Rim Fire Revised: Strike While the Iron Is Hot

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.

The other “new” normal is the condition of the fuels. Obviously, this did not happen overnight, but perhaps we have reached a “critical mass” and that the overstocked condition of the forests, along with drought stress, has produced a fuel condition that is explosive and has tremendous potential. There are no easy or cheap solutions to this problem, but firefighters must understand the conditions when considering the potential a fire might have on any given day.

The reasons for the reality firefighters face in the wildlands are numerous. They include, but are not limited to, more than a century of very effective fire suppression, a reduced ability to properly manage vegetation due to legal constraints and scale, an increase in the population who want beautiful homes in the wildland/urban interface (WUI), a population with special interests regarding the use of public lands and a public that demands the resources wildlands produce, like timber, water and recreation. These add to the complexity the fire service faces, and more importantly the increase in frequency and intensity of fires in the wildland that quickly affect human interests and place values at risk. This change in potential of a wildland fire is akin to the changes the fire service faces in modern building materials and construction.

Due to the type, volume, chemical composition and arrangement of the fuels in our newer structures, firefighters are faced with accelerated fire behavior and growth that necessitates a modification to our rules of engagement and tactics for safety’s sake. Wildland fire suppression personnel are operating in an environment capable of producing unprecedented fire behavior, and this is precisely where our “new” concept of “normal” has to be set.


Capture the moment for training benefit

This simple statement has many implications and several possible paths of elaboration, but here it refers to the idea of recent experiences being captured for perpetuity. In particular, historic fires connect training and lectures with actual actions to create a training impact that is significant and long lived. Events like the Rim Fire, albeit massively destructive, and other large-scale incidents provide a silver lining of real-time proof of classroom concepts.

The idea of exposing people of every experience level to real evolving emergencies has endless benefits. We must as a collective fire service commit to continual improvement; explain, elaborate, expose and identify the strategies and tactics employed on large-scale events to younger generations. Enforcing the concepts and the magnitude of the event allows them to appreciate their part of history in the making. By including this level of direct, nearly spontaneous connection with classroom to real life, the impacts are invaluable and imprinted on them for life.

Whether the experience is captured and reinforced in a quick tailgate debriefing after a shift or a more formal after-action review, the effect is all positive. Connections are made, experiences are explained and put in context and decisions are field verified. This form of real-time validation of actions is impossible to get from simulation software or from the Internet. As an organization recognizing this value, we are tapping into the very fabric of what it means to be human. We are recognizing the human-factors component of how we respond to events of significance and make it part of our psychological processing. If ever there is doubt about the impact and influence of human factors on emergency responses, a large-scale complex incident will always prove that posture incorrect. Human factors are inextricably connected to every decision we make. Every analysis of safety and every evaluation of a situation is woven together with the human factors present at the current moment.

Although I know this concept intellectually, I had the direct experience of the potency of the human-factors component while operating as a division supervisor on the Rim Fire during very hostile fire conditions performing structure defense. The Rim Fire occurred close to my jurisdiction and within the County of Tuolumne, where I live and have worked for the past 12 years. This is my home turf. Places I remember taking my family were on fire. It was my neighbors who were evacuated. These are my friends’ homes that were threatened or destroyed. The decisions I was making, although ultimately safe, were being influenced by my personal ties to the landscape. There is no escaping this. There is no solution to this. The only mitigation is recognition that it is present and that it is real. We must accept it as truth before we begin to prevent this component of human factors from causing overextension of ourselves or the resources assigned. If you are a fire service professional who has experienced an event of great magnitude, it is your obligation to store those memories and observations for more effective and safer operational use in the future.


Cement and solidify relationships

Never before have I experienced the rapid and essential development of relationships for increased effectiveness so poignantly as on the Rim Fire. Relationships were formed between members of the same engine company or crew who may not have worked together in the past because they were assembled for the immediate response. Relationships developed between IMTs from different parts of the country. Community-based relationships formed between residents and between residents and responders, even agency administrators and subordinate personnel.

The power was apparent, the influence was real, the benefits were innumerable and the need to preserver and solidify these relationships for future benefit never more in evidence. The communities involved put aside previous biases or judgments and people worked together. This was evident in the responder community, in the agency community and in the actual communities affected by this massive fire.

Words cannot express the importance of relationships forged or necessitated out of an emergency. To not see the value, to not capitalize on the barriers dropped or to dismiss them as temporary and insignificant other than during the incident is foolish. These are relationships formed during a time of extreme challenge. These are relationships you cannot buy; you cannot campaign for or hire a consultant to develop. This happens in real time and comes from a significant emotional investment by all parties, and therein lays their strength and power.

I saw communities rally behind each other, behind the responders, and open up their minds, homes and wallets to address the needs of others. We in fire service leadership need to be cognizant that these types of massive emergency incidents don’t occur in our jurisdictions every day and thankfully so. However, if it does happen, and it triggers the most likely human response of dropping past prejudice and working together, fire service professionals must fight to maintain them after the incident has concluded. We as leaders need to exhibit gentle reminders within our community to keep that emotion, that feeling of unity, fresh in the minds of our communities.

Although the damage from a large-scale disaster is life changing and traumatic, there are positives that do surface. There will be many discussions about the Rim Fire, many agreements and disagreements, but that doesn’t preclude the need for the fire service to capitalize on the identified benefits. We all should strive to find those pearls or nuggets of wisdom and clarity that comes from being tested as a service and a community.

It is times like these when I am immensely proud to be a member of the greater fire and emergency service community, a member of my local community and part of the global community. Although we are spread across this complex planet in a variety of situations, we generally respond the same way when faced with a threat and that is to bind together to create the most resilient community possible when tested.


Todd McNeal presents “Strike While the Iron is Hot: Lessons Learned from the Rim Fire” and “Tactical Decision Points: Improving Firefighter Safety in the WUI” at Firehouse World 2014.