July 27, 2008

A Personal Account of Resilience and Prescribed Fire

By Duncan, Riva

Many who work in fire management will, at some time in their career, face something difficult, an "abrupt and brutal audit" (Lagadec 1993) that will shake their confidence at best and leave them heartbroken at worst. I know.

How do some of us get through those dark days, learn from our mistakes, and continue to do our jobs as best we can? What makes some of us "bounce back" from a serious accident, a fatality, or an escaped prescribed fire and continue to do the work on the land that is not only important but necessary? Why are some people able to adjust and adapt quickly in a rapidly changing fire environment?

Rather than speculate about what other people possess that helps them "get back up on that horse," I will tell you my story.

In 1998 I began, what would prove to be, a wonderful 5-year tenure working on the Apalachicola National Forest in northern Florida. The Apalachicola has the largest prescribed fire program of any other national forest in the country. In addition, wildland fires can ignite here during any month of the year.

With a program of burning approxi- mately 100,000 acres (40,000 ha) per year, this is the place to learn about fire behavior and fire ecology. Most of the people I worked with were from the South. Many grew up there. Not only had they been burning with the Forest Service for years, several of them had been burning with their daddies and granddaddies since they were kids.

When I arrived from my north- east "asbestos" forest, folks will- ingly transferred their land ethic to me. The fire practitioner "heroes" whom I had the privilege of working - and learning - with helped me to understand why fire is "good." They knew the difference between a dormant season burn and a growing season burn. And they took the time to teach me a true appreciation of such "handson" fire ecology. They taught me to drop a match or carry a drip torch mindfully, and to always know the outcome and consequences of my actions. It was a wonderful gift.

Safe Learning Environment

We had a very supportive district ranger, Andy Colaninno, who encouraged a safe, learning atmosphere. He wanted his employees to be creative and innovative and to learn from their errors.

One such lesson occurred when I was a burn-boss trainee on a 2,000-acre (800-ha) unit. Our two principle lighters - both fairly new to the Apalachicola - were driving all - terrain vehicles (ATV) with rear-mounted drip torches. Driving around the burn unit's perimeter after we had completed our ignition operations, I came across a group of local hunters who informed us of a spot fire across the swamp-outside the unit.

The burn boss trainer called the helicopter manager to prepare for a reconnaissance flight. Sure enough, we had fire outside the unit. We looked for a good place to burn out from and then talked in the ground forces. My fire management officer told me that I'd better call Andy, the district ranger, at home (it was Saturday). On the phone, Andy asked if we were catching the slopover. I informed him that we were, that we were burning out a section of the adjacent unit and it should be finished soon. He said "sounds good" and told me that I could fill him in on Monday.

After we finished the burn, we stood around the trucks to talk about it (we didn't call this an "after-action review" back then). We soon discovered that the two igniters on ATVs had crossed the swamp without realizing it and had lit the other side. After some good-natured ribbing, we recognized that putting two people who weren't familiar with the unit together as our principle lighters was a bad idea. We never did that again.

My Brutal Audit Occurs

After almost 6 years of prescribed burning and fighting fire in Florida under my belt - and possessing a solid love of fire, as well as the ecosystems that thrive on it - I accepted a job in Utah as the forest fuels specialist on the Uinta and Wasatch-Cache National Forests. It could not have been more different than Florida. Not just the topography, weather, and fuel types, but these two forests were in the early stages of building prescribed fire programs.

I was only 4 months into my new job when the audit occurred. The Cascade II Prescribed Fire on the Uinta National Forest was intended to reduce hazardous fuels and regenerate aspen on 600 acres (240 ha). I was the type 1 ignition specialist. By 5 p.m. the day of the burn, it was declared an escape.

The fire would eventually burn 8,000 acres (3,200 ha)- mostly private lands. The smoke from our escape was so bad in Salt Lake City that the street lights came on during the day. Salt Lake City International Airport nearly closed down. For several days school recesses were cancelled, football practices were moved indoors, and a few people even put their asthmatic children on planes to visit relatives elsewhere.

Because of our burn, community relations with the Forest Service became strained, to say the least.

The media was harsh. Our forest's public affairs officer was admonished - off duty - in the post office. Some of our firefighters were refused service at a local gas station. Members of the public wanted some of us fired.

Internally, it wasn't much better. Some of our nonfire coworkers were just as angry at us as was the public. And the finger-pointing and blame deflecting even began to flare up between my work associates.

I woke up many nights trying to understand what went wrong on that burn - and what I could have done differently. I wondered about the decisions I made and how the outcome might have been different had I done something else.

