Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Lessons on leaders, wildfires, trust, and jumping into the burn.

A couple of stories were brought to my attention yesterday, which highlight important lessons on inspired leaders, crisis, and trust.

The Mann Gulch Fire

In August 1949, lightning struck a slope above the Missouri river in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness in a place called Mann Gulch. It started a fire that would go down in history.

Trusting your church leaders
SmokeJumpers 1948
Soon after the fire started, a team of 15 smokejumpers - a profession then only 9 years old - parachuted into the Wilderness and joined with another young firefighter already on the ground to begin working on containing the blaze.

From the beginning, the circumstances seemed particularly challenging.

Trouble starts

The team and their equipment were scattered widely due to the conditions of the air currents and layout of the land. The radio was destroyed. The single firefighter already on the scene, a 20 year old named James Harrison, had been fighting the fire alone for 4 hours, and was getting tired.

With the fire on the south side of the Gulch, the foreman, 33 year old R. Wagner Dodge, instructed the team to walk along the north side of the gulch to get in a better position to steer the fire into less flammable areas.

The firefighters, all between the ages of 17 and 28, got spread out. Dodge was bringing up the rear with Harrison when he saw the smoke at the front of the fire begin to boil up - a sure sign that the wind had changed and the fire was intensifying.  He hurried to try and catch his men.

Mann Gulch Fire and Lessons on Leadership
Mann Gulch

The "Blow Up."

By the time he reached them, the fire had jumped from the south slope to the north. They didn't know it, but the smokejumpers were pinned between a raging inferno at the bottom of the slope, and a ridge of impassible rock at the top of the gulch. The thick, dry grass on the north slope was ready fuel, and the wind blew furiously. It is estimated today that the fire consumed 3000 acres in just 10 minutes during this "blow up," and these brave young men were caught right in its path.

When they finally realized the fire was approaching, they only had one option: run for the ridge and hope to find a crack in the high stone formation that would let them through to the other side. Dodge ordered his men to drop all their heavy equipment and their packs. One author described what happened this way:

Dodge's order was to throw away just their packs and heavy tools, but to his surprise some of them had already thrown away all of their heavy equipment. On the other hand, some of them wouldn't abandon their heavy tools, even after Dodge's order. Diettert, one of the most intelligent of the crew, continued carrying both his tools until Rumsey caught up with him, took his shovel and leaned it against a pine tree. Just a little further on, Rumsey and Sallee pass[ed] the recreation guard, Jim Harrison, who, having been on the fire all afternoon, was now exhausted. He was sitting with his heavy pack on and was making no effort to take it off
I have no idea what these men were going through. I don't intend to judge their motives or reasoning, or anything that caused them to behave the way they did. Maybe they weren't afraid. Maybe they were too afraid. Whatever the reasons, It has been pointed out that the tragedy that follows might have been avoided if they had followed orders to unload their burdens, giving them the energy they needed to reach the crest of the ridge.

Crisis and Inspiration

Now in the lead, and with the fire closing in to only a hundred yards, Dodge realized his men would not make it to the ridge line in time. In a moment which I consider to be pure inspiration, he did something that had never been done by a firefighter before. He took out a match and lit the grassy slope in front of him.

Winds created by the huge wildfire behind them carried the flames of his escape fire up and away from the smokejumpers. He turned to the three men with him and said "Up this way."

They either did not believe following him would help, or they did not understand his instruction, but the three with him kept running for the ridge line instead of stepping through the flames into the burned-out area Dodge had created. Only once they reached the top of the ridge, when they could see Dodge safely in the center of the burned-out area did they understand. But by then it was too late. The fire was nearly on them and the smoke was so thick that it was impossible to see which fissures in the rocky ridge would let them through to safety on the other side, and which were death traps.

Dodge called out to the other men on his team as they approached, telling them to go through the fire and come into the burn. He heard one of the men saying "To hell with that, I'm getting out of here." And they all continued on towards the ridge.

The fire was too fast. It overtook the firefighters. Those who were not able to reach a safe place in the hogback formation were killed. Only Dodge and two of his men survived. James Harrison, tired by his long fight with the fire and his heavy gear, was one of the dead.

Are There Lessons in Tragedy?

While their deaths were a tragedy, and are never, never to be taken lightly, we can at least draw a lesson or two from what happened to them. The forest service certainly did, and safety rules exist today due to the Mann Gulch Fire. Now I suggest we take this same event and apply what principles we find to our spiritual lives.

For example, do we carry burdens which make it hard for us to escape from spiritual danger? Have we developed enough trust in our leaders to listen even when we think we don't need to? Or we don't understand why it's important? Or even when it seems like the completely wrong thing to do? Having that level of trust can be the difference between spiritual life and death.

To provide a positive counter example I have another firefighting story. Val Jo Anderson, a professor at BYU, tells about fighting fires in his younger years. His team was saved by applying the lessons learned by the Mann Gulch fire, especially the emphasis to "trust your leaders." Here is his experience:

Into the Burn!

"I took a summer job with the U.S. Forest Service. One of our duties was to be part of a twenty-man fire crew that could be called out from time to time to fight wildfires. Earlier, a wildfire had claimed the lives of four firefighters when in a panic they failed to follow the direction of their crew boss and tried to outrun an unexpected and fierce advance of a fire. The shockwaves of that incident were felt all around the region, and rigorous training ensued. Following the command of the crew boss without question or hesitation was given particular emphasis.

"We fought several fires that season, and then, late in August, our crew was called out to fight a wildfire in Southern California. This was a large fire that had many crews dispatched to fight it. Our crew, along with two other crews, was assigned a sector of the fire. It was a chaparral brush fire that had a tremendously fine fuel load of dried grasses and weeds in the understory. We were obliged to make a two-mile hike from the nearest road through the brush to where the fire was burning.

"It was not a particularly intense blaze, and we were to build black line—a fire line right against the burning edge of the fire. As our three twenty-man crews, marching single file through the brush, approached the fire, the sector boss suddenly appeared on a nearby ridgeline. His urgent command was to become indelibly impressed upon my mind. His voice screamed through our radios, “She’s blowing up, she’s blowing up! Into the burn!”

"My pulse raced and my heart sank as I watched the small campfire-type flames, fanned on by an intense wind shift, transform into a raging inferno racing directly toward us. The command “Into the burn!” meant that we would charge through the fire and into the area where the fire had consumed the fuel. My instinctive impulse was to turn and run, and I could see others considering that option. Our crew boss, without hesitation, reiterated the command “Into the burn!” and though it did not seem the intuitive thing to do, my training and my memory of the tragic earlier deaths compelled me to follow my leader through that wall of fire. On the other side we found a blackened moonscape where the fire could not return. With eyes and lungs burning from the heat in the whirling smoke and ash, we resorted to dancing on the top of hot rocks to protect our feet from the searing deep ash. We had made the right decision and were preserved.

"After about thirty minutes the wind died down, and we were able to cross back out of the burn and begin our black line. That was an intense lesson that helped me to understand the importance of knowing in advance who you should trust and follow without hesitation, especially when the correct choice may be obscured by our own limited experience or instinctive bias."


 I testify that the leaders of the church are our watchmen on the towers today. They point us to the sure foundation. They are given inspiration and instruction which can keep us safe. But trust must be built up. We can't wait until the moment of crisis to decide if we're going to take their advice.

The church will pass through trial after trial. As each wall of flame approaches and is blown into an inferno by the winds of opposition, will we trust our leaders and pass through with them?


Helaman 5:12
2 Nephi 4:17–19
"Into the Burn!" 
Mann Gulch Fire on Wikipedia

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