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Common Ground

Now that the TV cameras are pointed in some other direction … now that the reporters have quit asking questions, it is time to put some closure to the 10th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire that became known as Storm King.

Not everyone does their homework. So, asking what lessons were learned may not be as important as asking what legacy is left us firefighters from this tragic loss of life that will forever be a part of wildland firefighting history.

First and foremost, “Be a leader of one for safety’s sake.” Since that fateful fire on the mountain, each firefighter now has a responsibility, an obligation and a duty to say no when things aren’t safe. They always did have this right to say no, but let me explain why it wasn’t encouraged.



When the government fire service went over to the Incident Command System (ICS), it borrowed the old tried-and-true military command-and-control system and mentality. It did so without teaching the prerequisite leadership element that goes with it.

Only during the last decade, and because of the South Canyon Fire, has this started to change ” though ever so slowly. Some older fire courses have been replaced with those teaching leadership. Better mentoring would also help.



The sad fact is that firefighters will still be asked to compromise safety by being placed in harm’s way. They may even be asked to do so under the guise of “risk management.” No matter what your position on a fire, from ground-pounder to the big boss, just say “no” if you have to.

Yes, firefighting is an inherently dangerous profession. But firefighters don’t have to inherit the macho attitude “we’re going to kick this fire’s ass” that gets you in trouble.

If no one else will follow, then lead yourself to safety. You will be following in the footsteps of none other than R. Wagner Dodge himself. He was the Mann Gulch Fire foreman in the book “Young Men and Fire” who lit an escape fire no one would follow him into, yet came out of alive because his untried idea of burning out fuels ahead of the fire worked.

Second, change Standard Firefighting Order No. 10 and make it No. 1. I never did like the way it read: “Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.” That sounds like safety is a one-time thing you can do and then get on with the job. Wrong.

How about, “Aggressively provide for safety first while managing the fire.” That way safety will always be first. Besides, we know that all fires will not and should not be fought. Firefighters will be managing fires in the wilderness in order to let nature restore the ecosystem.

Lastly, Storm King Mountain is a sacred place. Ceremonies were conducted for the Indian firefighters who died there. But all firefighters know this is now hallowed ground.

Hike to those crosses. They will speak to your heart, and you will leave a better, safer firefighter.

Writing from more than 25 years of firefighting experience in federal land management agencies, Bill Kight of Glenwood Springs shares his words with readers every other week.


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