Friday, March 21, 2014

From the Field for the Field - A Storm is Building

Boulder County Sheriff's Office fire management staff at South Canyon
(Photo credit: Jay Stalnacker)
by Jay Stalnacker

As we rolled into Glenwood Springs I looked across South Canyon and upwards towards Storm King Mountain. I had hiked the trail and visited the crosses numerous times in my career, but for my crew this was the first time here. Inside my head I was questioning the success of our trip as our plans to travel south to Arizona fell through, I felt like I had maybe let my team down. The ominous view and descending mountain snow storm did not help my feelings of pending failure.

Our original plan was to visit the Yarnell Hill Fire fatality site in Arizona but due to distance and time we were eventually dissuaded. After pleading for a “stay of execution” on the idea for a crew off site critical 40 training, Tommy granted my pardon and while meeting me for coffee he shared that he still supported the idea and would reconsider a more local option. I immediately thought of the South Canyon and Battlement Creek Fires, both located just outside of Glenwood Springs, CO.

Although both incidents are separated by over 30 years the common themes and lesson learned resonate as you look upwards at the dense steep hillsides of gamble oak, piƱon juniper and rock. The mountain snow clear runoff flows effortlessly through the Colorado River below both sites. For most, the idea of a deadly fire(s) in this serene environment is all but impossible to accept and understand.

Our first stop was the park memorial for the fallen firefighters. We jumped out of the trucks, walked over to the statue and plaques, almost immediately the sounds of the outside world faded and soon each of us were reading, thinking and pointing upwards towards the mountain . I knew from this point forward our trip would be more than I could have ever planned. Arriving late at our remote campsite, we immediately went into operations mode, setting up camp, unpacking and beginning to explore. I soon “yellowed up” , threw my pack on and headed west towards the highest ridge in sight. My voice crackled over the radio and quickly I could see from a distance through my binoculars the crew gathering their packs, pointing west and beginning the long hike towards me. By sunset, they had navigated to just below my ridge-line perch. We rallied at the bottom and hiked back to camp by an incredible full moon. This first day set the stage for three more intensely intimate long days of training, bonding, sharing and learning. Day by day, we slowly moved from a bunch of guys and gals to a cohesive and resilient team.

Our trip culminated with our planned return visit and hike up to the fatality site in South Canyon just below Storm King Mountain. As we hiked upwards occasionally stopping to talk and read about the chain of events that occurred both leading up to and the day of the tragic event it was obvious our team was one. The hike pulled each of us differently, some struggled physically after the three previous days of training, limited sleep, blisters and camp food, we were all very drained. For others, normally talkative and engaging, they just hiked upwards in silence. For me, I had both tear in my eye and a smile on my face. I felt 10-years younger, remembering a time when my back and knees didn’t hurt so damn bad, running up this trail hoping to find an answer to a question I had not yet the knowledge to ask. Now, here I was many years later, full of questions and wondering if I could provide enough answers to the folks I would lead to the top. I was humbled to be leading us out, the crew asked for me to walk out front. Not a typical position in the line for leaders in my role, usually we are way out front scouting or holding in back like a mother duck, watching as her ducklings waddle safely across the road. Being at the front felt good, I felt alive and free, I felt like I was in the team not just around them.

Arriving at the “overlook” we engaged in some facilitated conversation, reading and sharing. Pointing across the slope we visualized in wonder and horror the frantic movement of our brothers and sisters that tragic day. Soon the sun was setting and it was time to head back. Arriving back at the trail head we each had a moment to pray, give thanks, ask for forgiveness, reflect on the past three days and why we were here today.

Resilience is one thought that continually rushed through my thoughts. Imagining the resilience the families of these and the many other lost firefighters must have developed to survive. Overcoming change, adversity, set backs and challenges but always moving forward, moving north. Our team is now ready to move in this direction, taking this unique three days of isolation, selfishness and commitment to re-establish our foundation.

This next week consider taking time not only with your team but also with your family. Maybe it’s not possible to take three days to go away on a remote trip but at least take three minutes to reflect, rebuild, and begin to set the stage for resilience within your group.

Reprinted with permission by Jay Stalnacker, FMO Boulder County Sheriff's Office, from his blog "The North Star Foundation." All expressions are those of the author.

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