Friday, July 5, 2013

Young Men Lost - The Tragedy of Wildland Fire Policy

"You see tragedy coming from a considerable distance when you are older, but when you are young tragedy does not pertain to you and certainly never catches up to you. There are pieces of premonitions of tragedy floating around, but they do not add up yet to your tragedy. There are separate stabs of fear, of pity, of self-pity, but to a degree in separate parts of the body. Then suddenly they all merge into one sense, the encompassing sense of inevitability. It is everywhere on you as it becomes the essential whole of all that is preparing to be your tragedy. It becomes the cause of your mounting fear, your pity, your self-pity, telling you that, no matter what, it does no good to be proud, and good and young. Then almost at the end, it makes possible the triumph that can come at the end of tragedy for the young that are select and elite - the triumph of retaining your pride when you know that you have lost for good before you had a chance in life to make good, except for this." - Norman Maclean in Young Men and Fire

I wrote this quote out and placed in my upper drawer nearly 20 years ago. I pulled it out and read it yet again after hearing of the deaths of the fire crew in Arizona. I noted that Timothy Egan turned to Maclean as well new-west-old-story. In Young Men and Fire Maclean wrote of the Mann Gulch Fire. He struggled with the story for over 14 years and it was not published until after he died. Mann Gulch and the elite young men that were killed there haunted him. It should haunt all living in fire areas. It should haunt all that delve into setting wild land fire policy.

But the problem is this story keeps getting repeated. Mann Gulch took place in 1949. There was a lot we did not know then about wild land fires. We know so much more today. Communications are vastly improved. We have outstanding weather data. We have decades of research. We have a much better understanding of fire ecology. We have lessons from the past - Mann Gulch, but sadly Storm King and Thirtymile. But our vast knowledge and data and technology is useless - the story repeats.

Young men and now young women as well that enter this business of fighting wild land fires know little of policy. They are strong and tough and desire to do something good perhaps even heroic. But mostly they are just tough and willing. They train and learn in their short time a sliver of fire behavior. But they are hired and trained to do hard, dirty work that requires a high level of fitness and willingness to just grind through pain and exhaustion. It is not enough. The other end of the equation is where they are sent and a question, Why?

It is not enough to call them heroes. We must look at what policies and tactics routinely put our young and brave and strong into insanely dangerous conditions. They are not part of the economic calculation of what they are doing. And I wonder if we ever really calculate the costs and risks.

I found myself angry at the news reports saying what happened in Arizona was the worst fire fighter disaster since 9/11. There is no comparison. 9/11 was about saving life and the fire situation is not even remotely comparable. The story line in my head was: It has happened yet again, Why?


Geoffrey Middaugh said...

Nice. Thanks. I used to tell crews at the start of every fire season: There is no property out there worth the life of one single fire fighter. I believe it even more today.

Geoffrey Middaugh said...

Today is the day of the South Canyon Fire in 1994, aka Storm King Mountain. John McLean, Norman's son, wrote a good book Fire on the Mountain about that fire. It somehow will sound like repeating history, I do believe, once the final Lesson's Learned are complete about Yarnell.

Rabbits' Guy said...

I know a local guy who was a smoke jumper in Montana and was part of the "Chutes in the sky" scenes from the movie Red Skies of Montana - which was loosely following the Mann Gulch tragedy. Hard to believe the tragedies continue ...