“One Foot in the Black . . .”
By presidential decree, Stan Stewart, president of U.S. Hotshot Association (USHA) and retired Los Padres Hotshot Superintendent has selected “One Foot in the Black” to be the name of this newsletter. We would like to thank those of you who provided us with your input and/or suggestions.
Far from being the norm today – this once ubiquitous phrase was much more than a simple tactic; it was a philosophy . . . a guiding principle, a school of thought that implied much more than control line location. Amongst the many difficult engagement tactics available, it was often the preferred choice for the Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHCs). It is supported by many of our rules of engagement and it is a benchmark by which we could weigh alternatives. One foot in the black is also a natural compliment to anchor and flank, another tactic of a bygone era.
There is no malice intended here. More to the point, it is meant to be a conversation starter. One foot in the black is a position to compare and contrast with the options and/or priorities of today. The discussion should compare and contrast priorities, politics, and the challenges of the day; minus prejudice. I think that knowing and understanding our history, the “how we got here” should be the desired end state.
You would be hard pressed to find a retired Supt who claims to have the answers to all the challenges hotshots face today. I would be amongst the first to say “ . . . this is your time . . .” we may be able to provide some input or a perspective from our era; no answers just the conversation and therein lays the value of the USHA, the ability to facilitate a topical conversation that spans many if not all eras/generations of IHCs. We share similar missions, expectations and challenges. Hell, we share DNA; learning from the past can sometimes prevent a bad outcome or promote a good one. We are by no means Lazy Boy® superintendents and hotshots, although many of us have gone quietly into retirement and have not sought to impose our opinion on any of today’s hot topics. This is not to say that we are not involved or that we don’t care – au contraire.
Like many of our elder statesmen, we continue to mentor several contemporary firefighters and we will respond to requests for input if we have a personal interest or think we have something of value to add. One of our goals is to ensure the IHCs of today know we are a resource available to be called upon as their needs arise. One Foot in the Black will evolve to meet the needs of the USHA and the IHC community at large. We will promote a positive image of IHCs; we will discuss the difficult challenges of today and we will try to keep you informed of USHA efforts. We will not become a voice for the disenfranchised or the bitter few who only want to bitch about all that is wrong in the wildland fire community of today. Similar to what a once famous baseball coach (Tom Hanks) once said, “There’s no crying in Hotshots!”
Anthony Escobar, Editor in Chief
U. S. Hotshot Association
The flyer said reunion, the website called it a reunion and yes word of mouth said it was a reunion. However, reunion was far too constricting and misleading from the actual intent and purpose of our meeting last month in Reno. True, many of us were reunited with former crewmembers, colleagues and good friends. True, many of us were current or past Superintendents and, true Region 5 far outnumbered all others.
However, the common bond or attraction for most attendees was more about “Hotshots” in general. Rank, tenure and/or your geographic location had little to do with the reason for attending. For the nearly 100 participants who attended the icebreaker, the meeting, and/or the dinner; the weekend was much more than a reunion. The US Hotshot Association (USHA) officially met for just the 3rd time. We clarified our mission and our focus, we discussed and validated our priorities and we elected two new members to our Board of Directors.
The number of current Superintendents representing Regions 3, 6 and 1 was encouraging, along with the growing number of interagency partners. Local government (KRN, LAC), a National office (NPS) and other partners (WFF) participated and provided valuable insight. There are few things stronger than passion to unite a group of people around a common set of goals. There is a lot of experience, wisdom and passion within our membership and word is getting out that we want to include anyone who wants to join and contribute to our mission.
Lastly, we have decided to rename our event, from this point forward we will refer to it as the Annual Hotshot Convention.
The Evolution of a Story
The stories we choose to share are often far removed from their original version(s). Each new iteration embellishments, refinements, and all becomes the new accepted truth and the foundation from which the next storyteller to work. This story is now close to 14 years old and, as I tried to research each previous version, I learned that similar to most of our stories, they are founded in obscure facts, forgotten names, places and fires. The stories morph into what we need them to be in order to make our point and we often take editorial license to make them our own.
In the story that follows, I start with how I remember hearing it told. It would not be a stretch to say that it is quite possibly 10 or more storytellers and 10 years down stream from the actual event. When I finally had the opportunity to talk with the main character in the story and he shared the original version with me, all the key components were recognizable. However, clearly much of the background, many of the facts, and all of the time/location elements have changed over time; none of these changes, however, deter from the message or the true essence (and value) of the story.
I think I originally heard this story as told by Greg Overacker (Rax), while he was the Superintendent of the Stanislaus Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC). Rax was uncertain whom he first heard tell the story, but it may have been Greg Keller, then Superintendent of the El Dorado IHC. In this version, the incident took place in a backcountry campground, a designated drop point on the Kirk North fire, circa 1998. This site was deep in the Vantana Wilderness, on the Los Padres National Forest (LPF) and, yes, there was a Kirk South burning at the same time, but that’s a whole different story.
