Monday, June 30, 2014

Day 1: Remembering Yarnell Hill Fire - One Year Ago Today

Day 1

On June 30th 2013 the wildland fire community suffered the tragic loss of 19 firefighters on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. The purpose of this week is to honor our fallen firefighters by making a commitment that we will apply the lessons we have learned every day, on every fireline we walk, and with every decision we make.

This week we ask that you use the materials provided in these safety messages as afoundation for respectful dialogue and discussion. Apply these lessons to yourself, your crew, your team and your unit. Ask yourself this…”How can these lessons help change my behavior?”

Today is dedicated to the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Never forgotten.

Learn more about the Yarnell fire incident:

[Visit 6 Minutes for Safety to download the flyer.]

A Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn

Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center logoWFLDP 2014 campaign logo6 Minutes for Safety logo

Yarnell 19 - Never Forget

Yarnell 19 Memorial Photos; photographer unknown

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Fallen But Not Forgotten

Markers fill the monument
Their names all in a row
To those who gave in sacrifice
Much honor we bestow

Memories of those we love
And those we may not know
From pain we shall always feel
To tear shed and yet to flow

Lest we not forget
This is our sacred vow
Of lessons learned they shared with us
To chains we must break now

by Pam McDonald

Pam McDonald is the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee Logistics and Social Media Coordinator and Writer/Editor for BLM Fire Training.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Resilience on a More Personal Level

(Photo credit: NPS/Barb Stewart)

A few posts ago I talked about resilience, and how we as an organization and culture are promoting it. Today I’d like to approach the concept in a simpler, more personal way. That is to say, I think there are three areas where we, as individuals, can become more resilient in our personal and professional lives – Diversity, minimizing exposure, and creating a skilled “team.”

When I say diversity, I don’t mean the politically correct phrase that is based on your genetics – I mean diversity of thoughts, actions, methodologies, tactics, habits, and the like. I’ve been lucky in my career and personal life to have learned there’s more than one or two ways to approach any kind of problem or task. It’s important, I think, that we all expand our knowledge base so that we know more than one way of doing our day-to-day tasks, whether it’s how we dig fireline, load helicopters, or sharpen a saw. So long as the end result is the same, being able to improvise when things don’t go as planned is a huge boost to resiliency.

How can we become diverse as professionals? It’s pretty easy actually. A retired FMO once told me that he had all of his people take classes and get qualifications in what are generally considered “secondary” positions in the Incident Command System – things like Base Camp Manager, Status Check-in Recorders, and Timekeepers. His reasoning was that at some point in our careers, many of us will be injured, and get put on light duty, and being able to fill those “secondary,” non-line-going positions would allow you to continue to contribute to the fire effort, as well as keep earning overtime if you weren’t able to head out on the line in an arduous position. I think this is a brilliant idea, and one that many of us need to take advantage of.

It’s also as simple getting a detail to another region of the country, in a specialty you may not be as experienced in. The more ways of doing things that you see, in different places, the more “slides” you’ll have in the back of your mind that you can draw upon when things don’t go as planned. I love having that “ah-ha!” moment when you’re trying to solve a problem, and a solution pops into mind from prior experience.

The same idea hold true for our personal lives. Learn a few different ways of doing things, even if it’s as mundane as trying a new route to work, or drive across town. Go and experience another culture, even if it’s just a road trip to another city or wild place for the weekend every now and then. The more you know about other people, other places, and other ideas, the better off you are.

Exposure to hazards. Basically, you want to minimize your exposure to any one hazard. This is a pretty easy concept to implement. Many people have probably already heard about diversifying investments to minimize risk, and it’s the same idea here. Just as lodgepole pine forests can be incredibly susceptible to pine beetle attacks when all the trees are the same age, we can be fragile when we all have the same weaknesses, whether it’s shared biases, shared ignorance, or even just shared backgrounds. As I mentioned above, diversity is a great tool to reduce exposure to any one hazard.

A small way that I practice minimizing exposure is in how I pack my IA gear. I try to split up my “survival” gear into a few different places – rain coat (and coffee packets!) in the line gear, warm puffy jacket in my flight helmet bag, and sleeping bag and small camp stove in the overnight pack. That way if I happen to get separated from any one or even two items (like my overnight pack and flight bag), I still have a bare minimum of gear in case I get stranded in a sudden rainstorm or even snow, as can happen in the late season in Montana and Idaho.

