Catastrophic wildfires and risks to hotshot crews

By December 16, 2013 February 15th, 2016 No Comments

Dec. 16–GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — Flames crackling mere millimeters behind him, Eric Hipke clambered up the last steep stretch of a rugged mountainside engulfed by roiling fire.

Hipke was panting hard when he screamed and hurled himself over the ridge.

He made it with five seconds to spare, investigators concluded later.

Josh Brinkley walks past a burned out tree on Storm King mountain in Colorado on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.

The blaze seared the backs of Hipke’s neck, arms, legs and the hands cupped over his ears.

The worst agony, though, was learning that 14 fellow firefighters perished behind him on Storm King Mountain that July 6, 1994, in Colorado’s South Canyon Fire.

Nearly 20 years later, Hipke’s burns have healed. His sorrow, however, persists.

Wildfire deaths of this magnitude had not occurred for 45 years, not since Montana’s Mann Gulch Fire killed 12 smokejumpers and a forest ranger on Aug. 5, 1949.

The Colorado catastrophe signaled the need for critical changes, and many have been made.

The mountain today is studded with marble crosses, each laden with personal mementos, on the spots where the four women and 10 men died.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott, Ariz., made the pilgrimage there two years ago to pay their respects, recalled Darrell Willis, wildland division chief for the Prescott Fire Department.

Josh Brinkley looks at the memorial for McCall Smokejumper Jim Thrash on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.

“We hiked Storm King Mountain with this (20-member hotshot) crew, and we all said, ‘This will never happen to us.'”

All but one of those hotshots died June 30 during the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, where shifting winds, canyon topography and an apparent lack of situational awareness eerily echoed the South Canyon tragedy.

The 19 deaths in Arizona shocked firefighters and civilians alike. They occurred 19 years after South Canyon.

“I never thought we’d wipe out a whole crew,” said Randy Skelton, deputy fire staff officer on the Payette National Forest.

Deaths, Dangers Rising

Fourteen firefighters died on Storm King mountain west of Glenwood Springs, Colo., during the South Canyon Fire on July 6, 1994.

In all, 34 people — including one in Idaho — died this year while fighting wildfires, the worst count in almost 20 years. (Idaho smokejumper Mark Urban died, too, when his parachute failed to open during a training exercise.)

Despite all the refinements to wildfire fighting, the death toll is up.

Two factors are spiking the dangers exponentially:

— Climate change is producing abundant lightning storms and severe droughts resulting in sere landscapes of dried cheatgrass, brush, beetle-killed trees and other highly flammable fuels. Fire seasons now last up to 10 months rather than five or six.

“I was seeing fire behavior this year that I hadn’t seen in a while,” Josh Brinkley said in September while standing on Storm King Mountain, where his brother Levi was killed. “Everything was so dry.

“The PIG (probability of ignition) in a normal year is 80 percent. This year, as early as 9 a.m., it was 100 percent all season long. I talked to old-timers who had never seen it that dry for years,” said Josh, a Twin Falls-based supervisory wildland fire operations specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

— Simultaneously, more and more homes are being erected in the urban-wildland interface — most without fire-retardant materials much less any fire-defensible space.

The trend underscores a lack of responsibility by local governments and property owners, said Larry Edwards, a 1970s hotshot in California, Oregon and New Mexico who landed in Helena, Mont., in 1989 as a superintendent and retired in 2004.

“Personal rights come with responsibilities. In Australia, homes are built to be defensible. They don’t put firefighters in there to save homes,” Edwards said. “They understand that they’re living with wildfire, and we don’t have that understanding here.”

While none of this bodes well for people fighting wildfires, some deaths may be inevitable in a volatile environment where Mother Nature rules in random fashion, fire managers acknowledge.

“You can’t apply an OSHA model to what we do. It’s not a factory floor,” said Jim Cook, who recently retired after 37 years in fire service, including 18 years as a hotshot crew superintendent and 14 years as training projects coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise.

Still, with dozens killed in one year and global warming and wilderness construction ramping up, Cook and fire colleagues across the West know something must be done.

Human Factors

Josh Brinkley walks past a burned out tree on Storm King mountain in Colorado on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.

Experts interviewed over the past six months cited one primary key to wildfire deaths: human factors.

Psychologist Ted Putnam, Ph.D., is the “father of human factors,” said Hipke, who makes safety training videos in Boise for the Wildfire Safety Training Annual Renewal.

Putnam was on the investigative review team for the South Canyon Fire but refused to sign the official report because he found it inaccurate and incomplete, ignoring too many pertinent human factors.

