Professionalism/The Mann Gulch Fire

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Background[edit]

On August 5, 1949, 100-degree-weather and lightning strikes in Mann Gulch, a steep narrow ravine located in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness in Helena National Park in Helena, Montana, created a wildfire in the area at about 12 PM.[1] The fire was reported by lookout Don Barker, and a request was sent to the fire desk in Missoula asking for 25 local firefighters. Due to inadequate airplane transportation at that time, a Douglas C-47 plane carrying 16 of the readily available smokejumpers was sent. One man fell ill, so 15 men made the jump and landed in Mann Gulch at around 3:50 PM.[1]

The smokejumpers' cargo and gear were assembled at the camp site located below the jump area at 5 PM. Concerning the fire at this time, smokejumper Robert Sallee recalls thinking "I took a look at the fire and decided it wasn't too bad... I thought it probably wouldn't burn much more that night because it was at the end of the burning period."[2]

At this time, the foreman of the smokejumper crew, R. Wagner "Wag" Dodge saw local Fire Prevention Guard smokechaser James O. Harrison shouting from the top of a nearby ridge. Dodge instructed squad leader William Hellman to lead the crew down Mann Gulch to the river as he went alone to meet Harrison.[1] After returning to camp with Harrison to retrieve water, rations, and equipment, Dodge observed that the fire was beginning to burn more rapidly[2], so the two men hurried to rejoin the crew at about 5:40 PM. Finding that the route towards the river was being cut off by the advancing fire, Dodge commanded the crew to turn around and climb back towards the top of the ridge. After proceeding in this direction for approximately 1,500 feet, Dodge instructed the crew to drop their heavy equipment and begin running towards the top of the ridge to safety.


Two minutes later, at about 5:55 PM, Dodge concluded that the fire was too close to continue further. He recalls, "At this point, I stopped the crew and explained to those nearest me (at least eight men) that we would have to burn off a section of the light fuel and get into the inside to make it through. In my opinion, all of my men were with me or very close."[2] He further explained, "After setting a clump of bunchgrass on fire... I had an area 100 feet square that was ablaze. I told the men nearest to me... that we would cross through the flames into the burned area where we could make a good stand and our chances of survival would be more than even."[2] This technique, unknown in standard firefighting practices at the time, would later be known as an escape fire.

Dodge called for his men to join him in this burned-over area, prompting each individual to make their own decision as to whether to join Dodge in what they perceived as another fire that he started himself, or to continue up the ridge and attempt to outrun the fire to safety. Every one of the men chose the latter. Smokejumper Walter Rumsey recalls one man exclaiming, "To hell with that!" and running past Dodge's escape fire.[2] Dodge survived unscathed at 6:10 PM as the main fire raged past his escape fire's area, and two other men, Sallee and Rumsey, survived by finding shelter in a nearby rock slide. The other 13 men perished.

Spread of the fire was stopped and under control on Sunday, August 7, and reported to be fully extinguished on August 10. The total burned area was estimated to cover 5,000 acres.[1]

Sensemaking[edit]

Organizations, through communication, provide meaning and order in the face of environments that impose ill-defined demands.[3] Yet the contextual rationality created through interactive exchanges can guide the organization further from reality.

When the smokejumpers landed at Mann Gulch, they expected to find a “10:00 fire”, one that can be surrounded completely and isolated by 10:00 the next morning. This belief was consistent with the crewmembers’ experience. Not only did Dodge and Harrison eat supper during the hike toward the river, one other smokejumper, David Navon, was even taking pictures. People concluded that the fire couldn’t be that serious, even though their senses tell them otherwise. People rationalized this image until it was too late, and it became increasingly difficult to socially construct reality.

In an uncertain environment, decision-making depends on similar others with whom one’s own performance can be evaluated.[4] As Porac et al. (1989) suggested, human activity is portrayed as “an ongoing input-output cycle in which subjective interpretations of externally situated information become themselves objectified via behavior.”[5] With this cyclical feedback activity, interpretations become internalized into a consensus, thus “individual cognitive structures become part of a socially reinforced view of the world.”[5]

The crew's stubborn belief that it faced a 10:00 fire is a powerful reminder that positive illusions[6] can kill people. But the more general lesson is that individuals' early, positive, public evaluations shape sensemaking in crisis by preventing them and others from bracketing contradictory cues until it is much too late.[7][8]

The Collapse of Expectation[edit]

As the reality lost its resemblance to the expectation, sensemaking procedures collapsed. People can neither verify their judgment with their closest neighbors, nor can they pay close attention to their leader whom they barely knew. In addition, the “pluralistic ignorance” phenomenon[9], in which “I am puzzled by what is going on, but I assume that no one else is”[10], contributes to the blind spots of sense making in that individuals hesitate to take actions. [11] In the absence of a plausible interpretation of the situation, individual’s anxiety, fear and frustration may increase and further impact their ability to make sense of the surroundings and to take actions.[11] As a result, the firefighters fell into a cosmology episode[12] as they suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system.

