Leadership in wildfires: decisions, decisions, decisions


Fire Mann Gulch - August 4, 1949
(View of the Mann Gulch fire from the plane)

We talk a lot about the importance of crew cohesion as part of Wildland Fire's leadership development program. Teams must be cohesive. But what happens to the team when chaos wreaks havoc in the fire's environment? Are we following our individual instinct or are we relying on others with more knowledge and experience?

An example of Mann Gulch

Lightning unleashed numerous fires in the Helena National Forest on August 4, 1949, including one near the summit of a ridge between Meriwether and Mann Gulches. At 12:55 On August 5, the fire was observed at six acres. At 1330, the call of the Missoula base fire fighters was launched. By the time the jump plane flew over at 3 pm, the fire was 60 acres. The crew jumped and was dispersed by a nearby thunder cell.

The crew gathers at the bottom of the ravine of the fire. The foreman of the rider goes in search of fire and meets a fireguard working alone near the head of the fire. By observing increased shooting activity, the decision is made to start at the peak. On tiptoe, the foreman noted that there was a fire below them in the gulch; and that he had gone from the other side of the canyon, blocking their ability to escape into the river. They reversed direction and headed for the northwest ridge. The fire is 500 feet behind them, crowning in the groves of wood and dog hair.

The foreman knows that he does not want to overtake the fire and starts burning grass for a "refuge". He orders his crew to go black with him. The foreman stayed in his dark and survived the fire. It is unclear how many crew members heard the fire orders or did not understand what the foreman was trying to do (the fire was neither taught nor practiced at that time). The crew continued to climb the steep slope of the ridge. Two managed to get safe in the rocks at the top. 17:56 marks the time on a fire watch stopped when the 15 Missoula Smokejumpers and a fireguard of Meriwether were burned. Only five would survive the blast. Two died of their burns the next day. (adapted from 6 minutes for security – this day in history)

Victims of the fire Mann Gulch
(Victims of the fire Mann Gulch)

Who will you follow?

Security, in comparison, is a "disjunctive" task, in which the party's most expert member is responsible for success. When survival is at stake, choosing the best route and knowing when to go back requires deference to an experienced leader and not to negotiate between group members. ("What climbing tells us about Dylan Walsh's team work")

Imagine yourself on the fire Mann Gulch. Wag asked his team to do something outside the ordinary. Nobody followed him. Thirteen firemen died.

Imagine yourself on the South Canyon fire. Fourteen firemen died.

Imagine yourself on the fire Yarnell Hill. Nineteen firefighters died.

We can only theorize about what happened these fateful days of our history. Where do we put our efforts? As a student of fire, we owe each of those who are lost to learn from their death. Do you want to follow the leader or will you opt for an individual decision.

Leadership Challenge in Forest Fires – Fucking A Little Further

Synthesis is a "conjunctive" task – that is, it requires cooperation and its success is determined by the weakest link. The groups must decide together whether or not to proceed to the summit.

Security, in comparison, is a "disjunctive" task, in which the party's most expert member is responsible for success. When survival is at stake, choosing the best route and knowing when to go back requires deference to an experienced leader and not to negotiate between group members.

    • Discuss the team's joint task of removing a forest fire with the disjunctive task of the leader, which is to ensure mission success and safety.
    • How can team cohesion affect decision-making during an important event?
    • Consider the information presented in the article. How does this compare to what you know about fatal fires?
    • Does your team have a good balance between collectivism and individualism?
    • What can you learn and apply from the information in the article?
  • Read or reread the story of Mann Gulch in Norman Maclean's book Young men and fire.

Pam McDonald is an editor and publisher for BLM Wildland Fire Training and Workforce Development and a member of the NWCG Leadership subcommittee. The expressions are those of the author.