“I think it was honorable that Ted Putnam didn’t sign that report. I don’t think it told the whole story,” said Joe Brinkley, manager of the McCall Smokejumper Base, brother of Josh Brinkley and a triplet brother of Levi, who died in the fire.

“God bless (Putnam),” said John MacLean, author of “Fire on the Mountain” and three other non-fiction books on wildfires. “He’s done a great, great service on human factors.”

Putnam joined the U.S. Forest Service in 1963 and was a smokejumper from 1966-76, with three years as a squad leader.

On July 17, 1976, he fought the Battlement Creek Fire, which killed three men — from Idaho, Arizona and Wisconsin — about 40 miles west of Storm King Mountain. A fourth man survived; he had lain face-down, and the fire passed over him.

Putnam warned other bosses 15 minutes and again three minutes before the fire roared up the hill. One victim’s clothes were undamaged, another’s were burnt off, and the third victim and the survivor’s clothes were burned across the back only.

The discrepancies intrigued Putnam, who moved to the Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC) at once to help research and design better protective fire gear. He studied statistics and mathematics for six years while working on his doctorate in research psychology.

A workshop he held on Human Factors on the South Canyon Fire led to deeper scrutiny of human factors inherent in decision-making, situational awareness and leadership and a push by Putnam for a national study on firefighter safety, launched a month later.

While earlier investigative reports cited the facts of people’s actions on wildfires, Putnam consistently pursues the “why” behind those actions.

Situational Awareness

A view from Storm King Mountain of H2 and other locations of the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Color.

In the chaos, confusion and frenzy that arise when battling a wildfire, people develop tunnel vision.

They need to step back, cooly gaze across the landscape and mindfully note all the changes occurring. Instead, they cling to whatever idea or plan they already made, shutting out new developments, said Putnam, a Missoula resident who winters in Prescott.

“Stress, fear and panic predictably lead to the collapse of clear thinking and organizational structure,” Putnam wrote in a 1995 paper for the MTDC.

“While these psychological and social processes have been well studied by the military and the aircraft industry, the wildland fire community has not supported similar research for the fireline. The fatal wildland fire entrapments of recent memory have a tragic common denominator: human error.”

One such error was a dispatcher’s failure to transmit to firefighters a Red Flag Warning of a cold front bringing high winds to Storm King Mountain.

Chris Cuoco, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, Colo., tears up when he remembers the deaths of the 14 firefighters in the South Canyon Fire on July 6, 1994. Cuoco’s Red Flag Warning, calling for a cold front bringing high and shifting winds, was not relayed to the firefighters on the mountain. Cuoco was interviewed at his weather station in Grand Junction on Sept. 27.

Chris Cuoco, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Grand Junction, Colo., had worked nonstop to ensure that the latest weather updates got to the fire crews.

He wept when he learned that they never received that news.

The military trains its people in mindfulness and situational awareness, said Cuoco, an Air Force veteran.

“They teach pilots this, airline pilots in particular. They have to take in a great deal of information very fast. They put them through hell in training. It reinforces … how stress and exhaustion can affect the brain,” Cuoco said.

Putnam is “pretty academic, but human factors are a huge part of what’s going on out there,” said Winslow Robertson, who held the No. 2 position for the BLM in Grand Junction when the South Canyon Fire erupted.

“I’m a survivor, too, and I rehash this thing over and over and over. We use the word ‘mindfulness’ out there; I’m a big believer in that,” he said during a Sept. 27 interview in Palisade, Colo. “We want everybody to come home at night; we want everybody to stay safe. We want mindfulness, a hard word to describe.”

“Mindfulness,” said Hipke, “in whatever terms, is just being aware, being in the now. You get on autopilot.”

A Hard Sell

Chris Cuoco, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, Colo., talks about his forecast for the South Canyon Fire on July 6, 1994. Cuoco was interviewed on Friday, Sept. 27, 2013.

The question is how to inject mindfulness and situational awareness into a culture of tough, brave, can-do workaholics — the wildfire crews and their leaders.

Putnam’s approach draws some skepticism. The longtime student of eastern Zen meditation swears by that practice to gain control of one’s mind.

Putnam held meditation workshops with wildland firefighters and, by all reports, many found it useful. The psychologist himself tries to meditate twice a day. When he doesn’t, his wife, Gay, gently remonstrates him: “Ted, you’ve gone off your meditation.”

Edwards, the old-school hotshot who retired in Helena, took some Putnam workshops and modified the approach for his hotshot crews.

