Five lessons from a difficult week

A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually.

-Abba Eban

It has been an interesting  and somewhat difficult couple of weeks.  Patience does not come easy for me. Sometimes things progress much too slow to suit me.  Trying to come to consensus, within various groups, in order to act can be a bit agonizing.  I generally work pretty well in teams and committees.  Give me patienceHowever I think I must learn to have more patience and tolerance with the process.  You’ve probably seen the tee-shirt or posters, “Lord, grant me patience, but PLEASE HURRY!”  I need that.  The more I work with governments, public policy and yes, politics, the more I find I need patience and endurance and maybe a touch of fortitude.  I have always been told that the “Devil is in the details.”  Yet it is important to look at the overall, broader picture.  It can be a difficult balancing act to look at both the details and the  thirty-thousand foot level and see them both with equal clarity. 

Admittedly,  a good part of the difficulty lately was of my own making. I am an information junkie. I love digging into things, and trying to ask questions – although sometimes I am afraid I am not asking the right questions at the right time. Not long ago I did ask a question, which I believe was the right question.   I received an answer from a trusted professional and I accepted it at face value.  Consensus within our group was reached, based on the information at hand.

Later, I received some additional information that made me reconsider the consensus I acquiesced to earlier.  Unfortunately, it came too late to be of much use, although I lobbied for a 11th hour change, it simply was not to be.  Will it be important in the long run?  I have no idea.  However, it has fortified five lessons learned.

 Lesson one is that I should trust my intuition. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right . . . at least for me.

Lesson two is that information and advice given is colored by ones perspective, in spite of every effort to be objective.  That perspective must be taken into consideration when evaluating the information. In my case, those presenting information and opinion on the best course of action were coming from vastly different sides of the issue.  Yet to make the best decision, both of those viewpoints needed to be heard and weighed. Often it seems, when making group decisions, divergent opinions are not always present, not voiced or not heeded.

The third lesson is to continue asking and asking and ASKING  clarifying questions to try to develop understanding –  not only of the issue but of the people involved.

The fourth is that it is ok to not go along with group think.  This fits a bit with lesson one.  As Dr. Martin Luther King said,

Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency ask the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”

Mike Myatt, a columnist for Forbes and a trusted advisor to Fortune 500 CEO’s put it another way,

“Groupthink is a very dangerous practice. It stifles innovation, discourages candor, disdains dissenting opinions, and mutes the truth. If what you seek is to neutralize your advantage by dumbing down the insights, observations and contributions of your team, then by all means default to consensus thinking.”

The fifth lesson is simply never quit trying.  Thomas Edison said it best,

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

I will keep asking questions – hopefully the right ones at the right time and, if necessary,  slow the process down in order to seek viewpoints from all sides of the issues. I will keep trying to find the best solutions for issues within our town. I won’t always succeed but I won’t quit.

 While I generally do try to stay neutral and present the facts – albeit from my perspective – I am learning that at times I will need to take a stance, and it may not be the popular one – but it will be the right one for me.

Storm King fire – Hell on Earth

This is a reprint of a column I did for the Glenwood Post Independent on the Storm King Fire in 1994

“This is bad. This is very bad.”

These are the words that I remember my brother, a former firefighter, uttering as we watched the Storm King fire blow up from our deck in West Glenwood as the ash fell around us.

Returning from Yellowstone July 3 and driving along I-70 through the South Canyon area, I remember seeing a small fire on the side of the mountain, thinking that it was odd that there really were no firefighting efforts that I could see. It had been a hot, dry June, and July did not look promising.

ONLY 11 ACRES

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Fire at Noon July 4, 1994. Image courtesy of South Canyon Investigation Report

The following day we planned to celebrate July Fourth. The day after, July 5, was my youngest son’s 10th birthday — all causes for celebration. The fire was not as large as others that had ignited over the region. Resources were thin.

According to the South Canyon Investigation Report, on July 4, the fire was given a higher priority than some others in the area in response to concerns from Glenwood Springs residents. An aerial observer reported that the fire was in “… steep and inaccessible terrain.” It was covering only 11 acres.

On July 5, Incident Command called for an air tanker to support ground crews that had been sent to cut a helicopter landing area and fire line. A 20-person crew was also ordered, but eight smokejumpers were substituted for the ground crew. The air tanker was called off because of winds, steep terrain and the potential of causing rocks to roll onto I-70. The fire grew to 50 acres. We celebrated my son’s birthday.

COLD FRONT

It was back to work on the morning of July 6. Weather predictions called for gusty winds associated with a cold front. The Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew was assigned to the fire and arrived at the helibase at 11 a.m. and half the crew were on the fire by 12:30 p.m.

Sometime shortly after noon, I was in my supervisor’s office and I looked out the window and the smoke from the fire was billowing ominously west of my house. The sky was turning a dirty brown-orange from the smoke. I pointed out the window and told my boss that I had to head home.

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Image courtesy of South Canyon Investigation Report

A flare-up had caused a group of smokejumpers to retreat up the fire line to the top of a ridge. According to the South Canyon Investigation Report, several firefighters expressed concern about the safety of tactical decisions. However, a water drop via helicopter cooled the flare-up and they continued.

My home in West Glenwood borders BLM land in back and the golf course on the front. I arrived home to find my family on the west-facing deck that looks directly out on Storm King Mountain. They were watching as a helicopter dipped into the lake on the golf course and flew back to the fire. The wind had picked up and the fire was making its way east — quickly.

Soon, my brother arrived. As a firefighter in California, he had been called to fight numerous wildfires in the hills and mountains west of Los Angeles. He also specializes in wildfire mitigation. He understood the situation. And while I was trying to determine what to throw into our RV should we needed to evacuate, his concern was for the firefighters.Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 8.08.18 AM

By 3 p.m., the other half of the Prineville Hotshots were on the fire. Winds began to pick up and the smoke grew thicker as the fire activity increased. By then my brother was quite concerned about the wind and the effect it would have on the fire.

“Someone is going to get hurt,” he observed.

HELL ON EARTH

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Image courtesy of South Canyon Investigation Report

At 4 p.m., all hell broke lose. The fire exploded. Incident Command called for the firefighters to come up from the bottom of the fire line. One jumper radioed that the fire was “rolling.” The fire spotted to an area just below the crew walking out.

Firefighters Kevin Erickson and Brad Haugh were above the crew encouraging them. Haugh said later that it appeared the crew was unaware of the spot fire below them until they heard its roar. Haugh, Erickson and crew member Eric Hipke made a run for the ridge while the rest of the crew deployed their shelters.

According to the investigation report, “as the three running firefighters dove over the ridgetop, 200-foot flames blasted over the ridge …” Hipke was knocked down by the force of the heat and flames. Pushed by 40 mph winds, the spot fire reached the ridge line in 2 minutes. The rest of the crew — Don Mackey, Roger Roth, James Thrash, Jon Kelso, Kathi Beck, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson, Tami Bickett, Doug Dunbar and Terri Hagen — died just short of the ridgetop. Helitack crew members Richard Tyler and Robert Browning raced along a ridge above Helispot 2 when their route was cut off by a steep chute. The fire overtook them as they attempted to cross the chute.Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 8.13.14 AM

From our deck, we watched as the flames crested the ridge. It was very bad indeed — worse than we could know or ever imagine. Storm King Mountain stands as a silent memorial to those 14 fallen firefighters and their teammates whose lives were changed forever. We will never forget.