Soon after the Yarnell Hill Fire, I wrote a paper on my thoughts and experiences. Considering the passage of time and additional assignments, I might change a few things on the periphery but I think the paper stands up well. I did not want to re-write it and I struggled on how to approach this topic for more than a few days. I decided to do a play-by-play of a briefing I gave on the Yarnell Hill Fire. I post this not to call attention to my being there, but because it was a tough briefing and unlike with other briefings out there, I can tell you what I was thinking and feeling as I analyze the questions and answers. (As I noted in Part 1, I would not have been able to do this without the experiences on Wallow and Rodeo-Chedeski.)
I believe this was the Wednesday after the Sunday fatalities and it is the day the Granite Mountain crew buggies were to be returned to their home in Prescott. The media is congregated at a roadblock on the side of the highway leading into Peoples Valley and Yarnell. The plan was for the crew buggies to leave the fire area and pass by us around 10:00, after which I would brief the media. However, there were delays and when the video starts, it is after 11:00 with no sign of the rigs. By that time, it was hitting 100 degrees and you could tell the media personnel were getting short-tempered after standing by for well over an hour. As a result, they started asking questions without a formal start to the briefing. Also, I never wear a radio for briefings, but had one on here so I could monitor the traffic about the crew buggie transport and planned to take it off as soon as I knew they were headed towards us. So, for perhaps the most difficult briefing in my career, everything was going wrong at the start.
Aside from the logistical problems, this briefing carried the emotion of fatalities, the uncertainties of an investigation, the impacts of an evacuation, and the details of firefighting. I knew I'd have to navigate all of those topics. Because of the environment and the swirling info in my head, when the briefing started, I never felt like I was able to slow things down enough. It seemed like I was falling behind the whole time, in part because I kept anticipating the tough, emotional questions instead of just dealing with what is front of me at the time. And then those the last two questions.
I'll commit the sin of quoting myself. From a small part of the paper:
The TV folks are looking for emotion to show on camera: How does this make you feel? What are you feeling? Can you describe your feelings when you think about the 19? We pride ourselves on our professionalism, our calmness in the face of adversity. However, I think it is more than acceptable to show some emotion and to answer these questions from the heart. To be too professional in this situation can easily come across as removed and that would not serve anyone well.
This briefing is one of the things I was thinking about when I wrote those last two sentences.
0:00 We begin exactly how I hate to begin: spelling names and with a crappy backdrop of cars (though the fire area is in the far background). Again, if this had gone according to plan, there would have been an opportunity to do a pre-brief check-in with the media like I describe in the second part of this series.
01:40 As I said in Part 2, I try to memorize the basic facts so I can throw them out without looking at a cheat sheet. If this had been a regular briefing, I would have covered the basics like containment, number of personnel, etc. during my opening remarks, but I had no chance for that here.
02:10 The first weather question. As you'll see later, just about every question and answer has two layers. The top layer is what you would get on a "regular" incident. The second layer involves a deeper concern about what happened to the Granite Mountain Hot Shots on this fire.
02:55 Fatalities dominate your thinking as well as the media coverage, but there were still people out of their homes. I thought this was a fairly standard answer on re-entry and I tried to keep it just to the evacuation. One of the traps on fatality incidents is the potential to merge the concerns of the fallen families with those of the evacuees. You want to be careful to respect the evacuated, but there is no equivalence with grieving families. Try not to talk about both during the same answer or at least give everyone a clear break when moving to the other.
04:20 At this point, the fire is done and just about everyone knows it. There is still a little mop-up and work is being done around the burned structures, but the winds have stopped blowing and the fire is not expected to do anything but continue to go out. Under a "regular" fire of this sort, you would be more optimistic and probably speak with a different focus. However, 19 guys died here so it is not a "regular" fire. Finding a way to talk about the fire without relying on the usual experiences, adjectives, and phrases is tough and I'm not sure I did a great job of it. Towards the end of this answer, I circle back to fire behavior both because it is familiar and because I'm feeling uncertain about how to address the larger fire questions given the minimal behavior. Also, my radio is crackling but I'm so dialed in, I don't really notice it at the time or quickly dismiss it as an annoyance I can't fix.
