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After completing a two-week assignment as a part of the Incident Management Team (IMT) assigned to the 255,000-plus-acre, third-largest fire in California history, the Rim Fire of 2013, many thoughts raced through my head. The lessons learned, the historic precedence of the event, the opportunities for training and the numerous life-altering experiences this large incident brings to reality are staggering.
As one can imagine, the multitude of directions in which to process this type of experience is daunting. The implications, both immediate and long term, are numerous, real and need to be recognized. Failure to use the experience and involvement in an incident of this magnitude to better oneself, or an organization, would be remiss. As members of the fire service and or residents of affected communities, we must capture, store and remember these types of events.
This article discusses three topical areas:
• Time to update; maybe a “new normal” is here with regard to fire potential
• Capture the moment for the purposes of training and experience
• Cement and solidify relationships forged in the response to a community emergency
These are just a start and additional issues will continually surface as time progresses, but starting with a discussion of these topical areas would help begin the process of assimilation and identification of the vast number of lessons the “Rim Fire” has taught and will teach us.
What is “normal”?
This question is asked frequently and for good reason, especially as related to wildland fire suppression. By asking this question, an individual is entering into the realm of processing and updating one’s situational awareness, a fundamental component of safety and effectiveness
The Rim Fire apparently was started by a person who was careless with a recreational campfire in a remote area of the Stanislaus National Forest with zero road access. Surrounded by two years of drought-stressed vegetation on steep, variable terrain, the fire grew rapidly.
Here is where the first topic of discussion begins: When the word “rapid” is used in terms of fire progression, all firefighters instantly recall an incident they perceived as “rapid” fire spread or extreme fire behavior from their past experience. Additionally, a firefighter also has a “visual” tied to that previous experience and uses that as a reference when contemplating the new fire. Depending on a person’s experience level, that visual may or may not be precise or accurate, but nevertheless less it equips that individual with a starting point of expected fire potential.
As a person who was at the Rim Fire from the first day it started and for the next 14 days; I have a new visual of rapid! In my career of wildland fire suppression I have never seen a fire move so quickly. The Rim Fire started in what would be classified as the grass and brush models and over the following days traversed the landscape into the timber model and exhibit nearly mathematically perfect exponential growth. (Yes, I said exponential; literally doubling every day.) That type of rapid growth is not common and far from normal, especially several days in a row.
Maybe those involved in the western fires of the past decade are seeing a “new” normal. Maybe we need to adjust the starting point in all our situational awareness development because the game has changed subtly, right before us, and the Rim Fire dramatically displays that. For the purposes of brevity, I won’t discuss the issue further other than to mention a causal factor of this new normal being possible climate change. Human-caused climate change, the natural process of increased planet temperature or more likely a human acceleration of a natural process, the fact remains that weather patterns are changing.