It’s the same old story about not putting all your eggs in one basket, and we can all think of ways to apply that in our personal lives.

Finally, make sure others can do your job if you can’t. I addressed this a little bit in the last blog entry, talking about authority to lead, but I think it bears repeating, this time with a different focus.

A great way to make yourself, your crew, and your family more resilient is to mentor others around you. Not only will those you mentor gain knowledge, life skills, and qualifications, but you’ll get better at the things you’re mentoring them on. Make sure that your module, your crew, and your family have the skills to succeed without you, whatever those skills may be. This will free you up to pursue your own goals when opportunity arises, and it can give enormous peace of mind to know that your family or your crew can handle whatever comes their way, be it a challenging fire assignment or a broken pipe at home.

The more people in your life that you can empower with skills and knowledge, the better. Helping others to succeed in life is vital, because you never know when you’ll need others to help you succeed.

That leads to a final point. Resiliency isn’t about being the strongest, the best, or the toughest. It’s about doing what you need to do to endure hardship and recover from it. It’s about being able to accept help when you need it, and being available to help others when they do. This is one reason why I love fire people – when a true crisis hits, we come together to endure and recover. There’s a reason why, after Hurricane Katrina, people learned to seek out the “green pants” if they needed something. We are capable of resiliency, personally and professionally, on a level that most people will never have to know, and it’s on us to keep improving our ability to rise to the occasion, no matter if it’s professional or personally.

Stay strong, stay fluid, stay safe, and be resilient.

Until next time…


Justin Vernon is a regular guest contributor on our blog. Justin is the Assistant Helitack Manager for the Garden Valley Helitack on the Boise National Forest. Check out his Chasing Fire blog.

All expressions are those of the author.

Read "Thoughts on Resiliency" on our blog.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

LCES and Other Thoughts

Paul Gleason - Ship Island
(Paul Gleason, Ship Island)
by Paul Gleason 
(Adapted from Document from June 1991)

I have been asked to give input on wildland firefighter safety to the Fire and Aviation Staff - Safety and Training, Washington Office. First, let me say I am honored to be able to contribute at this level. The afternoon of June 26, 1990, as I knelt beside a dead Perryville firefighter, I made a promise to the best of my ability to help end the needless fatalities, and alleviate the near misses, by focusing on training and operations pertinent to these goals.

Throughout my career I have dealt with wildland fire suppression, as a Hotshot Crew supervisor, with only minor injuries occurring to those I have directly supervised. This is primarily because of two reasons, luck (which cannot be ignored) and basic lessons which I have learned from the exceptional firefighters I have had the opportunity to work with. Many of the really valuable suppression lessons I learned were prior to fire shelter requirements.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Author John N. Maclean Answers Students of Fire Questions

"Fire on the Mountain" cover

In preparation for "A Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn," the Sparks for Professional Reading Program Change and NWCG Leadership Subcommittee welcome national best seller author John N. Maclean to our tribute to our fallen. 

John Maclean is the author of "Fire on the Mountain" (story of South Canyon), "Fire and Ashes" (collection of essays on U.S. wildfire firefighting), "The Thirtymile Fire," and "The Esperanza Fire." John's father was Norman Maclean, author of "Young Men and Fire" (the story of Mann Gulch).

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper

"A Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn" 2014
(Photo credit: Jenn Smith, NIFC External Affairs and NWCG Leadership Subcommittee)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Sharing Information is POWER!

"Information's only valuable if you give it to people with the ability to do something with it." ~ General Stanley McChrystal
In this TED Talks video, Retired General Stanley McChrystal shares his experience with the culture shift from hiding information to sharing information.

Video Takeaways

  • Follow your instincts. Go with your gut and what you've learned.
  • Change your culture from "who needs to know" to "who doesn't know, and we need to tell and tell them as quickly as we can."
  • Create situation awareness rooms.
  • Information gets leaked out, and you aren't going to like it.
  • We are better off if we share information than if we hold it back.
Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge
Discuss with your teams how you can change your culture to share information. Identify your plan to share information. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Food for Thought

Mini poster

"The people who turn out to be the best leaders are those who have previously been the best followers." ~ Alexander Haslam

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Story Behind the Mountain

Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program logo
A while back we asked students of fire about the “Meaning Behind the Mountain”—what the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program (WFLDP) logo represented. Here is what we were able to piece together from former NWCG Leadership Committee members. We added a few statements from Leading in the Wildland Fire Service to support each element.

