Reconvene a task force

Sage Fire

Above:  Sage Fire, December 20, 2016. Photo by Ventura County Fire Department.

After studying 16 wildfires that killed firefighters between 1937 and 1956 a task force commissioned by USDA Forest Service Chief Richard E. McArdle developed a list of 10 Standard Firefighting Orders. It was hoped that if followed, it would reduce the the number of fatalities.

10 standard firefighting orders

I was reminded of two of those orders when I saw the information Ventura County Fire Department was providing, not only to their firefighters, but to the public during a wildfire that eventually burned 61 acres in a southern California community. A map distributed on Twitter and Facebook showed the approximate location of a fire that was threatening dozens of homes. It also had icons marking the location of firefighting resources.

map firefighters locations
Map of the Sage Fire showing the location of firefighting resources. Ventura County Fire Department.

The near-real time information about the location of both the fire AND firefighters, which I call the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, relates to numbers 2 and 9:

2. Know what your fire is doing at all times.
9. Maintain control of your forces at all times.

We have written about this before, starting in October, 2013. Not knowing the location of the fire and firefighters has led to dozens of fatalities. Two fires that come to mind in the last decade or so are the Esperanza and Yarnell Hill Fires, in which 24 firefighters were killed.

Technology has changed in extraordinary ways since the 10 orders were written in the 1950s, but many of the agencies responsible for fighting wildland fires are far to slow to adopt new procedures that could save lives.

As a politician recently in the news would say, this is “sad”.

The current U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell needs to reconvene a task force. Since the 1950s methods have been developed that can reduce the number of fatalities — to work toward the Holy Grail. It is time to implement them.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

9 thoughts on “Reconvene a task force”

  1. Good article. You said “Since the 1950s methods have been developed that can reduce the number of fatalities. It is time to implement them.”

    What are these “methods,” and which types of fatalities are they going to help us with? People don’t get entrapped b/c they are lost. They get entrapped due to the time-distance problem when unexpected fire behavior appears.

    Or maybe I am missing your point. Thanks. Good article.

    1. The method to reduce fatalities is for supervisors on a fire to know the near-real time location of both the fire AND firefighters. This technology exists, as shown by Ventura County Fire Department.

  2. Bill, you have pointed out in a previous post, the 10 orders were originally called the “sins of omission”. Most of the 10 are not orders at all as has been noted by Campbell. Yet, litigators turn these sins into negligence prosecutions.

    Wilson’s Common Denominators and analysis of tragedy fires and near misses began on the Inaja Fire, if not before. He published his synthesis some 20 years later.

    But the story of Inaja is the commitment to educate and train fire managers in meteorology and fire behavior.

    In my 8 years on the Cleveland, I always tried to fight fire agressively providing for safety first. I never took the 10 as absolute dictums.

    I prefer Gleason’s LCES as it is a process and places emphasis on keen observation and sensemaking.

    The 10 aren’t the Holy Grail and never were intended as the antidote to wildland fire fatalities. It has been 60 years since the Inaja Fire, perhaps it is time to move on from the 10.

    1. Whew. Tough crowd. You’re right, the 10 are not the Holy Grail. But, in my opinion, the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety is for supervisors on a fire to know the near-real time location of both the fire AND firefighters.

      1. Bill, thanks. But even if you know the location of the fire and the firefighters, you can still have a time-distance problem, right? Every Shot Supt. I have worked with who has been doing this a long time will tell you about this fire or that fire where the fire did something they did not expect it to do. Indians Fire comes to mind. Unexpected fire behavior is not something that the Holy Grail can solve, or am I missing your point? (Good talk.)

        1. There is no magic silver bullet to ensure to 100% certainty that no firefighter will ever get killed on a fire again. A lot can go wrong on a fire. But I am convinced that knowing the real time location of the fire and the firefighters will reduce fatalities. Just read some of the recent fatality reports.

          It would be a huge step in the right direction. The technology exists — today. The responsible course of action is for the federal and state wildfire leaders to take steps to implement a system within the next two to three years.

          1. Bill is right. How long were they looking for the Granite Mtn Hotshots after the burnover? If one had been dying wouldn’t have been important to have had ems there ASAP, let alone let OPS know that they had moved from their Safety Zone to the head prior to the event? At their inception, fire shelters had been condemned as a device to get people into more dangerous situations. Nope – they’ve just saved lives and could have saved four lives on the Spanish Ranch Fire if they had been issued.

            Bill you’re right – stay the path and don’t let the naysayers drag you down.

          2. Thanks Bill. I have read the recent fatality reports as they have come out and I guess I am not seeing where a causal factor (to use the old words we used to use) was the failure to know where the resources were located. Plus, on IA, who would monitor the resources if the resources all had tracking devices on them; we are already pretty thin on IA personnel often. I am not being a naysayer. I am wondering if the better option is to tell our guys to let a helicopter do the scouting and stick to perimeter control even if the public loses entire communities in the meanwhile. Thinking out loud, I am. Thanks Bill for your good work.

  3. If you really want to save lives we need a total culture shift in American firefighting. We reward ultra aggressive if not outright dangerous tactics. We put people places they should not be. Until that is changed I don’t see much improvement.

    Want to read a good report? The Kansas City Star has one about why structural firefighters keep dying. It’s a good one and it’s right at the top of their website.

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