Those of us in overhead and planning positions and some of the line officers endured a national-level investigation. When the report was released, many of us were unhappy because we felt it did not portray the events or the causal factors accurately. But I'm sure everyone who has gone through one of those investigations feels the same.

Several weeks later, some of us were notified that an administrative investigation was coming. I gave my testimony the Monday following Thanksgiving at a downtown Provo, UT, hotel. It wasn't until well after Christmas that disciplinary actions were handed out.

High Reliability Concepts

So, what did I do? In the aftermath of this prescribed fire escape, no one would have blamed me - or any of us involved with this incident-if we had just thrown our matches away, put down our drip torches, and gone on with other things like fire suppression. But I couldn't do that. My land ethic wouldn't allow it.

Intentionally putting fire on the landscape was and is a part of who I am. So, I started writing more burn plans. I began to plan other burns with some of the forest's fire management officers. Yes, a handful of us got up, dusted ourselves off, and got back to work.

Our core group believed in the prescribed fire program. We didn't want to watch it die. And, frankly, we had something to prove - to ourselves, to our local communities, to the regional office, and to our coworkers: We knew how to burn.

The following May, I was in a hotel conference room in Santa Fe, NM, listening to two professors talk about High Reliability Organizing. I went on a staff ride of the escaped prescribed burn that became the Cerro Grande Fire. I listened to those on the staff ride who had planned and implemented that burn - like me they were just trying to do the right thing for the land - tell their story.

And when the two professors, Dr. Karl Weick and Dr. Kathleen Sutcliffe, talked about mindfulness and managing the unexpected (Weick and Sutcliffe 2001), something clicked in my brain. If I had known about these principles before our Cascade II prescribed burn, would the outcome have been different?

I did know that these new high reliability concepts would help me to do my job better in the future.

Exhibiting Resilience

On October 15 and 16, 2004- just I year after the Cascade II escape-we successfully implemented the 3,000-acre (1,200-ha) Halls Fork prescribed fire on the Uinta National Forest. Most of us on this burn had also been on the Cascade II burn and escape.

Once again, I served as the type 1 ignition specialist. During this prescribed fire, we looked for weak signals and when things didn't go as planned, we caught them early. We adapted. We displayed an unspoken spirit of teamwork and common goals. Of course, like most burns, it wasn't perfect. This burn, too, had its learning moments. But it was a huge step in the right direction.

Later, I relayed my story to Dr. Weick and Dr. Sutcliffe. They said it was an example of resilience-one of the five principles of a High Reliability Organization. Even after becoming a part of the cadre and then steering committee of the subsequent Managing the Unexpected Workshop series, I still sometimes have trouble with this principle. After many discussions with colleagues and with Weick and Sutcliffe, "resilience" still means different things to me.

At a recent meeting with Sutcliffe and Weick, Dr. Sutcliffe said that bouncing back from hardship or tragedy was not a "big deal, people do it all the time." She emphasized that people who did so appeared to have one thing in common - they had dealt with hardships or adversity before, but on a smaller scale.

I immediately thought of my safe learning environment and experience in Florida, where I was once indirectly responsible for having a prescribed fire escape - and no blame was ever assigned. When I reflect back on the Halls Fork burn, I think resilience was applied in its planning. And, we all had a desire to get back to work after our experiences that followed the Cascade II escape. We bounced back.

As for my personal resilience, I know it was due to the land ethic that I developed in Florida and the safe learning environment that I experienced there. I applied the hard lessons that I learned from Cascade II to this foundation and tried to do even better.

It is a personal quest that is ongoing.

The first spot fire on the Cascade II Prescribed Bum. Photo by Matt Preece, Uinta National Forest.

They taught me to drop a match or carry a drip torch mindfully and to always know the outcome and consequences of my actions. It was a wonderful gift.

High Reliability Organizing Principle #4:

A Commitment to Resilience

The smoke from our escape was so bad in Salt Lake City that the street lights came on during the day. Salt Lake City International Airport nearly closed down.

We displayed an unspoken spirit of teamwork and common goals.


Lagadec, P. 1993. Preventing chaos in a crisis: Strategies for prevention, control, and damage limitation. McGraw-Hill Publishing. < net blankx http: fr preventing_chaos>.

Weick, K.; Sutcliffe, K. 2001. Managing the unexpected: Assuring high performance in an age of complexity. University of Michigan, Ross School of Business, Management Series. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers (2nd ed. available 2007).

Riva Duncan is the deputy forest fire management officer for the Klamath National Forest, Yreka, CA.

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