Mountain – The mountain symbolizes the leadership challenge.

Leaders often face difficult problems to which there are no simple, clear cut, by-the-book solutions. In these situations, leaders must use their knowledge, skill, experience, education, values, and judgment to make decisions and to take or direct action—in short, to provide leadership. (p. 1)

Leadership is a tough choice. Leaders choose to sacrifice their own needs for those of their teams and organizations. They routinely face situations and make decisions that others criticize and second-guess. Leaders take risks and face challenges every day. (p. 6)

Road or path – Leadership is a path or journey that is laborious and winding; some get further along the path than others.

A leader’s journey is a perpetual cycle of acquiring, shaping, and honing the knowledge and skills of leadership. The leadership journey is never finished. (p. 5)

Fire leaders bring order to chaos, improve our people’s lives, and strengthen our organizations. Leading enables us to leave a legacy for the leaders of the future so that they can take our places well prepared for the road ahead. (p. 6)

Values and Principles – The WFLDP is structured around a set of leadership values and principles as a means of communicating what right looks like and illustrating effective leadership in action.

Leaders in the wildland fire service seek and accept the duty to lead. We serve our people, our communities, and our nation. We fulfill our obligation by mastering our jobs, making sound and timely decisions, ensuring tasks can be done and are accomplished, and fostering this spirit of duty in subordinates. (p. 25)

To gain respect for our people, we first respect them. Leaders demonstrate respect for our people in many ways: by getting to know them, by looking out for their well-being, by keeping them informed, by putting forth the effort to build strong teams, and by employing them in accordance with their capabilities. (p. 45)

Leaders cannot hide what they do; they are always setting an example. Followers assess their leader’s integrity every day. If people believe a leader has integrity, they can accept other weaknesses and help compensate for them. (p. 59)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Food For Thought

Mini poster

"Greatness doesn't come from who we think we are; it comes from what we do." ~ Gordon Tredgold

Friday, June 13, 2014

Reflections on South Canyon

Redding IHC at South Canyon Staff Ride 2014
(Redding IHC at South Canyon Staff Ride 2014; photo credit: Shane Olpin)
Reflections on South Canyon
by Justin Vernon

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, 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 in 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 it 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 all 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’re 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, exposed 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 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…

Justin Vernon is a regular guest contributor on our blog. Justin is the Assistant Helitack Manager for the Garden Valley Helitack on the Boise National Forest. Check out his Chasing Fire blog.
All expressions are those of the author.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Silence Amid the Noise

During a discussion revolving around last year's Yarnell Hill tragedy, a firefighter mentioned the importance of focusing on the basics. The conversation reminded me of Paul Gleason's position following the Dude fire. Paul's leadership efforts challenged wildland firefighters to focus on the basics: LCES (Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones).

"LCES is just a re-focusing on the essential elements of the FIRE ORDERS. The systems view stresses the importance of the components working together. The LCES system is a result of analyzing fatalities and near-misses for over 20 years of active fireline suppression duties. I believe that all firefighters should be given a interconnecting view of Lookout(s), Communication(s), Escape routes and safety zone(s)." ~ Paul Gleason in "LCES and Other Thoughts."

See what Richard St. John has to say about a focusing.

Video Takeaways:
  • Go wide then focus.
  • Success requires a single-minded focus.
  • Become an expert at something.
  • Short-term concentration is important.
  • Eliminate the distractions when you need to concentrate.
  • Some people use noise to eliminate distractions.
  • Learn to concentrate through practice.
Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge

Join the TED Ed discussion on the topic of focus. Create a lesson for the wildland fire service and send us a link to the lesson (, so we can share it with others.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

We're "CALLING OUT" All Wildland Firefighters

South Canyon Staff Ride
Cold water challenges have proven a great way to support local charities, many of whom respond in the aftermath of a wildland fire tragedy. The Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program (WFLDP) was created out of our tragedies "to promote cultural change in the work force and to emphasize the vital importance of leadership concepts in the wildland fire service by providing education and leadership development opportunities."

