There’s a common lament among businesspeople in all kinds of companies: “How am I supposed to get any work done I spend all of my time putting out fires.” The “fire” in question might be a dissatisfied customer who demands lots of attention, or it might be an unexpected financial setback that, if left unaddressed, could become a strategic crisis. We’d certainly be more productive if more of our days were free of the kinds of crises that seem to erupt at a moment’s notice. But in a fast-moving, always-changing, increasingly unpredictable economy, it is a required skill for business leaders to be able to jump into the middle of a tough situation with little or no information, to size things up, and to have the wits to take action — fast.
That’s what smoke jumper Wayne Williams does for a living. Williams, 43, is part of the elite, highly trained wildland fire-fighting division of the U.S. Forest Service, and he has been fighting fires — literally — for 23 years. Forming what are known as “initial attack teams,” smoke jumpers are like the Green Berets of the fire-fighting world. They get deployed anywhere, at any time, with remarkable speed. Within one hour, a smoke-jumping crew can arrive at a fire from as far away as 150 miles.
There is an undeniable aura surrounding smoke jumpers. They are a tight-knit team of men and women who fight fires in the middle of the wilderness, armed with only a few tools, tremendous courage, and their wits. They have been immortalized in books, mythologized on the silver screen, and featured in more than 80 documentaries. Norman Maclean, the award-winning author of “A River Runs Through It,” explored the perilous world of smoke jumpers in his book “Young Men and Fire” (University of Chicago Press, 1992) , which revisits the 1949 tragedy at Mann Gulch, in Montana’s Helena National Forest, where 13 smoke jumpers lost their lives. In 1998, 20th Century Fox released “Firestorm,” an action drama (and, according to Williams, an “inaccurate embarrassment”) that portrays one smoke jumper in a glamorous light — a fearless hero who kills the bad guy and saves the damsel in distress.
In the real world, dealing with forest fires involves clear thinking, precise teamwork, smart strategies, lots of backbreaking work — and very little glamour. “There are two things that matter most when containing a wildfire: the speed at which you get to a fire, and the actions of the team that gets there first,” explains Williams. Since most wildland fires burn in remote areas, the smoke jumpers’ commute to work is usually a quick, harrowing parachute jump from an airplane. Once on the ground (wearing packs that can weigh more than 100 pounds) , smoke jumpers hike over steep, wild terrain to the scene of the fire and do whatever is humanly possible to contain it — whether that takes a few hours or several days. The need for smoke jumping is growing like — well, like wildfire. In 1999, there were 86,202 reported wildfires in the United States, and they burned a total of 5,468,469 acres of land.
Fighting fires is not a job for the weak of body — or the weak of mind. Indeed, what you first notice about Williams are his hands. Thickly callused and as solid as boards, they move with surprising grace as he explains the unpredictable nature of fire — which, he agrees, is a perfect metaphor for the unpredictable nature of the problems that erupt in the new world of work. “Trying to understand a fire is like trying to understand someone with multiple personalities,” says Williams. “Each fire has its own character, its own idiosyncrasies — and it changes. A fire can be quiet, minding its own business, and then, all of a sudden, it will get up and run. If you’re not paying attention to every bit of information and every changing detail that the fire is throwing at you, it will catch you.”
Fast Company recently caught up with Williams at the Forest Service’s Smokejumper Center, in Missoula, Montana. With no fires raging, Williams had some time to share his lessons on the art of understanding fires and on what it takes to put them out.
Figure Out What You Think — And Then Think Again
You can’t fight a fire effectively until you’ve figured it out. You need to understand the kind of fire that you’re up against, the conditions under which you’ll be fighting it, and the events that are likely to unfold as the fire is being fought. Figuring out a fire requires two minds, or two memories. Before we leave base, we’re briefed on the conditions that we’re supposed to find on the ground. We may know the fire’s spread rate, what fuel type we’re dealing with, the incoming weather, and so on. That captures what we know about the fire at a certain moment in time — but not what’s going to happen once we arrive.
