As promised folks, herein are my considered thoughts regarding the book, Fire on the Mountain by John N. Maclean, and more importantly, my ideas on the tragedy of the loss of lives on the South Canyon Fire. The following conclusions are based on my personal experience as a firefighter and as a leader of other firefighters during my own career. I donít pretend to be, nor do I have any illusions of being the ultimate authority on firefighters or fire behavior. What I am offering, is my perspective of why the tragedy happened with the idea that shared information has the potential of averting another catastrophe.
As I look back on the messages posted on "They Said" regarding other readers interpretation of Macleanís book, and reflect on the general theme of the book, a few common issues stand out. First of all, there seems much attention paid to the idea of friction between the BLMís Grand Junction District and the Western Slope Coordination Center. There are apparently well documented incidents leading me to believe this may have been true. Secondly, there is far too much discussion and dialogue questioning why the fire was allowed to burn so long prior to assigning resources. Third, questions are raised questioning the lack of adequate resources assigned to the fire once initial attack action began and why there wasnít more air support after the first crews were assigned.
Prior to sharing my beliefs on the above issues, allow me a moment to regress and address my opinion on John N. Maclean, the author. I thought Mr. Maclean captured the characters and spirit of the firefighters who died in a manner that allowed me to identify with and feel close to them. I swallowed a large lump in my throat several times as I read some of the decisions made and imagined the horror our fellow firefighters experienced immediately prior to and during their being overrun. Iíll also give credit for the research completed and reconstruction of the events leading up to the disaster, which allowed other readers and myself to visualize the sad story. However, itís my opinion John N. Maclean doesnít know and failed to learn enough about the fire suppression organization and firefighters as an entity. I think Mr. Macleanís having a father writing about a similar tragedy forty years prior fail to qualify him to write about this story. "Thirty years writing, reporting, and editing for the Chicago Tribune", seem to me an unlikely background to begin deducing and assigning blame in this tragedy. Burned up firefighters must have appeared a very attractive subject matter, especially when there were indications of government ineptitude involved.
You may be getting an idea of where Iím going here and you are invited to stop reading if you think you may be offended or disagree. My major point with this missive is. . . the responsibility for the safety of each firefighter belongs on themselves and their immediate supervisor. Thatís it! It seldom goes any higher than that!
This perspective will base its conclusions entirely on how the 10 Standards and 18 Watch Out Situations were followed, so letís begin by quoting the 10 Standards and see how they fit in:
1. Fight fires aggressively but provide for safety first.
This, the number one and primary rule, is also the first ignored. Suffice to say, according to Mr. Maclean, many of the firefighters and their supervisors were aware of and didnít like the situation they were in, but kept on going. The doubts and fears some of them had regarding their safety was documented many times in the book.
2. Initiate all actions on current and expected fire behavior.
The only problem I see here is that most of the firefighters were from out of the area and seemed oblivious to the high potential flammability of the fuels.
3. Recognize current weather conditions and obtain forecasts.
This is a big one! I now ask you, the reader, "Whose basic responsibility is it to obtain a weather forecast?" Is it the weather forecasterís responsibility to predict the weather? Certainly. Is it the local agencyís responsibility to disseminate the forecast? Of course. Is it the ICís responsibility to obtain the forecast? Yes. Is it each supervisors job to make sure they know of significant weather changes and impart it to their crew? Yes. Is it each firefighters job to make sure they are aware of what the weather is going to do? Yes.
So, my question is. . . why is there so much blame being cast towards the upper echelons, when it can just as easily be blamed on each firefighter for bravely, but foolishly, attempting to do their job without knowing the weather forecast? Just who, my fellow firefighters, is going to feel the heat should when the information flow is disrupted? Who may not be home for the holidays if they donít keep informed?
A simple solution my friends. . . donít accept an assignment, donít set foot on the line, until you know the weather forecast! This one broken RULE, itís a rule goddammit, if followed, may have prevented all the fatalities. This was NOT a surprise, unpredicted event. The fault does NOT lay with some hidden dispatcher or forecaster and cannot be blamed on some ambiguous breakdown in communications. If ya donít have a weather forecast, stay in camp. Refuse the assignment. Get in your buggies or engines or buses and go home! I have little tolerance for crew supervisors who attend the shift briefings and merely nod their heads, wave at their friends, and go about their business without demanding answers to overlooked questions!
4. Ensure instructions are given and understood.
No problem here. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing, even though some of them had bad feelings about it.
5. Obtain current information on fire status.
Another rule broken. No one on the fire could see what was happening below, nor on the next ridge. Once the personnel were deposited, or hiked into the fire, they were unable to obtain adequate information on what the fire was doing below them. The helicopter pilot of 93 Romeo, as he admitted in the book, certainly wasnít air attack qualified and was uncertain of what was transpiring.
6. Remain in communication with crew members, your supervisor, and adjoining forces.
This wasnít a problem until the shit hit the fan. All supervisors seemed aware of the general location of where their crewmembers were. The main problem I see is the dispersion of crewmembers. I always feel that my crew is mine and I understand my primary responsibility lies in knowing exactly where they are at all times and knowing that they are under my immediate control. I have never allowed the responsibility for my crewmembers safety to rely on another supervisor. I question the fact that the supervisors of the various crews allowed their crewmembers to become fragmented into loosely organized, widely separated units working in several areas, some of them without direct communication. I feel this was a major contribution to the supervisors losing contact and control in a critical situation. I am committed to the fact that crews are NOT created equally. It is my policy that I always know what is best for my crew and that each person on my crew knows the consequences of allowing someone else to take control of them There is nothing that agitates me more and gets a crewmembers ass chewed out worse than disobeying my orders as when they allow someone else to convince them to abandon my assigned duties and perform other tasks.