Granite Mountain IHC logoWildland firefighting is a dangerous job, and we owe it to our fallen to learn from their sacrifices and do everything within our power to ensure that everyone comes home. South Canyon and Yarnell were defining moments in our history. Cultivating a culture of followership where great leaders can emerge to create healthy organizations is paramount. Therefore, we are CALLING OUT all members of the wildland fire service to accept the IGNITE the Spark for Leadership Challenge. Leadership is ACTION, and we have set some goals that only you can help us reach:

1) Identify a Leadership Advocate(s) whose job is to:
  • Share bi-weekly blog posts with the team.
  • Monitor the WFLDP Facebook page for information.
  • Work with the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee Logistics and Social Media Coordinator Pam McDonald ( to showcase their team’s leadership in action moments through blog posts, videos, etc.
  • Provide each member of the team with a copy of the WFLDP Values and Principles.
  • Conduct a values and principles commitment exercise with their team and send their patch, logo, or signature page (create your own) to Pam McDonald (National Interagency Fire Center, 3833 S. Development Ave., Boise, ID 83705 or via email above) for placement on the WFLDP wall.
  • Download a copy of "Leading in the Wildland Fire Service” for every member of your team. (Paperback, PMS 494-2,
  • Promote the 2014 WF Leadership Campaign - The Resilient Team and submit an entry for the "IGNITE the Spark for Leadership - From the Field for the Field" contest.

2) Help us reach roll right over the 5,000 Facebook follower milestone before "A Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn" from June 30-July 6. We know you can do it!

3) Help us increase our weekly blog followership by 10%.

As we approach the anniversary of two organizationally changing events, we are CALLING OUT all members of the wildland fire service to IGNITE the Spark for Leadership.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Developing Realistic Tactical Objectives

Time wedge for decision making
"Leaders can optimize their decision space by using time efficiently. Seeking advance information in new situations or utilzing standard operating procedures for routine tasks are examples of techniques that make good use of available time."
Much of the work in the wildland fire service is technical. In demonstrating technical proficiency, fire leaders adhere to professional standard operating procedures, following established best practices.

Competent leaders develop plans to accomplish given objectives and communicate plans throughout the chain of command. Leaders exercise good judgment to ensure that the plan matches the objectives, employing people, equipment, and time wisely. (Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, pp. 25-26.)

Take a moment to present the "Developing Realistic Tactical Objectives" module from the 2014 Wildland Fire Annual Fireline Safety Refresher to your team.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

"A Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn" June 30-July 6, 2014

M-14-06 MEMORANDUM – 6 June 2014

TO: NWCG Executive Board, NWCG Program Management Unit, NWCG Committee Chairs, Geographic Area Coordinating Group Managers
FROM: Dan Smith, Chair, NWCG Executive Board
SUBJECT: “A Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn” June 30-July 6, 2014

This summer, the interagency wildland fire community will mark the 20-year anniversary of the South Canyon Fire accident, that occurred on July 6, 1994, and the one-year anniversary of the Yarnell Hill Fire accident, that occurred on June 30, 2013.

Although these accidents were separated in time by 19 years, they are bound together by several tragic commonalities. Both accidents were burnovers; both accidents resulted in multiple fatalities of highly trained, skilled, and experienced wildland firefighters; and both occurred during devastating wildfire seasons in which 34 wildland firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty.

We believe that the anniversaries of these accidents merit designating Monday, June 30 through Sunday, July 6 as “A Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn,” to honor the memories of all fallen wildland firefighters and to reflect on lessons learned from different types of wildland fire accidents. We invite and encourage all local, state, and federal agencies with roles and responsibilities in wildland fire suppression to participate in this commemoration as they see fit.

