Forest fire leadership: same story, different chapter

(Photo: Kincade Fire 2019 by Kari Greer / USFS)

The year is 1871, or was it 1872, 1894, 1910, 1947, 2003, 2016, 2018 or 2019? Was the month October, or was it November, September? It was Peshtigo, or Chicago, Boston, Hinkley, Northern Idaho / Montana, Bar Harbor, San Diego, Gatlinburg, Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area, Paradise, or just California.

It was each of these dates and places. The destruction of fire has been part of life since the dawn of time. We cannot live with fire, and we cannot live without it. As much as "man" would like, forces of nature like wind, fire and water are difficult to control, if not controllable.

But science tells us that we can control fire. If we remove one leg from the fire triangle, the fire goes out … eventually. It is the "possibly" part of the statement that is important. As we will see, there have been major fires in our past. There will be major fires in our future. How can we influence the outcome? Can we? I say yes!"

As we will see in this blog series, "we can't do the same things over and over and expect a different result". How could the past contain the answers for the future? How can we learn these lessons without having to experience them ourselves?

The old adage says "history repeats itself". If we go back to some points in history (there are many), we will see that history repeats itself. We forget or choose to ignore the reality that fire WINS and living with fire will always be a challenge. We have to accept that fire is part of life and living with fire is a collective responsibility.

Over the next few weeks, we will come back to some notable fires. Fires that have destroyed entire communities. Fires where we thought we were prepared. Fires overshadowed by other fires or we just didn't know it. We will highlight some of the following fires:

  • Great Peshtigo fire: 1871, Wisconsin / Michigan, between 1,200 and 2,400 lives lost
  • Great Chicago Fire: 1871, Illinois, approximately 300 lives lost
  • Great Boston Fire: 1872, 13 lives lost
  • Great Hinkley Fire: 1894, 418 lives lost (much higher unofficial)
  • San Francisco earthquake / fire: 1906, 600-3,000 lives lost
  • Big Burn: 1910, Idaho and Montana, 85 lives lost
  • Bar Harbor fire: 1947, 5 lives lost
  • Cedar fire: 2003, 16 lives lost
  • Fires at Great Smokey Mountain: 2016, 11 lives lost
  • Carr fire: 2018, 8 lives lost
  • Campfire: 2018, 86 lives lost
  • California fires in 2019 …

Forest Fire Leadership Challenge – Dig a little deeper

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