From the airplane, we get a bird’s-eye view of the fire. That big-picture information is essential both for understanding the problem and for formulating an initial strategy: where we’re going to jump; where we’ll drop our cargo; whether there are any natural fire breaks, such as rivers or open meadows; where we’ll establish a safety zone and an escape route. This is the information that I store in one mind, or one memory.
But the first thing that I do once I get on the ground, after setting up the crew, is to walk around the entire fire and to start gathering information. This is when my other mind, or memory, clicks in. I set aside what I’ve been told — or what I think is going on — and simply do two things: I watch the fire, and I “feel” what’s happening. A fire has complex behavior. It’s a separate entity that doesn’t unfold all at once but keeps throwing bits of information at you. The trick is to be open enough to see — and feel — those pieces of data, to figure out the type of fire “personality” that you’re dealing with. Every change brings new details, and in my world, those details could have life-threatening consequences.
With a fire, conditions change constantly. If you’re not aware of what’s going on, the fire will catch you off guard. Sometimes it’s the rookie smoke jumpers who are the most open to read such changes. They can’t fall back on the comfort zone of experience, or on an archive of knowledge that might cut them off from what’s really happening. But I never let myself become so focused on the fire that I lose sight of what’s happening in a big-picture sense. Instead, I shift back and forth between my two “memories.” And I stay alert — because, when you’re working in the wilderness, you might be sweating your socks off one day, and (especially if it’s late in the season) you might be freezing the next day. It may not always be the fire that catches you off guard.
Speed Matters — But Slower Can Be Better
One of the basic tenets of wildland fire fighting is speed: You need to reach a fire as quickly as possible, so that you can attack it while it’s still small. In the case of small fires, the decisions that we make are fairly straightforward. We operate under a “10 AM policy”: That is, we try to control the fire by the morning after it is discovered. On the flip side, if a fire is really up and roaring, it will make our decision for us. Typically, the best strategy is to play a waiting game. We wait until a fire runs into a different fuel type, until the weather changes, or until some other opportunity rolls in that lets us resume fighting the fire.
The most difficult decisions that we have to make come when we’re faced with a medium-size fire. We’re never sure which way it’s going to swing. In an instant, it could lie down and die — or take off and run. In those situations, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and to fall into what we call the “overhead trap,” in which you become obsessed with doing well, no matter what. You get this fever to catch every fire, and you don’t recognize that it may be time to retreat for a while. I used to be like that. There’s no question that I want to catch every fire that I jump, but I know that I can’t do that in every situation. And the last thing that I want is to have someone’s death on my conscience — just because I couldn’t accept the fact that some fires present challenges that are beyond my crew’s ability.
A few years ago, we were fighting one of those medium-size fires. It was burning on both sides of a mountain. From the air, I had developed what I thought was a pretty sound strategy: First, we would attack the fire at its most inactive side, and then we’d work our way around it with our control line. But when I started walking around the fire, I realized that something was terribly wrong. It was 9 PM, and the air was way too hot for that time of night. All of a sudden, I realized that we were in the middle of an inversion layer: Hot air was getting trapped in the middle of the canyon’s slope. An inversion jacks the heat way up and drives the humidity down — two ingredients that could make a fire’s behavior very dangerous.
I always carry a camera with me when I fight a fire, and the thing that really tipped me off that night was taking pictures of an alligator juniper that was burning out of control. The alligator juniper is a pretty untorchable tree, but that one was as bright as a Christmas tree. When I looked through my viewfinder, I realized that my light monitor was registering too much light, given that it was the middle of the night. At that moment, I knew that we were in trouble. I immediately told members of my crew to stop what they were doing and to start hiking up the hill to our safety zone, a large rock outcropping. Ultimately, it’s never one thing that goes wrong when you fight a fire. Instead, there’s a bunch of stuff that piles up and suddenly overwhelms you. And in this situation, too many small things were starting to pile up. After we reached our safety zone, I began to question my decision to leave the fire. I wondered if I was just being lazy. But 10 minutes later, the fire blew up, and the canyon that we had just left became a sea of flames.
