Firefighters learn from the Battle of San Pasqual

A Staff Ride to the battlefield

The study of infamous fires and military battles can be a valuable learning opportunity for wildland firefighters. On a Staff Ride, finding out about leadership factors that affected the outcome can help participants benefit from the good decisions, and reduce the chances of making similar mistakes.

Today we have a guest article written by Heather Thurston.

Staff ride Battle of San Pasqual
Don Garwood, former Incident Management Team Incident Commander speaks to participants. Photo by Heather Thurston.

The Battle of San Pasqual: Decision Making Lessons Learned from the “Bloodiest Battle in California’s History”

By Fire Apparatus Engineer Heather Thurston, CAL FIRE – Monte Vista Unit

During the Mexican-American War President James Polk sent the U.S. 1st Dragoons, under the command of General Stephan Watts Kearny, 2000 miles from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to California. On December 6, 1846 these troops engaged a group of Mexican cowboys known as the “Californios” in what would become known as the “bloodiest battle in California’s History”.

Located in Southern California off of Hwy 78 nestled between Escondido and Poway in the northeast part of San Diego County, the battlefield now provides a unique learning opportunity for wildland firefighters.

On a cool April morning in 2019, cadets from Rio Hondo College Wildland Fire Academy lined up in anticipation for the day while leaders and mentors introduced each other from several departments across southern California. Leaders from U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Marines, CAL FIRE, Lakeside Fire, Newport Beach Fire, and other local departments assembled, ready to share their experiences and learn from each other about the decisions made in 1846. The battle of San Pasqual provides learning opportunities that parallel common issues consistently encountered on the firefighter’s battlefield.

Staff ride Battle of San Pasqual
In the parking lot, students and mentors receive a safety briefing followed by an opening speech which was given to the American Republic soldiers by General Kearny. Participants are asked to imagine a cold foggy morning through Captain Johnson’s eyes. Photo by Heather Thurston.

Mounted troops of Captain Andres Pico’s rebellion have encamped and taken-up positions in the eastern portion of this valley with the intent of attacking and destroying coalition forces of the American Republic, now in armed conflict with the Californios/Republic of Mexico.

You are to reconnoiter as to exact location of enemy forces and perform action using advantages of terrain and nighttime operations to beat-up the enemy camp, so as to achieve capitulation—while minimizing casualties to the extent possible.

They have the capability of eliminating U.S. forces available for action, given their ability to exercise superior local firepower and maneuverability. They can reinforce with organic and out-of-theater assets.

With these words ringing in their heads, participants start the 1/4 mile walk to the day’s first stop. It was here that Captain Johnson took 12 Dragoons, the best of Kearny’s men, under the orders to “TROT” and recon as to the strength and readiness of their adversaries.

Both the Dragoons and the Californios were mounted calvary. The Californios had fresh horses and a few rifles but most of their fighting was done with lariats and long lances.

During their 2,000-mile journey, the longest march in U.S. Army history, most of the Dragoons’ horses died and the soldiers were left with mules and half-broken horses they rounded up around Warner Springs. Much of their gunpowder was wet which reduced the effectiveness of their carbines to clubs and pistols to hammers.

The attendees are asked to imagine a foggy cold morning and look through Captain Johnson’s eyes as he sees the shadow of two men on horses. Captain Johnson believes he sees an opportunity to capture and stop these men from warning the Californio troops of the American’s arrival. Capt. Johnson deviates from the plan and gives the order to “CHARGE”, beginning the grueling and violent, several day long battle that we now talk about 173 years later.

While hindsight is always 20/20, we now know these shadowed soldiers were bait, cleverly set by Captain Andres Pico, leader of the Californios, and they led the Americans into an ambush that led to destruction and chaos.

What allowed a much smaller and lesser armed force to dominate a trained, regular fighting unit consisting of heavily armed men? When compared to the fire fight, aren’t we also more intelligent, better armed, and better trained than the fire? How often do we make decisions and act on partial facts? What factors influence our margin of success or failure?

Exhaustion, stress, complacency, over confidence?

As the staff ride continues, the group moves up the hillside, to the second stand known as the “battlefield overlook”.   U.S. Force Recon Marine Master Sergeant Zeran discusses the purpose and tactics of a military recon. Parallels are drawn between military recon tactics and those used to scout the fire line. How often do units scouting allow themselves to deviate from their original mission, drawn like a moth to the flame into the fire fight just like Capt. Johnson did?

After a short history lesson given by local Historian Stan “Gunboat” Smith in historical US Cavalry Uniform, students are paired with mentors for a short tactical exercise in clear communication and clear thinking under fire.

Staff ride Battle of San Pasqual
Discussion at Decision Rock. Photo by Heather Thurston.

The group then moves on to what is known as “Decision Rock”. Here, lessons of leader’s intent are discussed along with the planning and decision making cycle. When General Kearney hears Captain Johnston change the order from “trot” to the order of “CHARGE”, it is recorded in a soldiers journal that General Kearny sighs, “Oh heavens, that is not what I meant!”.

So the question is presented, “Who has the authority to alter tactics at the last minute?” When the time/decision wedge is narrow, how do we make sound and safe decisions with little information? It is emphasized here how unprepared Kearny’s troops were for the battle — their gunpowder wet, their feet bare or boots damaged from their travels, and the attitude that this confrontation would be of no consequence. Also, keeping in mind, the weather was so cold that the buglers could not bugle, effectively crippling the Americans communications. Still, they marched forward to the bloody battle.

