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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Firefighters Still Learning from Historic Fatality Fires

Service firefighters at Battlement Creek near Glenwood Springs, Colorado (from left to right): Jim Krizman,Neal Smith NWR; Iowa; Aaron Roper, Wichita Mountains NWR; Oklahoma; Bart Rye, St. Marks NWR, Florida; Andy Lopez, Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico; John Krueger, Texas Chenier Plain NWR, Texas; Andy Schell, Monte Vista NWR, Colorado; Reggie Forcine, Okefenokee NWR, Georgia; Justin Pyle, Klamath Basin NWR, California; Ted Mason, Fire Management Branch, Idaho; Geoff Wilson, Sheldon-Hart Mountain NWRC, Oregon; Russ Babiak, Fire Management Branch, Idaho; Ryan Sharpe, Merritt Island NWR, Florida.

Thirteen wildland firefighters, from 11 wildlife refuges in six regions and the Fire Management Branch headquarters office, came together over the summer for three days of field study near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, at the sites of two tragic wildfires to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire. 

They joined the South Canyon staff ride, May 19-20, sponsored by the interagency Rocky Mountain Training Center. The fire claimed the lives of 14 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and USDA Forest Service (USFS) firefighters on July 6, 1994, and has been the subject of numerous staff rides, a common on-the-ground learning tool for wildland firefighters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service group then conducted its own staff ride on May 21 at the nearby Battlement Creek Fire site, where three USFS firefighters and an air tanker pilot perished in July 1976.

Traditionally used by the U.S. military, staff rides are on-site studies of historically significant events, designed to improve leadership and decision making through thoughtful analysis of the circumstances and viewpoints of individuals who were involved. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group provides an online library of wildland fire staff ride materials.

Before arriving in the field, the group members studied investigative reports, fire progression maps, timeline reconstructions, first-hand accounts and published stories about the two fires in an attempt to fully understand each incident. They then walked through each incident, engaging in simulations and facilitated discussions at key decision points. This gave participants a hillside perspective of what firefighters faced at each point, moments before the tragedies unfolded. They eventually arrived at each fatality site, sharing what they had learned through observation and considering the decisions of their fallen comrades.

“The experience was professionally and personally moving, and renewed our collective commitment to firefighter safety,” says national fire training specialist Russ Babiak.  The Battlement Creek Fire has special meaning for Babiak, who had previously worked for the fire crew that lost three members in that incident.

“The story about the fire was a legacy for the crew, one I had always heard about,” he added. “Now, I’ve had the opportunity to study and see the site for myself.”



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