Never Underestimate the Dangers of the Unfamiliar
Every fire involves danger, but the greatest danger of all comes when you encounter the unfamiliar — when you’re fighting fires in a region where you’ve never been before, or working under conditions that you’ve never experienced before. Those are the kinds of situations that require the greatest amount of focus and discipline.
In 1993, we had one of the quietest fire seasons in Montana history. The next year, we had one of the busiest fire seasons ever. Putting out a fire now and then is one thing; dealing with dozens of fires at once is a different game altogether. Usually, a fire season has a predictable progression from beginning to end. The fires in Alaska and New Mexico typically start the show. When they fade away, fires in Montana, Oregon, Idaho, and northern California begin to burn. For the finale, southern California and the eastern United States start to burn. But in 1994, every state was “onstage” at the same time — and every firefighter was out performing. What’s more, we had all types of fires going at once. Typically, we get either a lot of small fires, which require initial fire-fighting attacks, or a bunch of ragers, which require sustained fire-fighting activity. This time, we had brand-new small fires starting every day, yet the big, long-burning fires were still trucking. In August of that year, there were 10,000 firefighters and operations people battling blazes in Region One alone. (Region One covers more than 25 million acres in Idaho, Montana, Washington, North Dakota, and South Dakota.) Air tankers dropped more than 4 million gallons of retardant. Our base in Missoula shipped about 3.8 million pounds of equipment to various fire camps around the country.
That type of crisis creates two potentially dangerous situations. First, you have a shortage of people and supplies. Second, everyone is stretched to the max; everyone is working to the point of exhaustion. You can’t underestimate the problems that those factors can cause. In fact, those conditions are what contributed that year to one of the biggest tragedies in fire history — a fire that took place in South Canyon, Colorado. That fire, with temperatures as high as 2,000 degrees, turned into a 200-foot wall of flame that raced up a steep slope at 40 MPH; it killed 14 firefighters. I knew a lot of the people who were working on that fire, and I was a member of one of the first rescue teams to head into the canyon. It was a disturbing tragedy, and it confirmed an invaluable lesson: The type of fire that you’re fighting matters just as much as where you’re fighting it.
Location makes a huge difference — and it affects the kind of strategy that you can devise.
Traditionally, Colorado is not a state that has a lot of fire activity. I’ve been fighting fires since 1977, and I had never fought a fire in Colorado. In 1994, I fought three there. Colorado has fuel situations that are similar to those found in southern California, a place where we’re always putting out fires. In both states, there’s a brushy kind of fuel, but the fuel in Colorado looks really different. The brush in southern California looks as if it will burn: It’s dry and creepy. But in Colorado, the fuel is a plush, green oak, and you probably couldn’t get it to burn even if you tried. But the South Canyon fire was so hot that it had burned underneath the brush. So, when the fire came ripping out of the canyon — with the proper winds and levels of humidity — that brush became trouble. This time, it was ready to burn. In a lot of ways, the conditions surrounding the South Canyon fire were typical. But for various reasons, that unfamiliar terrain tricked people and caught them off guard, making them do things that they wouldn’t have done if they’d been in a different place.
Every Crew Needs a Skeptic
The worst thing that you can do is to have too many nice guys working on a fire. We work in small, tight teams that have a formal structure — foremen, squad leaders, and so on. But the beauty of being a jumper is that we’re all really in charge. As the foreman, I involve everyone in the decisions that I make. When you’re asking people to work themselves to the bone and, in a lot of cases, to risk their lives, it’s absurd to exclude them from the decision-making process. I love it when someone on my team questions one of my decisions and says, “This is bullshit.” In fact, I invite it. People deserve the right to do that.
Once, when we were fighting a fire in the middle of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, we saw a huge plume of smoke a short distance below us. I had decided that the best strategy was to continue cutting a control line downhill. But two of the jumpers on my team told me that they were uncomfortable with that decision. They felt that the fire down the hill could catch us if we stayed where we were. Not only was I familiar with this terrain, having fought fires in this area for years, but I also remembered spotting a big rimrock wall from the airplane as we approached the fire. I realized that the fire we were seeing was behind that wall and that there was no way it could reach us.
