the risk of death or injury to firefighters on the ground by demanding that firefighters pay attention to specific hazards and mitigate them. But the safety culture also severs these specific hazards from the broader, abstract fear of death that would otherwise accompany the work. We deal with danger as a mosaic of complex hazards and we're not really looking at the big picture (which says you might die) but instead at all the little factors that could take us there.

In firefighting, as in any profession, the work can be repetitive, and sometimes boring. What makes the job un-boring—and at the same time keeps it un-terrifying—is this optimism: a certainty that something dangerous/exciting will happen soon, and a certainty that we’ll be able to handle it.


1Death-aversion might be a natural instinct but these days it’s also a social imperative; we’re taught to fear not only death but also the shame of being dead. We make an effort to remember the dead but nowadays dying young bears no special glory and, especially in this risk-management-obsessed age of insurance and liability, any death that might be considered “preventable” carries with it a certain shame—particularly for the dead individual, who in the moment of death loses any opportunity to speak out in her own defense.

2 The National Wildlfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) defines an entrapment as “a situation where personnel are unexpectedly caught in a fire-behavior related, life-threatening position where planned escape routes or safety zones are absent, inadequate, or compromised.” It defines a burnover as “a situation where personnel or equipment are caught in an advancing flame front.”

3 Fire shelter: “An aluminized tent offering protection by means of reflecting radiant heat and providing a volume of breathable air in a fire entrapment situation. Fire shelters should only be used in life-threatening situations, as a last resort.” (NWCG definition)

4 The current Standard Firefighting Orders are similar to the original orders, with only slight changes in phrasing. Jennifer A. Ziegler explains the origins and evolution of the Standard Fire Orders in greater detail in her paper, The Story Behind an Organizational List: A Genealogy of Wildland Firefighters’ 10 Standard Fire Orders.

5 Blow-up: “A sudden increase in fire intensity or rate of spread strong enough to prevent direct control or to upset control plans. Blow-ups are often accompanied by violent convection and may have other characteristics of a fire storm.” (NWCG definition)

6 A crew of twenty inmates and two correctional officers were building line downhill in preparation for a nighttime burnout operation and at about 7:25 in the evening the main fire flared up some 1,000 feet below the men. After the flare-up the fire made a run uphill towards them. The crew boss warned the men twice with increasing urgency of the fire activity below and they made their way up the trail at a quickening pace. Eleven of them were overtaken by the fire (in a sudden flash-over caused by the ignition of gases forced up the ravine by the fire) beneath a 15-foot rock bluff, less than 300 feet from the safety of the canyon rim.

7 Smokejumper: “A firefighter who travels to fires by aircraft and parachute.” Helitack crew: “A group of firefighters trained in the technical and logistical use of helicopters for fire suppression.” (NWCG definitions)

8 Spotting: “Behavior of a fire producing sparks or embers that are carried by the wind and start new fires beyond the zone of direct ignition by the main fire.” (NWCG definition)

9 Black: Land that has burned already in the current wildfire. Solid black: Terrain where all the available fuels have been reduced to sticks and ashes. This the safest place to be in the event of a blowup or other extreme fire behavior.

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