“We would do a breathing exercise to clear all the clutter out of your head and have a blank slate so, when you get the briefing, you could get it in (your head),” he said. “No questions were to be asked. Just be there and listen. Then we would go into a visualization period — put yourself in the situation described, the weather, what to expect. Then we would open it up to questions.”

On the fire front, “whenever we had a change of plan, the protocol was: We’d go through the whole process again and recognize things had changed.

“We had a really good safety record, and we had a really good crew, too,” Edwards said. “I think people felt they were part of something. … Smart people on the crew gave me feedback. I’d ask, Did it help? Yeah, it helped a lot.”

Meditation won’t work “for some ex-cowboy who becomes a firefighter in Montana,” Cuoco said. “This is physiological; this is science; this is how the body reacts. They’re now realizing they need to give people training. The only way to learn to react under stress is to put them under stress and show them how that thinking changes. It’s not conscious. It has nothing to do with Eastern meditation.”

Many fire leaders endorse Putnam’s concept but recommend it be pitched with more emphasis on visualization and mindfulness to make it palatable to the fire community.

“I think Ted’s onto something,” Cook said. “There are all different ways mindfulness could be integrated (into training).”

It already is a central focus in much wildfire leadership training. And that training has come a long way since South Canyon.

Leaders not prepared well enough, soon enough

The Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program has drawn from best practices taught at the U.S. Marine Corps University, the NASA Astronaut Development Center and the U.S. Air Force Human Factors Research Lab, to name a few.

In the U.S. Forest Service today, everyone fighting wildland fires must take certain courses, and every promotion requires completion of higher-level classes. The tests would be difficult to fail though; the passing score is 70 percent.

Nonetheless, the curriculum is detailed, scientifically based and rigorous.

But while the Forest Service has formalized its requirements for leadership education and advancement, Cook said, that hasn’t happened among its NIFC partners — the BLM, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Fire Administration System-FEMA.

Cook would like to see curriculum institutionalized by all wildfire agencies to require more than the two mandatory classes: L180, a four-hour class on Human Factors and Wildland Service, and L280, a two-day course on Followership to Leadership.

“You’re talking about changing the whole culture,” he said, with effective leadership development, standardized curriculum, common shared experience and credible expert instruction.

“We don’t really have a process to screen our best and brightest and help develop them. We could prepare entry-level and mid-level leaders better than we do now, especially in the first two or three years when you’re leading other people’s kids.

“We have good leaders, don’t get me wrong,” Cook said. “(But) we don’t prepare our leaders well enough, soon enough, to put them into these situations. You’re talking about flawed humans in a hazardous environment.”

While such an education overhaul would require infusions of time and money, it also could ameliorate problems that inevitably occur when mixed crews from varied agencies suddenly are thrown together on large fires, where good leadership is imperative.

“Let’s wait ’til 25 years into their careers and teach ’em what they need to know,” joked Randy Skelton, deputy fire staff officer on the Payette National Forest. “I agree with (Cook); it needs to be a lot more structured. We don’t have any systematic way of working through the ranks.

“I would throw everything we have (except leadership curriculum) out the window and start from scratch. People who write and hold classes — that’s collateral duty. The courses don’t evolve very well,” Skelton added.

Hotshot superintendents are well-trained and work with their “students” at all times, Joe Brinkley said.

“FMOs (Fire Management Officers) have training and qualifications,” he said. “But then they’re not there (working the fire) to mentor those firefighters. When it’s Game Day — OK, good luck out there.”

Still, Joe Brinkley notes, “The firefighters of today are light years ahead of where we were.”

A view of the memorials for Robert Browning Jr. and Richard Taylor, both Helitack members, who died during the South Canyon Fire on July 6, 1994.

Staff Rides Drive Home Decision-making

The most riveting education model for wildfire personnel today, hands down, is the staff ride, a learning tool used by the U.S. Marine Corps and Army since the 1970s.

On fire staff rides, students are driven to the site of a fatality fire and actively participate in group exercises that help them develop decision-making skills. Put in the shoes of their predecessors, they’re guided to question: “What would I have done in this person’s place?” “How detailed should the guidance from a superior to a subordinate be?” “Can a senior leader make use of a competent but overzealous subordinate?” “What explains repeated organizational success or failure?” The study of leadership aspects in a staff ride transcends time and place, says the Staff Ride Library of the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program.