The story goes as follows: “Diamond Ed” (Ed Merrill, Supt of the Diamond Mountain IHC) was sitting alone at a picnic table early one morning at a drop point when relief started to show up. He was looking quite haggard, enjoying an early morning chew and sporting a 72-hour shadow. Ed and his crew, along with a few other IHCs, had been spiking out for a few days and were due to walk out at the end of the day’s shift.
The incoming division supervisor (DIVS) was accompanied by the incoming State crews and was hoping to brief all of the resources at the same time. But what she got was Diamond Ed; clearly he had lost the coin flip with his peers and was sent down to represent them and their plan for the day. As the DIVS spread the new shift map out on the table and was preparing to brief Ed and the new crews on the day’s plan, Diamond Ed stopped her before she got too far and said he and the other IHC Supts had worked up a better plan and were already implementing it.
He pointed to the map and updated the fires actual location and explained an elaborate plan of line construction, including fixed and rotor wing support and a complex firing operation utilizing the fresh crews as holding forces. Pausing his slow drawl to look away and “puutte” – he accurately expelled a large wad of excess saliva – he gave her time to ponder his plan.
It seemed far too complex and probable a plan given the limited resources they had assigned to the division. So she questioned him, “Are you sure she asked?” “Are you sure you can do this?”
“Oh yeah,” he responded quickly, then paused for a few seconds before continuing, “It’s in our repertoire.”
Another pause . . . “puutte.” He went on to explain, “Repertoire – that’s French for the shit we do.”
And now the original version as told by “Diamond Ed” in a recent phone call and email exchange.
“Repertoire: The Original”
(Circa 2004) Upon returning from a roll in South Dakota - we were travelling East on Hwy 50 somewhere around the Silver Springs area when we noticed a large smoke column beginning to build in the distance. We started to monitor some of the local frequencies; clearly they had their hands full as the fire was quickly moving through the structures. I decided to try and poach this fire, so I made some calls to dispatch in Minden/Susanville and to my boss; we got assigned within the hour.
Upon arriving on scene, we began protecting structures as the fire made its way along Curry St. Shortly thereafter, I met up with Johnny Clem from the Klamath IHC. We quickly developed a plan. Johnny and his crew burned in an anchor on the SE side of the fire and we grabbed an edge and started beating line uphill away from town, up into the timber. The next day they established a spike camp where we operated out of for the next several days.
A day or two later, Johnny and I were scouting line in the timber above Carson City when we heard a call on the radio from our incoming DIVS who wanted to meet with us to go over the plans for the day. We decided to wait for her at this old hunters camp, which was little more than a picnic table. As she briefed us, Johnny and I could hear some tentative anxiety in her voice, so we made a few suggestions on how we could control the fire.
She listened to what we had to say, and then she asked, “Can you get that done?” . . . and the rest is, as they say, repertoire history. (Diamond Ed, 2017)
So why share this story?
Aside from the French lesson and a great punch line, what is the value of perpetuating this? For me, I share this story because it exemplifies many positive hotshot characteristics, such as: always seeking opportunities to engage your crew, a cool confidence under fire, coordination with fellow IHC crews, and, when necessary, a willingness to help those we work for. It demonstrates a bias for action, do something in the absence of direction and - in the end - it’s funny.
In the final analysis, what I enjoy most about this story is the concept of having a repertoire, period. I like the idea of knowing, having and sharing your body of work to get the job done. It is impossible for every Incident Management Team (IMT), every hosting unit, or Line Officer, to know what skills set each individual firefighter and/or each IHC can collectively bring to bear on the challenges of the day. But if you need something new, unique, complex or difficult to be accomplished, the IHC’s are a great first place to look. Technically, the range of skills on any given IHC is limited to their training and/or their Red Card qualifications. However, their personal interests, education levels, life experiences, synergy and leadership can collectively expand their repertoire far beyond the established organizational expectations. I know this to be self-evident, many of you know this to be self-evident however, for those who don’t know it, it is up to us (the IHCs) to let them know what we can do for them. For example: how many of you knew Ed could speak French?
A Call to Action
I must admit, when Stan Stewart first asked me to head up a “newsletter” effort for our association, many a nightmarish memory began to surface. My initial efforts to put pen to paper back in 1985 were rambling diatribes lacking focus, organization and purpose. Clearly, I thought there was value in what I was trying to say – I just didn’t have the wherewithal to express it in a manner that made it worth writing down and/or sharing with anyone. Thank goodness for Ms. Paradise, my extremely helpful English professor.