From June 30 through July 6, the “6 Minutes for Safety Program” will provide resources to facilitate reflection on, and discussion of, the South Canyon and Yarnell Hill fire accidents as well as some of the hazards that pose the most serious risks to wildland firefighters. The 6 Minutes for Safety Resources will be available online at the Lessons Learned Center website at and in the daily Incident Management Situation Report from June 30 through July 6, available online at

Public commemoration events are being held in Colorado and Arizona. Information is available
online at and

Many positive changes have occurred in the culture of the interagency wildland fire community, and many effective tools have been developed, that have significantly enhanced the safety of wildland firefighters during the 20 years since the South Canyon Fire accident occurred. Agencies with roles and responsibilities in wildland fire suppression continue to work together to do everything possible to reduce the likelihood of similar events in the future. The “Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn” offers an opportunity to renew our commitment to enhancing the safety of the men and women dedicated to protecting lives, property, and natural and cultural resources throughout the United States. We hope that your agency will choose to participate.

c: Jennifer Jones, USFS Public Affairs; Randy Eardley, BLM Public Affairs; Brit Rosso, Manager, Lessons Learned Center; Kathy Komatz, Lead, Six Minutes for Safety

Friday, June 6, 2014

Paul's Secret Sauce

Secret sauce
(Photo credit:
"’s more than rebounding; it’s about taking those lessons, makings the adjustments and changes to ensure success for the future.” ~ Peter referring to "resilience"
Paul's Secret Sauce
by Jay Stalnacker
I remember going to my grandparents house every Sunday afternoon. We would all load into the family car drive across town to meet my cousins, uncle and grandparents for a Sunday late afternoon dinner.

My Hungarian grandmother would spend all morning making fresh homemade bread and preparing one of her classic Hungarian dishes. Before the dinner was served, my cousins and I would spend the day playing street football, my grandfather, father and uncle would watch football, shouting at the tv as they watched their weekly salary disappear as the bets they made earlier that morning never made the bookies point spread. My grandmother, mother and sisters would all sit and talk in the kitchen as the aroma of the meal filled the house. Eventually we would all sit down and enjoy the food, laugh and share our weekly stories.

Later as Kim and I became closer, she would join us for this ritual. Eventually we would witness my grandmother aging rapidly right in front of our eyes, soon the meals began to lose some of that special flavor and the work preparing would seem overwhelming for her. At some point Kim decided to ask for some recipes, hoping to capture the family secrets. My grandmother was elusive, and Kim would stand nearby as she prepared the meals watching her every move. Any time she asked about measurements or recipes, my grandmother would only smile and share ” it’s about this much,” pinching some unknown amount of ingredient into her palm. Kim would constantly ask questions and watch her every detail; and eventually over time, she was able to piece together a few of the best meals. Now, just about every holiday Kim will cook us one of these special meals; and every time, my mind races with memories of family, friends and great food.

Leadership is a lot like my grandmother's cooking. Over the years I’ve tried to answer the question, “what makes a great leader?” In other words, what are the key ingredients in this recipe? Some say leaders are born not made. I’m not sure if I agree with this or not; but I can say, great leadership does require certain ingredients. As with my grandmother's cooking, the secret recipes of leadership and the unmeasurable ingredients are typically held close until it’s much too late to share.

It’s an unfortunate truth: we in public safety continually watch as our great mentors and leaders age right in front of our eyes and never pass the recipe to the next generation. As I now approach a point in my career where I may have some recipes to share, I find myself also holding these secrets close. Maybe it’s because I’m just not sure of the exact measurements and scared that the meal may not taste just right if someone else makes it. The reality is there is no right answer and just like different chefs can prepare the same exact dish, there will still be great variations in the final taste. With this in mind, I wanted to take a stab at sharing one of my recipes, ingredient by ingredient. Unfortunately, I have no measurements just “pinches in the palm of my hand.”

To begin with, you will need a good size bowl on a countertop placed solidly somewhere to mix all of this up before you put it in the oven. It’s called a foundation; this is a combination of having a solid family life, dependable and accountable friends along with a deep spiritual connection.You will need somewhere and someone to come home to after the shift is over and the fire is out. Someone that you can talk with and that will unconditionally love you no matter if the call went good or bad. Ideally, a spouse, significant other or close family member can be that person. You also need a friend to hold you accountable and someone that you can depend on to keep you straight and focused when the challenges begin to overwhelm and the demons begin to win. Lastly, you need a spiritual connection to help you understand there is meaning and purpose to your work. I'm talking about that moral compass most great leaders have that many lesser men fail to find.