05:25 Because it was more of an impromptu briefing, I never got the chance to state my preference of going left to right for questions. As a result, I'm getting multiple questions and having to track who has asked one and who hasn't had an opportunity. That just adds to the stress. Waving one reporter off right there was not my finest moment.
05:30 Standard answer on damage to structures, but again, against the backdrop of fatalities. If you look closely, you can tell the times I quickly draw on slides from previous briefings and when I have to think through the answer because of the fatalities. I spend an inordinate amount of time with my head down trying to think through stuff instead of rattling off answers while looking up and maintaining eye/camera contact like I would usually do. At one point I recognized this but quickly decided I'd rather look down and think than throw out something I had in my mental "briefing file" that might be insensitive or inappropriate under these circumstances.
06:05 First annoying question. I just answered previously about working through the hazards where the fire hit the community. Now, I get to go back and talk more about propane tanks. (This would not be an annoying question on most other fires, but there's just so much going through my head, I didn't want to cover ground already covered.)
06:20 On a somewhat regular basis, you will get a question that you hear differently from the way the reporter thought they were asking. I haven't found a way to effectively deal with this other than to acknowledge we are human and the English language is difficult at best, so just move on when it happens. In this case, he asked about more deaths and my mind immediately went to firefighters. Well, thought I, the fire is mostly done but a rock could come loose, an engine could roll, a propane tank might explode, or some other strange thing could occur. I had considered this question beforehand and only came up with the first few words I uttered. Thankfully, the reporter interrupted and clarified so I didn't have to go down that path, which was quickly lining up to be a flustered one. I was thinking that however I answered would lead to other questions about the inherent risks of firefighting and the safety protocols we have. In retrospect, I think I could have answered those well, and part of the poor response I gave here is a result of trying to work through some of those other questions while trying to spit out an appropriate answer to the question I thought I had.
06:45 There were a number of rumors swirling that some residents had been trapped in their homes during the fire. It was a constant battle to put that rumor to rest and we never quite got there until the area was reopened. By this time, I was sick of repeatedly calling the Sheriff and repeatedly relaying that there were no missing persons. It probably showed in the terseness of that answer. ( I must say, it was one of the few quasi-sensationalist aspects of the coverage that I encountered, and most of it was pursued by one outlet who just happened to have considerable influence with other media folks.)
06:55 Again, the question of media tours is something I would have preferred to cover before or after the briefing.
07:10 First fatality question. While I didn't anticipate this particular question, I was able to go into a statement I had thought through with some detail while walking around the ICP and observing the interactions and emotions of the IMT, firefighters, and support staff. If I had done an opening statement, there's a good chance I would have included something similar there. Of course, nothing ever comes out like you imagine it will but it still helps to think it through if you can.
08:10 Loaded weather question even though I think it was asked with sincerity. Again, everything has to be looked at through the lens of fatalities. No easy answers here and the problem of anticipating how the answers might lead to related questions is nearly impossible because the circumstances are so far out of our normal experiences. Also, for the second time, I fell into the trap of talking like we talk instead of using phrasing directed at the public. "Winds get lined up in the right way..." You have to be careful about words like right so that it does not sound as if you are rooting for something untoward. I could have just cut it off at "Winds get lined up..."
09:10 A question about weather and communications on the day of the fatalities. With any of these types of questions, you may think you can answer well, but there is so much uncertainty that you do not want to make a definitive statement that might later be countered by the investigative findings. Coupled with the fact that I truly did not know how things were communicated on the previous Sunday, I ended up inelegantly punting on this question.
09:33 Investigation question. I told them what I knew, but then I ended it horribly, saying: "That's pretty much all I can tell you right now." As soon as I said it, I wanted to take it back. That phrase makes it seem like I know more about the investigation than I just relayed. Again, I did not and should have said something like: "That's all I know right now." Sometimes our brain reaches for the nearest available answer and something like that blurts out and even as you are saying it another part of your brain is telling you not to. If I was a politician, they may have pressed me, but I and other PIOs had spent time talking with media folks at the roadblock and I think they gave me he benefit of the doubt. So, ultimately no big deal, but could have been an issue particularly if I had let that slip when taking a question about the rumor of trapped residents in the burning homes. If that had happened, I think I would have been able to recognize it and correct it soon after. In this case, I judged the group, let it slide, and went on to the next question.