Almost immediately after the CHARGE order was given, Capt. Johnson was shot by a Californio marksman and the command structure begins to break down for the Americans.

How should we design our units and train for the possibility of command casualty? General Kearny had the perception that this battle would be easy and his men were far superior than their adversary. How do we recover when the enemy outpaces and outperforms our expectations? Kearny was also working under the pressure from his command (the President of the United States) to engage. Do we allow expectations from Chief officers and the public to drive decision making?

Staff ride Battle of San Pasqual
In the riverbed where U.S. troops were ambushed by the
Californios. Photo by Heather Thurston.

After a lunch break, participants are led into a riverbed. Once Captain Pico realized his troops were are getting boxed in by the US, he faked a retreat down into this riverbed.

Here, you can start to see more active participation by the academy cadets, as lessons learned from their studies into incidents such as the Yarnell Hill Fire start to connect and draw a parallel to the decision making processes of this battle. Instructors reiterate leadership lessons that had been touched on throughout the day and how they all led to the battle that happened on this very ground.

Finally, participants are at the final stop at the Pioneer Cemetery. After a moment of reflection on mortality, students, mentors, and instructors alike are asked to draw conclusions about the battle’s relevance today. A voice inside me says, “Be hungry for your history”, meaning learn these lessons from others’ mistakes when the time/decision making wedge is wide. Be able to detach from the chaos and fog of our “war”, and make sound and battle-tested tactical decisions. Don’t ever let your guard down. Just when you believe you are stronger, smarter, and more prepared, you are in fact most vulnerable to complacency. And above all, never stop learning.

Staff ride Battle of San Pasqual
Discussion at Pioneer Cemetery. Photo by Heather Thurston.

NWCG releases app for South Canyon Staff Ride

South Canyon staff ride app
Screen shot from South Canyon staff ride app

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group has released an app for the South Canyon Staff Ride. On July 6, 1994, 14 firefighters lost their lives on the fire 7 miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

As you may know, a staff ride is usually a guided tour at the site of a significant wildfire, with programmed stops and talking points. The objective is to explore lessons learned. The intent of the app, according to “Rob N.”, an Instructional Media Illustrator for NWCG Training who coded the app, is to familiarize and prepare individuals prior to visiting the site.

In using the app, when you touch one of the numbered stand locations on the map, it takes you to a photo of the area along with some text about what happened at that location.

The version that was just released is on the Google Play site and is for Android devices (smart phones and tablets). They expect to develop a version for Apple devices in the near future.

This version is a Beta release and is a little rough around the edges. On my Samsung Galaxy Nexus, running Android 3.0.8, I had trouble getting some of the navigation buttons to respond, and it took me a while to figure out how to get the text to scroll until I found an almost hidden scroll bar. The photos are extremely low resolution, and “Rob” told us that they will be replaced when they move past the Beta version.

The developers hope to receive input and suggestions for improvement from Beta testers. According to the Google Play site, about a half dozen copies have been dowloaded as of May 21. It can cost thousands of dollars to have a professional developer write the code for an app, but this was done in-house in about a week.

We applaud the NWCG, stepping boldly into the future present, developing an app. We’ll reserve judgement on the usefulness of this particular endeavor until it comes out of Beta and is tested by actual users seeking lessons learned.

Alabaugh Fire Staff Ride

It was a little surreal today standing in the snow trying to picture what a very intense fire was doing in that very spot 9 months ago. The 40 of us participating in a “Staff Ride” for the July, 2007, Alabaugh fire near Hot Springs, South Dakota, were recreating in our minds what two people entrapped by the fire were going through last summer.

(As usual, click on the photos to see larger versions.)

Alabaugh Fire, July 7, 2008. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The all-day experience began with a couple of hours of classroom time, where we got some information about staff rides in general, and some basic information about the Alabaugh fire, including a portion of the video segment about the fire that is in this year’s wildland fire refresher. We wrote about this year’s refresher training HERE on March 23 where I modestly mentioned that some of my photos of the fire are being used in the training.

Then we spent most of the rest of the day in the field, walking in the very footsteps of the people who on July 7, 2007, were fighting a very complex, rapidly developing, wildland-urban interface fire. Many of those firefighters were with us out there today, telling us what they saw, what they were thinking, and giving us the opportunity to experience the fire through their perceptions–but while standing in 2″ of snow, rather than 100+ degree temperatures, 7% relative humidity, and strong shifting winds gusting out of thunderstorm cells.

Al Stover, Initial Attack Incident Commander, showing us the point of origin. Photo by Bill Gabbert.


Jim Cook, Staff Ride Facilitator. Photo by Bill Gabbert
At the entrapment site. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Two firefighters had to share one fire shelter, since one of them forgot his line gear, leaving it in his vehicle while he got out to direct a structure protection operation. Then he became engaged in the some firing, got entrapped, and lived to tell about it.

This hard hat was blown off the head of one of the persons entrapped. It was left on the ground while he was sharing a fire shelter with another firefighter. Photo by Bill Gabbert

An interesting facet of the staff ride was that it served as the 8-hour annual wildland fire refresher that is now required by many agencies. And yes, we practiced getting into a fire shelter in 30 seconds….. with a twist. We all shared a shelter with one other person! WHAT? Yes, it’s true!