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...


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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.