7. Determine safety zones and escape routes.
These were identified, however they were obviously inadequate and inaccessible. Worst case scenario happened there wasnít even a clean burned area to escape to. This is the second, and most important, in my mind, standard fire order broken leading to lives lost on this fire. If you have a good safety zone, you may be excused and live to talk about how you broke all the other Standard Orders. A good and accessible safety zone may protect you from ignorant and foolish management! But ya gotta be able to make it to the zone!
8. Establish lookouts in potentially hazardous situations.
Never effectively happened.
9. Retain control at all times.
See rule #6 above for the supervisors actions. The main issue here is the lack of experience and leadership exhibited by the Incident Commander. Now just who exactly was that? It seemed to be offered to several different crew supervisors, with none of them wanting to accept the responsibility. There can only be ONE IC on a fire. That person must be prepared to accept full responsibility for all activities on their fire. In this case, the responsibility lay in unprepared and seriously untrained hands. Lest I belabor the point, it may be you next time and I urge you strongly to, when in doubt, just say NO.
10. Stay alert, keep calm, think clearly, and act decisively
Ok here, but with the above rules broken, it didnít matter much.
Letís take a pause for a minute before we examine the 18 Watchout Situations and find if there are more clues to this disaster. It looks so far that seven of the ten Standard Orders were broken or at least bent a little. Since I donít feel all the 18 Watchout Situations were ignored, Iíll only address the ones I feel contributed to the end results.
4. Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior.
This is significant. Although not always accessible, prior to fighting fire on unfamiliar terrain and weather areas, it is most important to find and pump a local resource for information.
8. Constructing line without safe anchor point.
The anchor point (on top of the ridge?) was burned over in a flash. Not even close. I donít recall this ever being mentioned as critical in the book. Mr. Maclean wouldnít know an anchor point from a pencil point.
9. Building line downhill with fire below.
This has to be the ultimate in wrong decision making. Along with no valid lookouts posted, this factor has been the fundamental root cause of the majority of loss of firefighter lives throughout documented history. I can think of no justification for lives lost while ignoring this basic concept. I have cursed and been cursed for refusing to take my crew down into holes I didnít trust. Iíve been threatened being sent home and with letters written to my forest supervisor. Bottom line, once again, is that I am sitting here writing my thoughts tonight at the computer and all the crewmembers with me those during those times were alive to cash their overtime checks.
11. Unburned fuel between you and the fire.
This situation happens all the time. In this case, there really wasnít a lot of "burned fuel" to escape into. This watchout by itself in many situations may not be so bad, but in this case, it was critical.
12. Cannot see main fire and not in contact with anyone who can.
See Standard Order #5 and #8
15. Wind increases and/or changes direction.
Too late! See Standard Order #3.
17. Terrain or fuels make escape to safety zones difficult!
As mentioned above several times, this one has the potential to get you every time. Either you have a safety zone or you donít. There is no in-between. You have one. Or you donít. Either you have a place you can easily get to or your ass remains on the line. Either you know where it is or you donít. It really should be a simple, easy rule to remember and understand. Look at how tall the fuels are around you. Imagine them burning horizontal in a worst case scenario. Take the extra time to cut your crew an area free of those fuels so you can, if need be, crawl back outtía your fire shelter and take some pictures of how you "almost " died on a fire!
As we finish our examination, being conservative, Iíve identified and expounded on at least 7 Standard Orders and 7 Watchoutís broken or ignored.
Assuming there may be a few readers left with me here, Iíll now address the issues noted in the second paragraph of this article. The failure of a firefighter, all firefighters, any firefighters, regardless of rank, to follow established rules or guidelines have little to do with weather forecasters, district managers, or dispatch centers. Yet, Mr. Maclean in his ignorance and some of the readers of his book seem to prefer blaming some of these individuals, or others who were far from the fireline. An excess amount of uninformed, misplaced, insinuations filled far too many pages of the book as the author critiqued decisions and placed blame on those making decisions about when the fire first ignited, how long it was left to burn, whose jurisdiction or responsibility it was, and how long it took until resources began to attack the fire. I consider this extraneous information as fluff, dander, and fill to make the book fit the parameter of a novel at around 275 pages. Most of dialogue, interviews, and conclusions fail to address the primary responsibility of each firefighter to comply with the fundamental rules already existing to govern their actions and behavior.
It didnít matter if the South Canyon fire was burning for a week or a month, it didnít matter if the fire was 5 or 500 acres prior to initial attack, or if there were 10 or 100 airtankers five miles away ideally spinning their props. Understand? It doesnít matter and has absolutely no bearing on why the firefighters died. Do you get it? The primary responsibility for a crewís safety lies with their crew supervisor. Period. It doesnít matter who the IC is, who the Division Supervisor is, nor the Branch Director, nor any other person in an observing status. Itís the crew supervisor!
From the bottom of my heart I feel a deep sadness at the loss of these firefighters. My purpose here is not to cast blame on individuals, nor John MacLean, but to try to identify the specific causes of a tragedy from a pragmatic rather than emotional point of view.
I believe adequate training was provided these people to prevent this scenario from happening. They just didnít follow the rules. I would like to have the capability of making sure each firefighter reading this understands that a similar situation may happen to them on any given fire. My hopes are that each of you are aware that you have the right to "question authority". Ensure you understand and are aware of the 10 Standard Orders and the 18 Watchout Situations! Make sure you understand them and apply them to every fire you fight. You have the right to refuse any assignment you are uncomfortable with. You have the right to say NO!
Seldom politically correct, always fire correct. . . Abercrombie
Further reading on the South Canyon Fire can be found on the links below.
Fire Behavior Associated with the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado
Report of the Interagency Management Review Team South Canyon Fire
The South Canyon Fire
Wildfire Magazine Safety Articles