The result of panic is disastrous. On one hand, individual’s judgment is hampered under panic, to a significant extent, due to individuals' failure to adequately fulfill a most elementary requirement of the decision-making process, i.e., the systematic consideration of all relevant decision alternatives.[13] On the other hand, panic leads to group disintegration,[14] which in reverse precipitates panic. As Freud described, "If an individual in panic fear begins to be solicitous only on his own account, he bears witness in so doing to the fact that the emotional ties, which have hitherto made the danger seem small to him, have ceased to exist. Now that he is by himself in facing the danger, he may surely think it greater."[15]

Dodge's Escape Fire[edit]

Dodge’s escape fire was unconventional firefighting practice during his time. Because of this, when Dodge stopped running away from the roaring fire closing in on them and created a small fire of his own, his crewmembers questioned their leader’s sanity. Nonetheless, after trying to explain the logic behind his actions, his crewmembers did not have enough faith in their leader to trust his judgment over their own instinct. Despite his best efforts, Dodge was not able to convince a single one of his crewmembers to join him.

When asked whether he had ever been instructed on how to setup an escape fire Dodge replied, “Not that I know of. It just seemed the logical thing to do.”[2] This stroke of brilliance in the face of grave danger was the reason why Dodge was able to survive when so many of his crewmembers didn’t. Dodge was able to override his primal instinct to just keep running from the fire and analyze the situation logically. The thirteen crewmembers who did not survive were not as prepared. According to Dodge, “I doubt if any of them have ever been in any conditions that required any action to save their lives”.[2] From this it can be gathered that Dodge was the only one on the smokejumper team who had ever been in a life-threatening situation before.

While Dodge personally tells the story of how the idea for an escape fire just came out of nowhere, there is another possibility to consider. What if Dodge knew about the concept of an escape fire before the Mann Gulch incident? If this were true then Dodge would have been more liable for the deaths of his crewmembers by failing to teach them the concept of an escape fire.

Leadership Flaws[edit]

Dodge was the oldest out of all the crew members and thus appointed the leader of the group. When asked about how well he knew the men in his group before the fire, Dodge responded that all but three of them were strangers to him.[2] This means that a group of smokejumpers who had never even worked together before was deployed to suppress the fire. A group whose leader had no reputation amongst the majority of the group.

After the jump, the group discovered that their radio wasn’t working and that someone had forgotten the map. This meant that the team was uninformed about the fire’s progression as well as the surrounding landscape. When Dodge realized that the fire had jumped the gulch and was headed in their direction, he merely redirected the team’s path without explaining why. Even when Dodge told the team to drop all their heavy tools, he did not explain his growing concern for the fast approaching fire behind them. When it came down to the point where his crewmembers had to make a life or death decision on whether to trust Dodge’s judgment as their leader and join him inside his escape fire, not a single crewmember followed.

Conclusions[edit]

During the Mann Gulch Fire the concept of an escape fire was not in a smokejumper’s education. Thereby, the effectiveness of this new firefighting technique was countered by a lack of knowledge. Additionally, Dodge’s lack of interaction with his new crewmembers did not earn him the trust he needed to be an effective leader. He did not communicate to his team that he thought the fire was getting closer even though he had many opportunities to do so. It did not help that the rest of the smokejumper team thought the fire was weak and containable up until the time that it was too late to outrun. At that point the natural instinct to survive kicked in and each crewmember abandoned any notion of logic or unity.

References[edit]

  1. a b c d Report of Board of Review. September 29, 1949. Retrieved from http://www.nifc.gov/safety/mann_gulch/investigation/reports/Report_of_Board_of%20Review_1949_sm.pdf
  2. a b c d e f g h Mann Gulch Board of Review. September 26-27, 1949. Retrieved from http://www.nifc.gov/safety/mann_gulch/investigation/reports/Board_of_Review_%20Sept%2026_28_1949.pdf
  3. Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.125.6080&rep=rep1&type=pdf
  4. Weick, K. E. (1995) Sensemaking in Organizations. Retrieved from http://www.sagepub.com/books/Book4988#tabview=google
  5. a b Porac, J. F., H. Thomas, and C. Baden-Fuller. 1989. Competitive groups as cognitive communities: The case of Scottish knitwear manufacturers. Journal of Management Studies 26 (4): 397–416.
  6. Taylor, Shelby E. 1989. Positive Illusions.
  7. Salancik, G.R. Pfeffer, J. (1978). ‘A Social Information Processing Approach to Job Attitude and Task Design’. Administrative Science Quarterly, 23(2), 224-253.
  8. Weick, K. E. and Sutcliffe, K. M. (2003). ‘Hospitals as cultures of entrapment: A re-analysis of the Bristol Royal Infirmary’. California Management Review, 45 (2), 73-84.
  9. Miller, D. T., McFarland, C. (1987). ‘Pluralistic ignorance: when similarity is interpreted as dissimilarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 298–305.
  10. Weick K E. The vulnerable system: an analysis of the Tenerife air disaster. Journal of Management 1990;16:571-593.
  11. a b Maitlis, S., Sonenshein, S. (1988). Sensemaking in Crisis and Change: Inspiration and Insights From Weick. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6486.2010.00908.x/full
  12. Weick, K. E. (1993). The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster. Retrieved from http://www.nifc.gov/safety/mann_gulch/suggested_reading/The_Collapse_of_Sensemaking_in_Organizations_The_Mann_Gulch.pdf
  13. Decision making under stress: Scanning of alternatives under physical threat, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0001691887900084
  14. McDougall, W. (1920). The Group Mind
  15. Freud, S. (1959). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.