10:00 An opportunity to go into some detail about the tactical pause and the ceremonial aspects of the returning crew rigs. This is another question I had anticipated and another that did not come out as smoothly as I had planned. The emotion around the incident is probably evident in this and some of the other answers.
11:15 More on the fire itself. Part of the stress of this briefing is going back and forth between difficult questions relating to the fatalities and regular sounding questions about the fire. I throw too much detail and spend too much time on this question and the follow-up because it's one of the few things I can speak to with certainty as long as I remember what I said earlier and don't contradict myself. Towards the end of the follow-up to the follow-up, I realize I'm getting too in the weeds and kind of flutter down to the end of the answer. After that comes a few questions on containment and such that have already been addressed but at this point, I'm feeling a little more comfortable up there and not too anxious about repeating those answers.
14:50 Yes, incredibly enough, an increase in containment is good and helps morale. While I'm answering a shot crew drives by and folks start to buzz even though the vehicles are headed in the wrong direction. Once it is confirmed those were not the Granite Mountain buggies, we resume with another question about the pause and the procession. A little emotion shows at that point.
16:45 This one caught me by surprise. I did not want to comment on the idea that the wind shift/downdraft that killed 19 firefighters saved a ranchers hay crop. Not only did I not want to comment, the question itself made me angry. I try to get out of the question quickly but in doing so, I kind of reflexively agreed with his premise, which I should not have done. Another answer I wish I had back.
17:40 A question about me and I smile. Why? Am I vain? No, not here at least.
In my experience up to that point, a question about my qualifications or agency affiliation has always been the last question asked in a briefing. It's a signal to the other reporters that the questions are done. The answer usually ends up as filler in a bottom paragraph if used at all: Jim Whittington, a BLM employee from Oregon...
Because I thought it was the last question, my body immediately flushed out a bunch of stress. I have never experienced anything like it before or since. Man, I made it through the briefing. I was done. Whew, I did it without any major screw ups. I was immediately thinking about walking over to my rental, turning on the air conditioning, pulling a cold water out of the cooler and reclining the seat. Yet as soon as I started to smile, I started screaming at myself to not smile. "You don't smile on a fatality fire, idiot!" But I couldn't help it. When I think about that moment, I can remember what that wave felt like rushing over my body. There is no way I could have done anything but smile. I unsuccessfully look down and fight the smiling for the next several seconds, fully expecting to be done and really walking to the rental car within a few words.
17:57 The hammer comes down. Crap. I have to put the water down, climb out of the air conditioning, and go back to the place I was so relieved to escape from just moments ago. It takes me 5-6 seconds to make that journey. When I get back, I don't answer the question. I had, however, anticipated the question and the critical piece for me was to not compare the fatalities with other incidents. Instead, I built an answer around our culture and remembrance. It was decent in the beginning, but emotion got to me at the end.
The reason to not compare is because when you state or agree with a comparison, you are making a value judgement. Nineteen firefighters died on the Yarnell Hill Fire. That's incredible. Of course I have never seen anything like it. But if I say that, doesn't it diminish other fatalities through the eyes of those that may still be suffering? The incident that claims just one life is the worst ever for that family and community, worse even than Yarnell. We have to let people grieve in their own way and each is as honorable and human as any other. The worst thing we can do is dismiss previous suffering by offering or agreeing with a comparison that elevates the current incident above others.
(I should note that it applies to more than fatalities. We often get comparison questions on incidents and we must remember that at other times in other places, people have lost homes, livelihoods, and sites that have special meaning. There is no reason to attenuate their experiences through a comparison.)
19:02 "Anything else?" I'm now mad that I made a horrible assumption about the end of the briefing and mad at them for putting me through it. I'm ready to rumble. But it ends quietly and I finally head to the air conditioned rental and physically collapse for a couple of minutes.
(As I said in the Wallow Fire post, you often think the length of briefings are longer than they really are. When this was over, I thought I had been out there for about 30 minutes, but it was only 19 minutes.)
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.