By Rob Shaul
Last week we received an email from a veteran wildland firefighter critical of the naming scheme I deployed for the plans in our Wildland Fire Training Packet.
The 5 “base fitness” training plans in this packet are named after tragic “killer” wildland fires from America’s past:
Named after the Blackwater Fire of 1937, near Cody, Wyoming, which killed fifteen firefighters. Investigations and analysis of the event led the USFS to develop better ways to provide a more immediate response to combat fires; one of them was the development of the smokejumper program in 1939.
- Mann Gulch
Named after the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire along the Upper Missouri River in Montana which killed 13 wildland firefighters, including 12 smokejumpers. Norman Maclean’s book, Young Men and Fire, is based on Mann Gulch.
- Storm King
Named after the South Canyon Fire of 1994, that took the lives of 14 wildland firefighters on Storm King Mountain, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
Named after the Rattlesnake Fire of 1953 in northern California, which took the lives of 14 volunteer firefighters from the New Tribes Mission. The incident was chronicled in John Maclean’s 2018 book, River of Fire.
- Yarnell Hill
Named after the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, which took the lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Below is the email back and forth between myself and this individual (named removed). It’s interesting reading, and a little insight into the way I think about Wildland Firefighters. Specifically – I consider them tactical athletes.
- You’re making rookie firefighters first season even harder than it is already. If I found out that a fng bought a program call “The Yarnell” or “Stormking” he’d lose a bunch of respect from me regardless of how many pushups or pullups he could do. And I can almost guarantee that would be universal amongst the hotshot world. (No, I do not condone hazing)
- It makes it appear that your company and thus your training program doesn’t understand the majority of professional forest firefighters.
- You could actually sell these plans to real firefighters (experienced and new guys) if you changed the names.
- You’re pissing us off, these plan names are asinine. (that’s a fact not a threat, I’m not gonna start some shit on the internet or try to cancel you or anything)
- Basically you could sell more plans, make more money.
To: Veteran Wildland Firefighter
Sir – Thanks for the note.
I named the plans – so I’m the guy you should be mad at.
Two reasons I chose those names:
1) The surprising number of wildland firefighters who die in service each year, and often, the number who die at one time, – is significantly underknown and under-appreciated by the American public. Recently 2-3 urban firefighters died fighting an abandoned house fire in Baltimore and it made national news – including the front page of the NY times, and led Maryland to potentially change law so abandoned homes are allowed to burn – is saving an abandoned home worth a life? However, the same type of attention is rarely brought to Wildland fire deaths and injuries – which during fire season seem to happen as much or often.
2) My experience with the fitness cultures of Wildland Firefighters has been uneven at best. Despite the clear link between fitness and survivability in your line of work, and the lack of unions which are a serious impediment to fitness at urban fire departments, the fitness cultures of wildland fire units are overall weak compared to your military counterparts. Where there is a good fitness culture, it’s often unloaded running based – even though never on a fire do you move unloaded. I purposely named these plans after these tragic fires to reinforce the seriousness of the work, and the direct link between mission-direct fitness and survivability.
Marketing? Certainly not a reason. I bet more than a few veteran wildland firefighters would not know of many of those fires or the history behind them. I personally researched the history on these incidents – and came away with an even higher level of respect for wildland firefighters after doing this research.
I feel naming these plans after these fires honors those to gave their lives fighting them. I don’t agree that wildand firefighting is significantly different than the military. Certainly there are significant similarities between the fitness demands of wildland firefighters and military SOF units with mountain-based mission sets. As well, like them you are tactical athletes, who can and do, die or suffer significant injury, doing your duty.
Curious that you’d punish or look down on a rookie who was professional about his fitness and prepared for the season in a mission-direct manner before reporting. I’m not sure what to think about this except that perhaps you have not completed one of these training plans. Again, the professional design behind these programs recognizes and honors the fact that you can die doing your job. These are mission-direct, multi-modal training programs professionally designed to increase the mission-direct fitness demands of wildland firefighting.
I will say that many Wildland Firefighters, including entire units, have completed one or more of these plans and this is the first concern I’ve heard about naming. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but it could be you’re in the significant minority.
After reading my naming explanation, do you still feel the same? If not, what naming scheme would you suggest?
To: Rob Shaul
Hello Mr. Shaul,
I really appreciate you taking the time to respond. I can understand your point of view now a little better. I’ll just respond to each point respectively.
1. I agree with you. It comes from the upper management’s culture. The definitive writing about this is The Big Lie by Mark Smith, it’s a ten minute read, really worth it. http://
2. That’s interesting about the the Structure guy’s unions. I can’t attest to the overall fitness culture of wildland firefighter modules so I’ll leave that one to you. I can say our crew has a great one. Many crews have a deployment (fire shelter) hike/scramble that is meant to make people take their hiking serious so I understand your effort with your naming system there.
3. I appreciate your efforts into doing your research on those fires, right now the Wildland community needs all the help it can get. Across the nation programs are underfunded, understaffed, overwhelmed with fires, and now pretty much everyone is living cars…. and if they get injured they’ll be kicked to the curb with no benefits…..or they might die at work too. I will attest that most of the firefighters that I’ve met on my forest are knowledgeable about those incidents.
4.I can see how naming your programs like that could be seen as an homage or honoring the fallen, I do The Murph and whenever I was near a Stairmaster I did the 110 flights of stairs with a good pack. So I understand what you’re trying for here. But those workouts make me think of how badass those guys were, not what killed them. It’s called The Murph not Operation Redwing (which is the 2nd worst day for the SEAL’s since Vietnam). I don’t know what to tell you man, I don’t have any strong alternative names for you although I’m sure there are some. I guess we’ll just disagree on that.
Also I love the name tactical athlete, I’m gonna start saying that at bars. Way cooler saying that I move sticks for a living.
Myself nor anyone on my crew would ever punish someone for someone like that. It’s completely against the rules of the Agency and the crew’s SOP’s and I don’t punish anybody for shit they do off of the fireline because that’s not my business. So forget that. I’ll give you a short answer for this one, because when everything is said and done, this is just my opinion. Buying these programs with their current names is a litmus test for inexperience. A new guy would always like to avoid looking inexperienced. That’s a better way of saying it.
If you have entire modules buying these programs then maybe I am in the minority. But I’m in the minority with a bunch of other Hotshots. Also, I suspect the reason you don’t hear other negative opinions about these names is because as public employees, giving our honest opinions about anything or raising any kind of fuss (on or off the clock) is a risky business. So if the PT works good, then most people would probably just say “Oh well, who cares” and move on.
So basically, I do appreciate the effort you are making to make firefighters fit, and I appreciate your thought given to wildland firefighters. But I still don’t think your naming is optimal. I still think you could get more customers with different but still motivating names in the future. I won’t tell you your business anymore.
Again, thanks for hearing me out.
Have a good day.
To: Veteran Wildland Firefighter
After reading “The Big Lie” as you suggest, I’ll stick with the current names for these plans.
“The Big Lie” reinforces for me that there is absolutely a lack of attention/training/thought currently given to the inherent dangers/risks wildland firefighters face doing their jobs – certainly outside your community, and very possibly, inside it as well.
Naming these plans after tragic fires, plus the mission-direct, no-joke intensity of the programming inside them, reinforces for those wildland firefighters who complete my work that you are tactical athletes, and fighting wildfires is serious business which can get you seriously injured or killed.