2020 WOR Day6: A Room with a View
By Risk Management Program Specialist Kim Lightley
A room with a view, 360-degrees, as far as the eye could see before the earth tilted away from sight. This was my vantage point, as a fire lookout, in the months that followed surviving the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain outside of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, on July 6, 1994. We lost 14 firefighters on that day, nine members from our Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew. The room with a view was my safety zone, a place where the media couldn’t find me, where supervisors felt I had competencies to complete a task, manage the radio, spot a smoke, and take an azimuth reading. It was also where I felt isolated from humanity.
The room with a view was silent, only the sound of persistent wind hitting the worn cupola consumed the days. The howling wind, a memory of the South Canyon Fire that still haunts me today, was my only companion. Encircled by windows and wind, time in the lookout was spent staring to the horizon, reflecting on one particular day…the wind, the roar, the flame front, the running, the yelling, the escape, the search for answers, the gut-wrenching grief. The next day, while sitting in the room with a view, the rumination of memories returned… the wind, the roar, the flame front, the running, the yelling, and so on, and so on.
“Under stress, people are more accurate in assessing the mental states of others, and when subjected to pain in a group, they tend to experience stronger bonds, suggesting that a kind of 'social glue' emerges from shared painful experiences.” (Mancini 2019)
A lot of lessons can be learned when one is isolated from social support, void of emotional understanding and acceptance, and the inability to share traumatic experiences. Social connectedness allows for the sharing of reactions and experiences. As a young female hotshot in July of 1994, I lost my social support in the form of the crew unit, in the form of the four women and five men who were my best friends and who died on the South Canyon Fire, and in the form of an identity as a firefighter.
The lessons learned from the room with a view was one of expediency. Expedite the fostering of connections as quickly as possible following trauma and assist individuals in maintaining those contacts, as this is critical to recovery. The room with a view in 1994 was the catalyst for embedding the trauma and grief due to a lack of social interaction and support.
As surviving crew members of the ’94 Prineville Hotshot Crew, it took some of us an additional 17 years after the fire before we had the opportunity to get together and talk through the event, putting puzzle pieces together, allowing for forgiveness, improving understanding, and restoring trust. Had we stayed connected from the immediate aftermath going forward, it may have mitigated some of the negative mental health outcomes.
“Social Connectedness is one of the strongest protective factors against stress injury and is linked to emotional well-being and recovery following traumatic stress.”
Stress First Aid for Wildland Firefighters
After all of these years, time spent in the room with a view has remained a pivotal experience. Granted, it was a painful phase of isolation and solitude, but it has continued to provide me the motivation to advocate for the mental health of our stress/trauma injured firefighters. Today, I remain encouraged as the wildland fire community has recognized the importance of checking in with each other, identifying when a coworker, family member, or retiree "doesn't seem right," mentoring individuals back to duty after a stress injury, and bottom-line, striving not to isolate folks who are having a tough time.
- Who or what is in your support network? Friends, Family?
- What are some things you do to release stress?
- When someone checks in with you, what should they ask to get an honest answer?
Incident Management Situation Report (IMSR)
10 Standard Firefighting Orders, PMS 110
18 Watch Out Situations, PMS 118
10 & 18 Poster, PMS 110-18
NWCG Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461
RT-130, Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher (WFSTAR)
Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book)
Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center