More Atlantic articles about wildland fire

On May 28 we pointed our readers to two excellent articles at The Atlantic about wildland fire. One was a very well done video about fire research activities at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. The other was an article that summarized many of the story arcs about the Yarnell Hill Fire, and was written by Brian Mockenhaupt. 

I met Brian last year a couple of days before the memorial service in Prescott, Arizona for the 19 firefighters who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire. He was beginning to research wildland fire and the issues surrounding the Yarnell Hill fatalities. A former Army infantryman, he had spent  a lot of time in recent years writing about the military and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Wildfires”, he said, “are a new area for me, and yet I’ve already seen some striking parallels in command and control, and in the after-action review process in looking at what went wrong, whether in battle or fire.”

Having read Wildfire Today, Brian asked if he could interview me. It turned out that we were both going to be at the memorial service, so when it was over, and after I interviewed Tom Harbour, the Director for Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service, I met with Brian for about half an hour as thousands of mourners filed out of the Tim’s Toyota Center arena.

He said recently that one of the things he remembered about our conversation on that memorable, sad day, was that I told him about firefighters’ “slide files”. Our young firefighters today may not even know what a slide is. Before digital photography there were two frequently used ways to take pictures and and process film. The most common was to create a negative from the film and then make a paper print. The other was to use slide film, which was processed into a positive right on the film, and placed in a cardboard holder. The sides, as they were called, could be put in a slide carousel, a circular tray that could hold up to 140 slides. It could then be projected onto a large screen for an audience. When the El Cariso Hot Shots developed the first comprehensive 32-hour training program for rookie wildland firefighters in 1972, we produced a slide program that was synced to recorded audio on a Wollensak cassette recorder. Later it was converted to VHS video tape, thankfully — because setting up and using the slide projector and the tape recorder was a pain in the ass. Sometimes human error would cause the slides to get out of sync with the audio if they were not started correctly.

What I told Brian about slide files was that firefighters who learn, record mental images or slides of fire situations especially if they were unusual or surprising. They might remember the fuels, weather, and topography, and the fire behavior that was the result. The could record what tactics worked, or didn’t work, or how long it takes to hike up a 100 percent slope when it is 4 p.m. on a hot day and you’re carrying 30 pounds of gear after working hard for 10 hours. Or what the spotting distance would be, or the flame lengths when the fire hits a hand line on a ridge.

Then…. after building up a slide file from thousands of fire events, when a crucial situation is encountered the firefighter can quickly search that data base and hopefully find conditions that match what they have in front of them. Drawing on what happened before, maybe years or decades before, they can make a better prediction about what will happen next, than another firefighter could that had not encountered that “slide”. This, obviously, can reduce the chance of something unpleasant happening to the firefighter and anyone they are supervising. It can also make them more efficient, effective, and productive in their job.

When a firefighter is experiencing a given set of conditions, and especially if it is a tense, crucial situation, they should take a few seconds. Look up, down, and around, and take a slide, then carefully file it away in your carousel. You never know when you might need to replay it.

The reason Brian mentioned to me that I told him about slide files that day in Prescott, was that in researching his latest article about wildland fire, two experienced firefighters at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise brought up the concept. He wrote about it in How to Read the Mind of a Wildfire, published today in The Atlantic.

It is a very interesting article, and ranges from tree ring research to Harry Gisborne to Richard Rothermel to reductionist fire spread models to physics-based models that require a super computer. Below is an excerpt from the piece:

…“One of the big things about fire behavior is looking at the exceptional events, the 1 in 100,” says Richard Bahr, the head fire-behavior analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center, who was trained by Rothermel in the 1980s. Those outliers have always existed, but are exacerbated today by climate change, bug infestations, invasive grasses, and fires so intense that they create their own weather. “We are living in a time that is unprecedented, with the extremes we’re seeing in temperatures, precipitation, and winds, and with that, the effects are unpredictable,” Bahr says. “If you don’t have that in your slide tray, you aren’t going to believe it.”


In Los Alamos, New Mexico, Rodman Linn showed me the next generation of fire models, which can map out fire not just in the middle of the bell curve, but out on the tails as well, where firefighters more often meet the unexpected. Linn is a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which primarily develops and studies weapons and their effects for the military. Models of weapon effects and the spread of fire share the same scientific underpinnings. For his doctorate dissertation in theoretical fluid dynamics, Linn built FIRETEC, which uses physics-based models for combustion, heat transfer, and turbulence to simulate the spread of wildfire. Unlike FARSITE, which can run on laptops, FIRETEC requires the supercomputers at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

FIRETEC doesn’t treat fire as a wall moving through a uniform fuel bed, but divides a landscape into cells as small as a cubic meter and approximates the type and condition of fuel, the terrain, and the weather within each small space. One cell might have a tree, while the surrounding cells are grass, or the wind might be blowing south in a cell, but west in an adjacent space and north in another.”

Brian also wrote an article, published May 23, about the 10 members of a fire use module that were overrun by the Little Venus Fire in 2006 and had to deploy their fire shelters. He interviewed some of the firefighters that experienced the event, for the article titled, What It Feels Like to Lie Face Down and Let a Wildfire Burn Over You.

An excerpt:

…[Lathan Johnson, the fire use module leader] did a quick headcount and came up one short. He didn’t know that one of his firefighters had panicked and split off from the group a few minutes earlier. They didn’t have time to look for her: they couldn’t outrun the fire, and if they waited any longer to deploy, they might not have enough time to get under their shelters before the wall of flame washed over them. Between them and the fire was a 30-foot rock face, which would give some shelter from the heat and flame.

“We’re going to deploy here,” Johnson told the crew. For a moment, he saw their fear and disbelief. But then they set to work, reverting to procedures that they knew well from annual training exercises.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

2 thoughts on “More Atlantic articles about wildland fire”

  1. The Atlantic article on the Yarnell fire was very well done. I was impressed with the accuracy, clarity, readably and tone of it. For readers with no, or very limited knowledge of Wildfire it explains things well. It reminded me of some very good lessons learned years ago and forgotten. As a established reporter, he spent considerable time to get the facts right.

    I commend Mr. Mockenhaupt for his article.

  2. Sounds like you have found another good writer. I still have some of my Dad’s “slide files” and one carousel but no projector. Sadly, the scripts were either lost or in Dad’s head and so are gone.


Comments are closed.