Author- Audrey Walleser, Director of Research and Analysis
Wildland fire has been a part of my life since I can remember, from patiently waiting for my dad to get home to “raid” his red bag of all the “cool fire snacks”, to being a teenager and skipping class to go lay on the hood of my car to watch the smokejumpers do practice jumps, to a 18 year old kid discussing, burn overs, escape routes and Standard Firefighting orders to a panel of 4H judges in Atlanta, Georgia to win a National 4H award. It seems fire has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. So, why after all these years did it just now come into focus? Did I choose the wrong profession? Am I burned out? Or is it just after experiencing event after event a person looks at things thought a realest prospective.
In the past years, it seems that wildland fire has changed, some for the better, and some for the worst much worse. There are situations and scenarios that scare and infuriated me more so than ever. No one is without blood on their hands, including myself but we can all work to change that I believe. I believe that most people start out with the purest of intentions unfortunately though for what ever reason we quickly lose site of what and why we are here. Modern society distracts us from the true goal.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a serious by the book person, in many cases that has earned me nicknames like “the Fire Nazi”. It has also made me incredibly unpopular with coworkers, many times because of what I perceive as willful ignorance, is just not tolerated. I have spent my entire career doing what I thought was expected, doing a good job on the technical side, leading crews, knowing the equipment, knowing my job, I was confident capable, but was I effective?Everyone came home alive and unhurt, so that was the measure of success. However, the true answer is no. None of us are. The reality is that we are less effective now and more dangerous than ever, for a multitude of reasons. We have somehow lost sight of our basic guiding principles found in the very book we all carry. The IRPG (Incident Pocket Guide) talks in the very first pages about duty, respect and integrity. In too many cases we are falling drastically short of that.
This realization came to me on July 9, 2018; I had the opportunity that day to visit the South Canyon Memorial in Two Eagles Park in Glenwood Springs. While I walked around the memorial taking photos of the stones set forth to remember the fallen, a thought crossed my mind. If these people were here today what would be their evaluation of us be. The realization is I think that they would be sadly disappointed and disheartened; in myself as well as the entire wildland community. Why? We continue to forget the lessons of the past and allow for societal influence to cloud practical judgement.
Safety has taken a back door, to Hollywood style heroism, where we believe we are invincible and if things go wrong, there will be another take, or if we meet our untimely end there will be a full heroes parade. Our favorite actor or actress will play us in a movie. We die a hero’s death, we are worthy of that honor. How did we become heroes? When did not wearing PPE and not abiding by the Standard Firefighting orders and watch out situations become acceptable? When did pushing crews beyond work rest ratios make for effective operational leadership? How are we any more heroes than the lineman who restores power after a fire burns through an area? This is a job we chose to do. What makes us any different than a plumber, electrician or mechanic? These are questions we each need to ask ourselves and answer honestly.
Money has become a large driving factor. Employment posts are no longer; What is the job? How is the equipment? These are my qualifications. It is now; How much do you pay? We all know that sometimes the pay difference is over $40 an hour depending on the employer, but the question remains? Why are you truly doing this job? Is it solely for the money? What are we personally doing to assist ourselves? Do we wait for our employer to provide “free” training or look for opportunities to seek improvement and set the example? Again, questions we need to ask ourselves.
Social media surrounding fire has become so skewed that it is not about information anymore but rather conjecture, and opinion, and who is doing what. I saw a fire. “Where?” “How many acres?” “I am still sitting.” “Thoughts and prayers”. Facebook, Twitter, and the internet are filled with selfies, dispatch orders, and photos taken by fire personnel. Now days with editing capabilities we can make the smoke billow more, turn the columns into the face of Satan, or the fire into a dragon. One must ask why? Why is there is uncontrollable urge from us to prove we have battled a bigger dragon, slayed a more formidable enemy than our counterparts? Posts about being dispatched here or there are met with “thoughts and prayers”, and envious posts from other who haven’t received them. Wildland fire pages have been hijacked by persons looking for self-acceptance through selfies, casual dating, firefighter groupies and asking for social hook ups rather than legitimate fire information. Political discussion quickly turns to agency vs contractor vs cooperator. We must ask ourselves; Am I adding to that or providing good quality information or discussion topics?
Fire personnel are coming to affected communities now expecting handouts in almost a quid pro quo relationship. While we all know the public wants to show their appreciation. There are legitimate ways to do that. Accepting or soliciting freebies from an already overwhelmed community in my opinion is almost a case of “stolen valor”. We are not heroes and while we can extinguish the fire, we are in no way able to make it “all better again”; or even begin to mend the “hole” this community has suffered.
I have always encouraged the public I encounter who wants to help to reinvest in their own communities. Volunteer EMS and fire departments are always struggling for volunteers, and donations. If there are persons who have lost their homes, support them with food, gifts, etc. Many times, hundreds if not thousands of people lose power for days during an incident. The food in their refrigerators must be thrown out. This many times equals to hundreds if not thousands of dollars of cost for homeowners to replace. Assist each other in that. Finally, and most importantly learn from this incident. Become informed about fire wise communities, host or sponsor events about evacuation, emergency planning and emergency prepardness kits. Sadly, many times recently these communities have been hit with a 1-2 punch of fire and then mud slides. Be prepared.
As I sat on that hot concrete gazing upon the memorial; I took a personal “tactical pause” or refocusing, what have I done right or wrong? What can I do better and what type of leadership can I provide to others? What am I going to change? How can I be better? no one likes what we see, but it is needed.
We all need to take the time for a personal “tactical pause”. Why am I here? What does this job mean to me? Why am I doing it? Read through those first pages of the IRPG and really think about all that, because if we don’t the scar on the face of wildland fire we leave will not be one that we can admirably look upon.