As the fifth anniversary of the tragic deaths of 19 firefighters in a place called Yarnell Hill approaches, it's a reminder to truly think about what we can learn from an event of this magnitude.
Earlier this year, I had an opportunity that I both relished and dreaded - to take what wildland fire leaders refer to as a "staff ride" to the place where 19 of the 20 men who made up the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew lost their lives in a remote corner of Yavapai County, Arizona on June 30, 2013. Organized for the benefit of a group of chiefs, managers and supervisors within the National Association of State Foresters network, the staff ride was coordinated by local leaders who had worked with the crew over the years as well as responded to the multiple fatality incident. Because our group was more than 80 people and the visit had to be planned around a meeting, we compressed what would have been a full day into a drive across rough terrain, a 40-minute hike to the memorial, and back.
What exactly is a staff ride? According to the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program, the staff ride has a long history dating from 19th century Europe as a tool for military organizations. It has been adopted by wildland fire managers and is described this way:
"The intent of a staff ride is to put participants in the shoes of the decision makers on a historical incident in order to learn for the future. A staff ride should not be a tactical-fault finding exercise. Participants should be challenged to push past the basic question of 'What happened?' and examine the deeper questions of leadership and decision-making: 'What would I have done in this person's place?' 'How detailed should the guidance from a superior to a subordinate be?' 'Can a senior leader make use of a competent but overzealous subordinate?' 'What explains repeated organizational success or failure?' The study of leadership aspects in a staff ride transcend time and place."
For me, as someone whose world is outreach and engagement, not fire and smoke, I still felt that I learned. To be greeted by Darrell Willis, who left the Prescott Fire and Rescue Department a couple of years after the incident, jolted me. I hadn't realized until that moment that I had assumed that after this disaster, I would never see him again. Darrell, a major champion of Firewise USA and Ready Set Go programs, has found a new role in the Arizona State Forestry Department. I learned that even after tragedy, people can still contribute usefully in the area where their passion and talent lies.
Jeff Whitney, the current Arizona State Forester and State Fire Marshal, impresses me as someone who won't allow the important history of this disaster to be hidden away - that facing it helps all of us learn. It was apparent in the City of Prescott and in areas all around Yavapai County that the community is still grieving its loss. I remember talking with a community leader in one of the many Prescott-area Firewise USA sites right after the incident. She told me how those men were the sons and brothers and fathers that made up their tight-knit community. How during off-season, they were the muscle behind wildfire risk reduction efforts involving heavy lifting. How successful they had been in fighting the Doce Fire just days before. How they could never be replaced. The pain of this loss is never going to go away for this community, although there are wonderful efforts to honor the memory of these men, and to support and assist first responders in the community, including the newly formed Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute recently covered by Mike Rowe's Returning the Favor program.
My own reaction to seeing the memorial, the actual places where they fell, was predictable (for me). Angry and overwhelmed with sadness and the feeling that this did not have to happen. Frustration but also resignation with the fact that there are things that we will never know about what actually happened and why certain decisions were made. The leaders repeated to us that they don't know why the crew "left the black" - the safe area where they spent hours that day. I wish I had left that event with more answers. I'm sure many people feel that way. Reviewing the staff ride booklet, I realize that the experience is meant to raise questions, and not necessarily provide answers. I can only hope that those who participate in this and other staff rides ask themselves the hard questions and find ways to prevent future tragedies in the line of duty.
All photos by Michele Steinberg, NFPA. Top: hiking in toward the memorial area. Center: Michele Steinberg reunited with former Prescott Fire & Rescue deputy chief Darrell Willis. Bottom: Staff ride participants assembled at the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial at Yarnell Hill.