I could have told those guys not to worry — that their sorry asses were safe with me and that they should get back to work. But they were experienced smoke jumpers, and they had legitimate concerns. So I listened to them and decided to call in a helicopter to check it out. (There was already a helicopter working in the area.) The pilot flew by, radioed in, and confirmed that the fire was behind the cliffs. It may seem like that was a lot of work for nothing. But that’s what it took to put those two men at ease. Just because I was the leader on that job didn’t mean that I knew more than everybody else. And simply saying “I’m right” is never the best way to convince people that they should follow you.
Whenever I’m unsure about whether my crew can deal with the problem at hand, I gather everyone together and talk about it. We talk about strategies, we talk about comfort levels, we talk about risks. Of course, a fire may burn a few more acres in the meantime — but in the overall scheme of things, that’s nothing. There have been plenty of times when the crew has given me a better way to think about a problem. You have to keep in mind that you’re never going to have all of the answers. It would be foolish to think that you could have all of the answers.
You Can Fight Fire with Fire
Sometimes the only way to diminish the force of a fire is to attack it head-on with another fire. That strategy, known as a backfire, can be dangerous business. But on one occasion, when we were fighting a “combination fire” in New Mexico, using backfire was our last resort. It was in the middle of the night, and we were building a control line to protect a “helispot” where we could land helicopters to bring in more crew members. We were way ahead of this huge, 1,000-acre fire — but it was hauling ass toward us. Our overhead personnel wanted us to wait and to let the fire burn as far as our control line. I knew that if we allowed that to happen, not only would we be in bad shape, but we’d also be blocked off from our only escape route. And that fire was not about to let a simple control line stop it.
So we began “burning out” — which means that we lit small fires a short distance away from our control line, getting closer and closer to the head of the main fire. The small fires burned out all of the fuel in between and, in the process, created a larger control line. But eventually, the main fire was right on our heels, breathing hard and sucking all of the air toward it. That’s when we lit a backfire, which the raging combination fire drew toward itself automatically. When the two fires collided, the effect was awesome. Not only did the collision shoot a column of smoke thousands of feet into the night air, but it also threw fireballs over our line, causing several spot fires that we had to contain. We knew that our backfire wasn’t going to put this fire out — but it did diffuse the power of the rager. In fact, this combination fire was one of those fires that end up burning all summer long; only a major change in the weather was able to put it out. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t control a fire.
Anna Muoio (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company associate editor and a recovering pyromaniac. Contact Wayne Williams ([ADDRESS]) by email.
Sidebar: 10 Rules for Putting Out Fires
In 1957, a Forest Service task force developed the “10 Standard Fire Orders” — a set of fire-fighting principles that remain an essential part of a smoke jumper’s training regimen. It’s not hard to see the relevance of those principles (summarized below) to “fighting fires” in the new world of work.
1. Fight fire aggressively, but provide for safety first.
2. Initiate actions according to current and expected fire behavior.
3. Recognize current weather conditions and obtain forecasts.
4. Ensure that instructions are given and that they are understood.
5. Obtain current information on the status of fires.
6. Remain in communication with crew members, your supervisor, and adjoining forces.
7. Determine safety zones and escape routes.
8. Establish lookouts in potentially hazardous situations.
9. Retain control at all times.
10. Stay alert, keep calm, think clearly, and act decisively.
Sidebar: “Watch Out” Situations
Soon after the creation of the “10 Standard Fire Orders,” Forest Service training specialists identified “18 Watch Out Situations” — conditions that create dangers for smoke jumpers. Here, adapted from that list, are some of those situations.
1. The fire is not scouted or sized up.
2. Safety zones and escape routes have not been identified.
3. Firefighters are uninformed about strategy, tactics, and hazards.
4. Instructions and assignments are unclear.
5. There is no communication link between crew members and their supervisors.
6. Firefighters cannot see the main fire and are not in contact with anyone who can see it.
7. Rough terrain or dangerous fuel makes it difficult for firefighters to escape to safety zones.
8. A firefighter feels like taking a nap near the fire line.