Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Legacy of Leaders: Beyond South Canyon and Yarnell


by Rowdy Muir

The 20th anniversary of South Canyon has caused me to reflect on the events that occurred on the mountain of Storm King and how they relate to Yarnell Hill. How did our wildland fire community get through those tough times 20 years ago; how will we get beyond Yarnell?

I remember South Canyon as though it was yesterday. Our team was assigned to the Corral Fire on the Payette National Forest when the South Canyon Investigation report came out. Our Incident Commander, Roy Johnson, was assigned to the South Canyon investigation team. Speculations and rumors of what really happened were in every conversation. Just like it has been with Yarnell Hill. 

The news was hard to stomach. How would I move past the tragedy?  It was only July 6 and there was plenty of fire season left. Just a few bad decisions or mistakes and it could happen to me. I needed to find a way to stay on top of my game.

I was a young 4th year Division Supervisor on a National Type I Incident Management Team. I tried to never show my fear. I’m sure many hotshot superintendents thought I was a young punk kid. For the most part they were correct; still, they somehow let me think I was in charge.

I moved beyond what happened at South Canyon by watching and following those who had many years of experience leading people. I would like to say thanks to those who have mentored many of us through some difficult times through the years. I mention these names because they’re the ones I spent many years either sleeping or working in the dirt with.

Greg Overacker (Stanislaus) had 18 years of experience as a hotshot superintendent prior to South Canyon and went on to be superintendent for 10 more years. Greg then retired and went to work for Cal-Fire. When I became a Type I Incident Commander, Greg continued to call me “Chief.” Mark Linane (Los Padres) had 20 years of experience as a hotshot superintendent prior to South Canyon and went on to be superintendent for 6 more years. I always admired Mark and the crew for their hard work ethic. Jay Bertek (El Cariso) had 7 years as the superintendent prior to South Canyon and 19 years after. Jay impressed me by becoming a lead instructor for L-380. I can add Fred Schoeffler (Payson) who was a superintendent 13 years prior to South Canyon and went 13 more years; Fred was also closely connected with the Dude Fire. That’s roughly 105 years of experience with just those four.  

The legacy of names that lead us through the trying times includes Richard Aguilar (Wolf Creek) 20 years as a superintendent; Steve Karkanen (Lolo) 20 years; Ron Regan (Del Rosa) 19 years; Robert “Horseshoe Bob” Bennett (Horseshoe Meadows) 18 years; Craig Workman (Black Mountain) 17 years who I could rarely catch up to on the line; Dave Conklin (Bear Divide) 17 years; Scott Bushman (Logan) 16 years-who smoked like a chimney, but would hike you to death; Rusty Witmer (Hobart/Tahoe), Luther Clements (Warm Springs), and Paul Musser (Flagstaff)—each with 15 years.

The list goes on: Mike Beckett (Eldorado) with 14 years; Jim Cook (Arrowhead) 13 years; Mark Rogers (Wyoming)—who I spent many days with in 1988 during the Yellowstone Fires; Larry Edwards (Helena), Bob Wright (Sacramento), Britt Rosso (Arrowhead) and Bob Lamay (Smokey Bear) all had 12 years as superintendents.

There’s J.P. Mattingly (Alpine), Dan Kleinman (Fulton) (Dan is still working on a NIMO Team), Kurt LaRue (Diamond Mountain)—who taught me that some things are better left alone, John Thomas (Texas Canyon), Harvey Carr (Flathead), Paul Linse (Flathead)-who went on to an Area Command team) and Tony Sciacca (Prescott) all had 10 years as superintendents. Stan Stewart (Los Padres) had 9 years as a superintendent.

As I look at the names of these leaders who were Hotshot Superintendents before, during and beyond South Canyon, I realize I’ve been influenced by some of the greatest leaders within the wildland fire community--29 Leaders with over 400 years of experience.

So the question remains. ”How do we get beyond Yarnell Hill”? My answer would be to watch and follow those who take it upon themselves to lead us as did those 20 years ago. Leaders like:
Ron Bollier (Fulton) 17 years; Lyle St. Goddard (Chief Mountain) 16 years (Lyle was a Squad Boss on the crew during South Canyon); Rick “Cowboy” Cowell (Tahoe) 16 years (recently retired); Dewey Rebbe (Gila)—who never knew when or where I might show up on the fire line and swore there was only two Negrito shirts left and I wasn’t getting one—Rich Dolphin (Smokey Bear) who spent several years as the National IHC Chair, and Lamar Liddell (Jackson) all with 15 years.  Steve Sevelson (Plumas) 14 years, Johnny Clem (Klamath), who now chairs the National IHC committee, Randy Anderson (Snake River), Mike Alarid (Bear Divide), and Diego Mendiola (Zig Zag) all with 13 years. John Armstrong (Texas Canyon) 12 years, Matt Hoggard (Black Mountain), Bill Kuche (Flagstaff), Frank “Pancho” Auza (Black Mesa), Bart Yeager (Vale)—who helped me with writing the “Dutch Creek Protocols”—and Brian Cardoza (Idaho City) all have or will soon have 10 years.

Seventeen more leaders with over 249 years of experience who remember South Canyon and were mentored by those mentioned above.

All these leaders (and there are more, outside the hotshot community as well) have shouldered the challenges and moved us forward. I’m truly grateful and humbled to have had the chance to work with these individuals. I owe a great deal to them for how they impacted my career, and for how they have contributed to the legacy of leadership that will get us from South Canyon to Yarnell and beyond.


Rowdy Muir
(Rowdy Muir, Fire and Aviation Safety Team during the Beaver Creek fire near Sun Valley, Idaho, 2013. Photo credit: Bureau of Indian Affairs)
Thank you to Rowdy Muir, U.S. Forest Service Flaming Gorge District Ranger, for sharing this information with us.

1 comment:

Firechick said...

You forgot Dick Kastler, Supe of Asheville IHC for 14 years (1989-2003).