fall 2015

Fatalities during fireline-related activities are unacceptable. Sadly, this goal was not achieved this season. Yet this goal and related safety practices are key – and this was the message shared by Tom Tidwell, Chief of the United States Forest Service, at the 13th Fire Safety Summit and 4th Human Dimensions in WIldland Fire Conference – “Managing Fire, Understanding Ourselves” – held in Boise, Idaho, in April 2015.

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by Tom Tidwell, Chief of the United States Forest Service

It’s a pleasure to be here today. I welcome this opportunity to address something of vital importance to the Forest Service: the issue of safety on wildland fires, particularly with respect to its human dimension.

Ongoing Losses

As you know, wildland fire management is a core part of what we do at the Forest Service, and it has been ever since we were founded 110 years ago. Five years into our existence as an agency, our nation faced the single worst fire season in our nation’s recorded history. About 84 people lost their lives in the Big Blowup of 1910, almost all of them wildland firefighters working for the Forest Service in Idaho and Montana.

In a way, the Big Burn of 1910 was the crucible in which our identity as an agency was formed—the identity of all of us in the wildland fire community.

Our safety techniques and procedures have gradually improved since then. We got the 10 and 18, for example, and we now require redcarding before putting folks on the fireline. Today, we have much better equipment and training than ever before.

But in spite of steady improvements, we have continued to get tragedy fires—Griffith Park in 1933; Mann Gulch in 1949; Rattlesnake in 1953, just to name a few. In terms of my own career, two bookend events stand out: South Canyon in 1994 and Yarnell Hill in 2013, just two years ago.

Those two events span 20 years of wildland fire management. We lost 14 brave firefighters at South Canyon and 19 at Yarnell Hill.

But most of our fatalities in the broader wildland fire community do not happen in entrapments or burnovers. Most fall into three types of incidents: aviation accidents; vehicle accidents; and medical emergencies, particularly heart attacks. Most are individual and isolated instances, but they really add up.

And when you add all those isolated instances together with the occasional large-scale burnovers and entrapments, you get appalling numbers. In 1994, the year of South Canyon, the wildland fire community lost 35 people; and in 2013, the year of Yarnell Hill, we lost 34 people.

So even with all of the improvements we have made over more than a century of wildland firefighting, the broader wildland fire community continues to lose people at an appalling rate. And, appalling as they are, tragedy fires do not cause most of our losses. Most come for other reasons.

Whatever the reason, we mourn the loss of all wildland firefighters and aviators. Our nation’s wildland firefighters and aviators are true heroes. They bravely go into hazardous environments, knowing the risks they face, in order to protect lives, property, and wildland resources. Our nation owes every one of them a debt of gratitude, and I salute them for their courage and self-sacrifice.

Goal: Zero Fatalities

Still, I find the death of our firefighters while doing their work unacceptable. Of course, the work of fire and aviation management is work that is filled with risks. South Canyon and Yarnell Hill happened to some of our best: hotshots, smokejumpers, and helitack. If it can happen to them, can’t it happen to anyone?

Yes, it can—but that doesn’t make it inevitable. I refuse to believe—and I think most firefighters refuse to believe—that losses like these are inevitable. We can never reconcile ourselves to the loss of our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, as the cost of doing business. We might never get to “zero fatalities” all the time, but I don’t know of any other goal that makes sense.

It’s our job, as leaders and managers, to ensure that firefighters are exposed to hazards only when the gain outweighs the risk. The way we’ve stated this goal in the Forest Service is, and I quote, “safely achieving reasonable objectives … with the least firefighter exposure necessary.”

The good news is that entrapments, shelter deployments, and burnover fatalities have been on a distinct downward trend in the last couple of decades. This shows that if we make the right efforts, we can have a positive impact on the safety of our folks across the whole enterprise of interagency wildland fire management.

But it takes a whole lot of effort and investments of staff time, creativity, and thoughtfulness. Since South Canyon in 1994, we have designed and implemented an interagency wildland fire leadership development program. We now have tools like the Incident Response Pocket Guide and the Redbook.

And since the Thirtymile Fire in 2001, we have been managing fatigue much more effectively across the interagency spectrum. Since then, fatigue has rarely been cited as a factor in accidents.

As you know, safety is not just a firefighting issue. Even something as simple as crossing the street or getting behind the wheel of a car entails a certain amount of risk that has to be managed. At the Forest Service, safety across the board has become one of our major emphasis areas. As part of that, we have engaged in a multi-year Safety Journey. This journey involves our employees in a series of meaningful dialogues about how we can better manage risk … about how all of us can take responsibility for making good choices … for enhancing the safety and overall well-being of every Forest Service employee.

