National Wildfire Coordinating Group

2020 WOR Day 4: Learning Used: Brian Hughes


By Arrowhead IHC Superintendent Joe Suarez

“Learning used” became most apparent to me as one of the developers of the Grant West Prescribed Fire Staff Ride which highlights the loss of Danny Holmes of the Arrowhead Hotshot Crew during the Grant West Prescribed Fire in Kings Canyon National Park on October 2, 2004. This was my slide which I applied. Without it, I don’t feel I would have been as decisive as I was during the tragic event and loss of my friend Brian Hughes, our Arrowhead Hotshot Captain assigned to the Ferguson Fire on the Sierra National Forest on July 29, 2018. It was our top priority that the crew and family of Brian were taken care of first and foremost.

Contact Priorities:

  1. Fiancé, parents, sibling.
  2. National Park Service Fire Management.
  3. Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team Leader.

Brian had made me the primary contact on his Emergency Contact Form. I could not do this over the phone. I felt doing so was too impersonal and deserved much more attention. I asked trusted and known friends of Brian, myself, and his fiancé to make the official notification of his death to her in person. Once the notification was made by them, I then spoke with Brian’s fiancé on the phone and they remained with her.

  • I was not in a place to make the notification; location and time were factors. The coordination between all the notifying parties and the release of the deceased’s name to the media was a constant hurdle. The family must be notified first in person—and not find out through social media or local news channels. This was an unwanted as well unfair challenge. We must realize that the notification is real and will be made—and you are never fully prepared for it.

National Park Service Fire Management was notified and participated with the notification. Parents and sibling were also notified with the assistance of Brian’s fiancé and National Park Service Fire Management.

  • Sibling and parents were not from the Arrowhead Hotshot Crew’s local area. The assistance of National Park Service Fire Management from Parks located closest to the areas where Brian’s family members resided were asked to make these in-person notifications. Without hesitation, they did so.

The next call was for a CISM Team Leader. I was fortunate enough to know the leader of a team firsthand and have the number in my contacts readily available. The team mobilized and was available for the crew when we arrived back at the station. Brian and I were to attend a CISM class the year before. Brian attended and I had a scheduling conflict.

  • There are many opportunities to participate in training for CISM and this is highly recommended. Know who to contact to get a team in place. CISM Teams of your peers were beneficial for the uncomfortable environment.

I was at the Mariposa Airport when the helicopter brought Brian off the hill. This is where I was notified that Brian did not survive. The crew was en route from the fire and arrived a couple of hours later at the airport. This is when and where I would make the last notification of the loss of Brian Hughes to the 2018 Arrowhead Hotshots.

The crew then contacted their family members, informing them they were safe, as well as any needed support they needed once they were informed that Brian did not survive.

Crew Priorities:

  1. Keeping the crew together and tight for as long as needed after the incident and then time with their family members.  
  2. Being transparent with the crew and its involvement of a Line of Duty Death (LODD), including the time and emotional commitment that would be required.
  3. The understanding that we were still a crew in fire season, what was next: stay local, go national, or end the season.
  4. Buddy system during and after the season, check up on each other.

Being one of the group members for developing the Grant West Prescribed Fire Staff Ride—which was a very similar tragic loss in many ways—has guided me. I ask why me? Why Arrowhead? Why Brian? And why Danny? It may not have been the actual mechanism of death but giving every ounce you got to take care of crew and family first after the fact, the best way you know how, when it happens is very important.

Lessons Not Used:

  1. Taking care of yourself because you are focused on taking care of everyone else.

A purple ribbon symbolizing remembrance of those who have passed away.Questions to Ask:

  • Is there an expectation of change, and/or growth of an individual or a crew in using what was learned from the LODD of one of its crew members?
  • What lessons does an individual or a crew implement after experiencing a tragic accident of a crew member?
  • Who is leading the leader? Are they just as vulnerable because of their experience/position or not? Should we have the same expectation of that leader?
  • What about the family of the lost crew members? What is the responsibility and role of the crew to the family?

How will you, the crew, continue to monitor one another over the years, 1, 5, 10, and 20 years later?


Week of Remembrance
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2023

Have an idea or feedback?
Share it with the NWCG 6MFS Subcommittee.

Follow NWCG on Twitter  and Facebook