We don’t learn enough from our mistakes.

Back in 1949, eight months to the day after I was born, 14 smokejumpers died in the Mann Gulch fire in Montana, when the fire suddenly exploded and beat them up a hill.  Fire always wins races uphill. It was a small fire when the jumpers dropped, but it got out of control.

Act of God? I don’t buy it. Study accidents, as I have, and you soon learn that it is seldom one failure but a concatenation of them, as happened here. We fix flawed systems by redesign, not by telling people to be careful.

The famous 1910 fire that killed 86 people brought a change fire management systems. But not enough. Or the lessons learnt were soon forgotten. Proof? About 700 wildland firefighters have died since. Consider this:

* 1994, Colorado: Storm King Fire, Prineville. Ring any bells? Same thing as in 1948. Fourteen dead, caught on a hillside, when a predicted dry cold front caused the wind to shift. A few outran the fire, 14 Prineville hotshots did not. For what? To keep land from being “scorched”, “destroyed” or other jargon which denies that fire changes, not destroys. It is necessary for nature to clear out old growth to allow new. Many trees need fire, either to open seeds or to allow competing species to die.

Both fires were extensively investigated and books were written, one the father of the other. One hoped the mistakes wouldn’t be repeated.  But they were:

* July 2001, Washington State: The smoldering Thirty Mile Fire on a lazy summer day killed four young people, who even a couple of hours before, had no inkling of death. This fire was unimportant, burning where nothing mattered, with plenty of chances to be extinguished. But a pump failed, there were communication breakdowns, the weather changed, safety shelters were deployed wrong….

We talk about firefighting costs in the millions. As a statistician, I count stuff. I learned years ago what is important and countable must be counted. What is important and not countable must be honored. And we need to know the difference.

Deaths in fires can be counted. Not the potential and pain of the lives lost. But we end up counting the money spent and give it the most attention.

“Acts of God” are due to insufficient knowledge or poorly designed systems. We no longer have “Acts of God” deaths from smallpox, measles, polio, rheumatic heart disease, puerperal fever, or infected hangnails. We no longer have commercial aircraft crashes every month.

Deaths from fire are preventable. The firefighters know the rules. We have excellent weather forecasting, every firefighter knows that property destruction is not worth one human life.

The National Interagency Firefighting Center was founded to coordinate firefighting efforts among states, so high priority fires got the most resources. Many gave up turf and power for the greater good. This is almost unheard of in my experience, and those who created the NIFC were remarkable people.

But their job isn’t complete so long as there are purple ribbons.

(Read, edited and improved by Anindita Sanyal of the Hindustan Times, New Delhi, India)

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