FS Chief Tidwell photo lori iverson 2015_08_19.jpg
During a fire briefing at the Canyon Creek Complex (Oregon), US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell sits next to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (pictured in the center). They’re flanked by two chiefs from the Oregon Department of Forestry. Photo: Lori Iverson / USFWS. Photo credit: Lori Iverson

Areas for Improvement

Still, there are many areas where we can improve.

  • For example, we can develop some strategic objectives that align with our National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy and with our land and resource management plans and then tier off of those strategic objectives in developing objectives for specific incidents.
  • We can also engage our partners before fire season in a discussion involving all the natural resource management agencies about better managing risk to both firefighters and communities.
  • We can also be more far-sighted in how we manage the land. I would be the first to admit that effective fuels management costs a lot. But not managing fuels effectively turns out to cost a lot more in the long run.
  • At the Forest Service, we’re looking very closely at our capacity to provide emergency medical services to our employees in the field. We owe it to our folks to be as well prepared as we can to treat them and evacuate them if they get hurt or sick out in the field.

These are just a few of the things we can work on to better manage risk to the people we serve and to our own employees.

After Yarnell Hill, there was talk about fire managers needing to know the location of assigned resources at all times. At the Forest Service, we’ve had employees go missing and been unable to locate them, sometimes for days. Some say there’s a technological fix for this—that technology is now available for tracking all of our employees or crews in real time.

But before we decide to make this kind of investment, we have to ask ourselves some questions. First, since fire management is always an interagency endeavor, would all personnel be so equipped? Can all of our partners afford this kind of technology?

Besides, will having more moving dots on a computer screen really enhance firefighter safety? Isn’t it more important for firefighters themselves to know where they are, where they are going, and what the fire is doing? Isn’t that where our focus should be?

Human Dimensions

Adaptation, innovation, and continuous learning are essential parts of leadership. So on our Safety Journey at the Forest Service, we have recently started focusing on human factors … or human performance. We spent the first hundred years of our agency’s history exploring the science of how fires behave. We focused on the physics of fire behavior and the environmental influences that make this awesome and unpredictable force of nature do what it does.

Now we probably need to spend our next hundred years exploring the science of how humans behave. Scientists already know a lot about human perception, cognition, and reactions under stress. We need to incorporate that science into our fire operations.

A good example is Dr. Bret Butler’s work at the Missoula Fire Lab. Dr. Butler has been studying how fires behave in complex terrain under the influence of slope and wind. He is applying his findings to calculating the size of safety zones, and the guidelines for that are likely to change. So people involved in wildland firefighting will need new approaches to using safety zones.

Dr. Butler’s preliminary results show that on many fires today, no natural safety zone is large enough to protect firefighters from worst-case fire behavior! So how will fire managers respond? Will they try to construct safety zones, with the corresponding environmental damage and firefighter exposure? Or will they emphasize concepts of mobility and timing in their approach to tactics?

Most firefighters who died in burnovers weren’t even in safety zones. They were in escape routes. How will this affect our future thinking?

That gets to the theme of this conference: safety and the human dimension of wildland fire. For us in the Forest Service, our emphasis on risk management is all about the human dimension in two major ways.

First, the people who experience unfortunate outcomes in fire operations are exactly the same people who create successful outcomes. We are therefore dedicated to creating a learning organization where everyone learns from both successful and unsuccessful outcomes in a fair and nonpunitive way. We want to be an organization where learning is considered just as important as delivering services or accomplishing targets.

Second, we are making major investments in our understanding of human performance. For example, we have established a Human Performance Research, Development and Application Unit. This unit will collect state-of-the-art science about human performance to help us figure out ways to incorporate this knowledge into our management practices. We are applying the concept of resilience to both individuals and organizations so we can better prepare for the unexpected and bounce back faster when it occurs. In the business of fire management, people will be exposed to traumatic events, so we are supporting them by making investments in critical incident stress management and in peer support.

I greatly appreciate the fact that this conference is dedicated to the human dimension of safety. I am here because we at the Forest Service value human life and safety above all else. I am absolutely dedicated to the safety of the people who, day in and day out, accomplish the mission of the Forest Service. We might not know the future, but I believe that it will be bright due to the work you and your colleagues are doing in this vital field.