Cook and Larry Sutton, a BLM training unit leader at NIFC, are credited for developing the South Canyon Staff Ride, which often reduces participants to tears as they see how easily they could have made the same failed decisions under the same circumstances.

“I have never had any training that relayed messages as vividly as this did. I have never had training that left me both excited about what I learned — as well as awestruck by what I learned,” one participant comments on the WFLD Program website.

It’s a far cry from simply hiking the mountain and observing the terrain, as the Granite Mountain Hotshots did.

“Visiting a site is so much different from a Staff Ride,” Skelton said. “You put people in today’s situation. As a facilitator, you try to guide them into decisions. It has to be engaging and interactive. You can’t script it.”

“One of the main focuses … became instilling more tools to promote intuitive — rather than analytical — thinking,” Robert Holt says in training documents. Holt is superintendent of California’s Redding Interagency Hotshot Crew, which leads a South Canyon Staff Ride each spring.

Many Staff Rides now are available, on Mann Gulch, the Thirtymile Fire or the notorious Idaho Fire of 1910, in which forest ranger Ed Pulaski, who invented the standard firefighting tool named for him, saved a ragtag group of foresters, miners and others fighting a fire on the Coeur d’Alene National Forest. It burned 3 million acres across Idaho and into Montana, killing an estimated 85 people and burning several towns.

Another effective educational tool is the safety training videos, such as those Hipke produces, used in annual spring refresher training to further underscore safe practices and good decision-making before the wildfire season gets underway.

The videos, available for public viewing on YouTube, dissect fire and human behavior on a given fire, reliving every element the crews faced, from weather patterns to tough terrain to a fire blowup. People who fought the fire often narrate, reviewing their mistakes and good decisions, and the lessons learned are carefully and dramatically chronicled so students learn from others’ experiences.

Contractor vs Career Firefighter

Staff rides, safety videos and improved safety training, however, enhance the skills only of those people who fight wildfires for a career.

That leaves out two extremes that have a powerful effect on how wildfires are fought: the contract workers brought in on a moment’s notice and the big bosses who deliver edicts to the fire managers below.

Contractors might constitute half of the workforce or more on any given wildfire.

“You have no idea what’s showing up,” said Alex Robertson, deputy fire staff officer for a vast swath of Oregon, working for the U.S. Forest Service and BLM. “Not all contractors are created equal. As an operations section chief, I get plenty of resources, but we have to really pay attention. Do they look fit enough?

“When hotshot crews show up, you know you’re at least getting a certain level. It’s very difficult. That’s the human factors side. How do you lead people you’ve never worked with before in high-stakes, high-stress incidents? It’s about making money for them.”

Such challenges only underscore the need for well-trained, competent leaders who constantly observe not only fire behavior, but also human behavior.

“Humans make mistakes. Some experienced, some novice,” Cook said. “We a lot of times put them in the fray without much differentiation.”

Meanwhile, seasoned fire managers report to officials in Washington, D.C., who may be from forestry, fisheries or recreation.

“People who come into these situations aren’t coming from fire,” said Alex Robertson. “Many times, they have zero experience on fire, but we’re coming to them for decisions. … it could mean a bad deal for some poor firefighter on the ground because of a decision made many miles away.

“We’re trying to explain risk and exposure to someone who doesn’t know what it means to be on top of a snag patch with flames 100 feet high.”

“I’m looking at 20-plus years in fire service, but decisions are being made by somebody with 90 days,” said one manager, whose identity is being withheld to protect his career. “It may be a very talented, brilliant individual, but they don’t have the same mental slides. It’s troubling that somebody with 90 days’ experience is making decisions for firefighters nationwide.”

“Why would we hire non-fire people into a fire agency?” asked another supervisor, whose identity also is being withheld. “But it still happens today. People in charge of fire and aviation should have an understanding of fire and aviation. But the people in charge don’t.”

Military aviation people without fire experience often are hired under the federal “veterans’ preference,” and no one begrudges a job for someone who risked their life for their country. “But it takes so long for Department of Defense people to learn fire service,” the supervisor said. “We’ve got to get the focus back to the firefighters on the ground. You could have become a master in biology or some ‘ology,’ and you have to have at least 90 days’ experience. But you could become a fire management officer for a district.”

Administrators “have to be allowed the time to learn (fire),” said Joe Brinkley. “Somehow there has to be a relationship where everybody’s talking to everybody.”

That’s why leaders need to take time outside of the fire season to “build these relationships and trust” with top administrators, Alex Robertson said. “They’re going to make decisions that put firefighters at risk. So we’re trying to build those relationships.”