Now, you can begin to add some ingredients: a splash of self awareness, a pinch of humbleness, a quart of learning and bunch of passion. Being aware of your weaknesses and strengths is critical to successful leadership. No one said a leader needs to be perfect, but what we should expect is a conscious effort to see within oneself and understand that your outward actions, words and choices influence your followers both good and bad. Having an introspection of yourself is almost the only ingredient needed as it’s one of the most difficult things to conquer and the greatest thing you can do to improve.

While smokejumping, they constantly talked about leadership and confidence. But they also sprinkled this with humility. Through many tests in training and on real incidents you were always pushed to the edge of physical endurance or mental fatigue. We were always asked to do more, give more and provide more. But they also always made sure you humbly lead both downwards, but even more importantly, upwards by example and with respect.

No recipe of leadership should be without Paul Gleason’s secret sauce, “become a student of fire." You can replace “fire” with just about anything…father, son, husband, wife, friend, banker, lawyer…the point remains the same: you must continue to learn, grow, expand and have resilience.

One of the greatest examples of resilience is watching Paul both early in his career and later in life. I was fortunate enough to briefly know him towards the end and after the Cerro Grande Fire. He had so much to share and all of it was his lifetime of lessons learned. But more importantly the changes, adjustments and growth from those lessons. Recently, I interviewed a group of young men and women for a new permanent position in our program. One question I asked was, “what does a resilient team mean to you? Peter, a senior guy applying just about brought the table of interviewers to their knees as he shared, “it’s more than rebounding; it’s about taking those lessons, makings the adjustments and changes to ensure success for the future.” I was proud of Peter that day; and hopefully, Paul is looking down on me with some appreciation of where I’ve come as a leader through his example.

Lastly, you add as much passion as the bowl will allow. Passion drives you and provides the fuel and taste for success. It attracts and like fresh brownies out of the oven draws everyone to the kitchen. You must love what you do. It’s just that simple. I didn’t say let it overwhelm you. Adding too much of any one of these ingredients will ruin the taste and ultimately cause the meal to burn in the oven. Too much passion can burn you out and will smoke out the kitchen, chasing your guest far away. The idea of a leader's ability to provide an end state and intent to the mission is true passion. As his or her followers will then feel empowered and believe in the common cause. Passion is motivation and brings meaning and purpose.

After the Boulder County flood disaster of 2013, I met with LTC Mitch Utterback. I told him the greatest example of leaders intent I ever witnessed were his words "go do dangerous shit and come home alive.” This incident briefing ending comment became the motivation and vision that the end was possible for many tired and overwhelmed rescuers and pulled many of us out of our misery and towards a focus to finish the mission. Classic passionate leadership is all I can say.

Once it’s all mixed well and the oven is pre-heated you pour this all into a pan and place it in the heat. That heat is the incident, the business problem or the cancer. It’s a place where most will crash and burn; but for great leaders, it’s where we finish the preparation. As with a great chef sliding his masterpiece into that oven, with the right temperature and timing, the meal will come out just like grandma's and hopefully you can enjoy a dinner where family, friends and others will come to talk, share and solve problems or an incident where your followers lead upwards without fear, solve problems with creativity and ultimately come home safely.

Who would have ever known Grandma had the secret the whole time.

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.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Upside of Stress

In her TED video "How to Make Stress Your Friend," Kelly McGonigal shares how the belief that stress may be as bad for you as the stress itself. McGonigal presents research on the subject and a few ways to change how you think about stress to make you healthier.

Stress  (Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, p. 47)

Representing a significant risk to safety and operational effectiveness, stress can bring about reactions such as tunnel vision or confusion that substantially degrade situation awareness—in ourselves and in our people.

To mitigate this risk, leaders act to alleviate the effects of stress by:
  • Understanding our own stress reactions—the triggers that set them off, the symptoms, the mitigations to put into place to reduce them. 
  • Monitoring and preventing stress buildup in their teams—openly discussing the causes of stress and the potential mitigations. 
  • Encouraging team members to watch out for each other by monitoring one another’s stress reactions.
Additional information about the research can be found on TED Blog.

A special thanks to Jeff Arnberger, BLM Fire Operations, for bringing this video to our attention.

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