4 wildfire

Thoughts on Leadership



A late-summer road trip with my wife brought us near the Smith River, Happy Camp and Hoopa complexes of fires in Oregon and California. Along the way, we encountered Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC) traveling to, from and around these fires. There are more than 100 IHCs in the United States – highly professional, mobile, and skilled hand crews assigned to the most challenging and highpriority fires. Though organization can vary, IHCs are typically led by a superintendent who is often referred to as The Supe.

As we passed the hotshots going about their business, I reflected on my long association with these crews. I was a hotshot for two fire seasons, one as a crew member and one as a squad boss. I consider those two seasons to have been foundational as a fire professional, a leader, and as a person. Later, as a division supervisor, I was always grateful when assigned hotshots; an all-career experience came when I was assigned six IHCs, punching hotline overnight, over steep and rugged terrain and through the ugliest snag patch I can recall.

Last year, a friend gave me The Supe’s Handbook: Leadership Lessons from America’s Hotshot Crews, by Angie Thom. I am quite proud that I know or knew more than 20 of the people profiled in Thom’s book – firefighting colleagues, training cadre teammates, audience members and training participants, and consulting clients. (Sadly, some are no longer with us.)

I was immediately drawn in by a balanced, honest, on-point foreword by Anthony Escobar, who had served as the superintendent of the Kern Valley IHC and retired as the fire management officer for the Los Padres National Forest in California. It is worth the price of the book just to read the foreward.

Brit Rosso served as the superintendent of the Arrowhead Hotshots and retired as the manager of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. Included in this book are Rosso’s lessons learned from the line-of-duty death of crew member Dan Holmes. Anyone leading a fire program or an agency with a fire program should read Rosso’s account.

One night, while reading this book, I cried; the author’s story of her trip to interview Paul Gleason, right at the time of his passing from cancer, brought a flood of memories. Gleason had been superintendent of the Zig Zag IHC, headquartered on the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon, long before retiring from the National Park Service and serving as an adjunct professor for the Wildland Fire Science program at Colorado State University. Gleason’s contributions to the U.S. wildland fire service are legendary, including pioneering sawyer certification and the Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes and Safety Zones firefighter safety concept, commonly known as LCES. Gleason made it cool for firefighters to be “students of fire.”

The author, Ms. Thom, had been introduced to Gleason by Jim Cook who accompanied her to the interview in Colorado. Cook was the superintendent of both the Arrowhead and Boise IHCs, retired as the training projects co-ordinator for the U.S. Forest Service, and was a principal architect of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s leadership curriculum in the United States

Thom’s story of going to interview Gleason reminded me that around the time of his death, I spent a powerful, emotional evening in a hotel ballroom in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a group of his National Park Service colleagues, reminiscing and processing his passing. It proved an extra intense experience because it just so happened we were also doing the first staff ride of the Cerro Grande fire on which Gleason had been burn boss. Some of the people present had been principal players and most were already processing some strong emotions. All these years later, I find myself hoping the people who receive the Paul Gleason Lead By Example Award, presented by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, have a deep and intense understanding of the fire-service leader in whose memory they are being honored for their own achievements, and what that means.

I was a hotshot for two fire seasons, one as a crew member and one as a squad boss. I consider those two seasons to be foundational as a fire professional, a leader, and as a person.

I had three takeaways from The Supe’s Handbook: Leadership Lessons from America’s Hotshot Crews.

First, I was reminded of how some really intelligent people are drawn to fire. Note I did not say

“educated” people. Some people profiled have or had formal post-secondary educations. Others are or were self-educated. Formal, higher education is not prominent in the group of hotshot superintendents profiled. However, intelligence is.

Second, whether the profiled supes overtly acknowledged it or not, they are and were passionate students of leadership, for whom the responsibilities of leadership weighed heavily; and they took their leadership very seriously. The fire part seemed to come easily; their focus was on leading their people.

Third, I was reminded me of how often I have seen this kind of intelligence and leadership savvy go under-recognized, under-utilized, and even dismissed, because people could not see past big, sometimes rough and blunt personalities, educational credentials, or their own insecurities.

As a lifelong fire professional, including 20 years as a consultant to wildland fire agencies, I’ve encountered more than one senior leader who would have benefitted from some coaching and mentoring from people in this book.


Mike DeGrosky is a student of leadership, lifelong learner, mentor and coach, sometimes writer, and recovering fire chief. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for 10 years. Follow Mike via LinkedIn.