In addition to all of the technical elements of prose, rules of grammar and her dreaded red pen of correction, I learned you just have to get started. A draft, she taught us, “can be your friend.” Be it the first, tenth or last – a draft will give you the opportunity to get it right. The review and rewrite process can and will lower your anxiety level as well as improve focus and make your paper better. She said a teacher; a trusted friend or respected colleague can provide you with the candid input, feedback and difficult questions necessary to write a better paper. We can and will provide review and rewrite service to those who ask for our assistance, but we will have to rely on many of you to provide us with the actual content.
There are countless, little known or untold stories that need to be shared with a greater audience. Some stories are serious, some are humorous, some are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, while others have just a touch of truth – stretched to extremes – in order to make a point. Our individual and collective crew history, traditions and values are buried in these stories. We pick and choose the story to match the audience and/or the situation. We here at One Foot in the Black will from time-to-time solicit stories of a specific genre to fill out an issue of this newsletter; if and when asked – please consider contributing.
Welcome to the U.S. Hotshot Association (USHA)! May I be among the first to thank you for joining us and for giving us your support. As our numbers grow, so too will our ability to make a difference in the hotshot community. Although we are in our infancy as an organization, hotshots have been around for nearly 70 years now. The USHA was founded on the premise – to support, promote, protect and preserve all things hotshot. I would like to direct you to our website www.ushotshots.com for more information.
I know it takes a real leap of faith to become an early adopter of anything new, but rest assured: we are committed to our mission. Now that you have found us, I ask that you help us spread the word. I believe great things lay ahead for the USHA; if you have any questions and/or input, please feel free to contact us.
Moreover, welcome, to this our premier issue of “One Foot in the Black”. A periodic newsletter designed to keep you up to date on the current and future issues, efforts and events of the newly formed U. S. Hotshot Association. Similar to most attempts at organizing lots of good people, good ideas and good intentions, we have had our fits and starts. However, as I learned early in my career, there are few tasks, problems or challenges that cannot be overcome by sharing the load with likeminded colleagues. To that point, I would like to thank my Vice President, our Board of Directors, Technical Specialists and countless others who have given their time, efforts and expertise to our startup.
It is worth noting that our association in not exclusive to any single agency, region or just to retirees. We are open to all current and former firefighters and their families. We are open to individuals, groups and other organizations that support our mission regardless of firefighting experience. If you have an interest in what we are trying to do or you want to help us, you can join. Please visit our website at www.ushotshots.com for more information.
Within the ranks of our membership already lay thousands of years of wildland firefighting experience. We have long-tenured Superintendents, Captains and Squad Leaders from several regions, agencies and departments. As our numbers grow, so too will our ability to provide assistance to the entire wildland fire community. We are a resource available to assist the current needs and priorities of the rank and file, fire management, and line officers. I encourage you to consider joining us and becoming an early adopter of our association.
Stan Stewart, President
U.S. Hotshot Association
Fire Season 2017
We here at USHA felt we would be remiss if we did not address the current fire season. We know that technology already gives you easy access to all of the current and past pertinent fire behavior data that exists in the world today. Furthermore, you have the training, experience and qualification to fill your day-to-day position as well as any number of fireline assignments. So what can a bunch of old gray haired if not bald, reading glasses needed, hard-of-hearing not-a-whole-meniscus-between- them Supts bring to the table that you don’t already know?
Our message is just a humble reminder that the cost of our mistakes can sometimes be catastrophic. For far too long, far too many of us once thought that fallibility was a human characteristic, not one that resided amongst the Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHCs) and surely not in the DNA of the Superintendent. However, as some of us have painfully learned through our own personal “oh shit story,” fallibility can lurk in every moment, decision, shift and incident. We have also learned that fallibility is marginalized by experience; it is discarded by our qualifications system and it is invisible to ego.
Speaking from experience, it can be difficult to come to grips with the epiphany that your survival or the survival of your crew was the result of dumb-ass luck as opposed to any knowledge, skills or abilities you may possess. A single decision can define an entire career and the cost of inattention to the details is sometimes measured in injuries and/or the loss of life. Experience, qualifications and ego can be can be positive attributes; introspection and a humble reminder can help keep them in check.
We use numerous catch phrases to remind each other and ourselves to be safe; the implications are profound. We say, “be safe,” “due diligence,” “SA,” “watch your back,” “LCES,” “risk management” and many more. We say, “…be safe…” but we mean so much more.
Have a safe season.
Board of Directors
President | Stan Stewart
Vice President | Kurt LaRue
Secretary | Marshal Brown
Treasurer | Bob Serrato
Board Member | Jack Sevelson
Board Member | Fred Schoeffler
Board Member | Danny Breuklander
Board Member | Dave Provencio
Board Member | Hector Madrano
Other Support Staff
Technical Advisor | Brian Tai
Technical Advisor | Bethany Hannah
Technical Advisor | Mike Alarid
Technical Advisor | Maeve Juarez
Technical Newsletter | Anthony Escobar
Become a member of the USHA today!
Copyright © 2017 U.S. Hotshots Association, All rights reserved.
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