The Mann Gulch Fire
I often get called on to sprinkle fairy dust over some smaller or larger group that is in distress. I follow the choroeographies and patterns of the craft we call conflict management, but every once in a while I help people really step out of the proverbial box they are in and discover (or stumble on) a peculiar new solution that seems to fit perfectly. Those are the golden moments I live for.
Not far from Helena, Montana, where Lewis and Clark passed through in 1805 on their epic western journey there is a two-mile stretch of canyon called Mann Gulch. This is rugged country, steep, craggy, and difficult if you are on foot. For the men and women of the U.S. Forest Service charged with managing wildfires, it is also something akin to sacred ground.
Around noon on August 5, 1949, the air was shimmering with 97-degree heat when a lightening strike ignited a fire. Jim Harrison, a recreation and fire prevention guard at the Meriwether Canyon Campground, radioed in a call and started fighting the fire. Four hours later, the newly formed Missoula-based contingent of fire fighters called “smoke jumpers” parachuted down from a C-47. Within 90 minutes, 11 were dead, including Harrison, overtaken by a searing wall of flames 200 feet high.
The fire that ultimately consumed them had temperatures nearing 1,800 degrees and literally sucked the oxygen out of the air. Unburned patches underneath the bodies indicated that most of the team, including Harrison, suffocated before the fire actually caught them. Two other crew members were severely injured and died within a day. Remarkably, one man survived: Wag Dodge, the foreman of the team. Dodge stayed alive that day because of a sudden inspiration. Leading his group down the north side of the gulch, Dodge sized up the rapidly expanding blaze and intuited that they were going to get trapped. The fire had already ignited the surrounding grassland, blocking their only effective path to the river. Now the fire was flanking them and moving rapidly upslope.
Dodge and his crew reversed course and headed up the 76% grade, but the fire was moving at 600 feet-per-minute. Dodge knew they would lose the race, but he invented a solution on the spot: he lit the grass in front of him on fire and watched it spread up the hill. Then, he lay down in the warm ashes and called for his men to drop their equipment and join him in the clearing. Panicked, the team ignored him and raced on. Most died.
Wag Dodge had invented what is now a standard tactical operating procedure, an “SOP”, for fire fighters working in wilderness areas. It is called an “escape fire” and is a part of every smoke jumper’s toolkit, as is the “backfire” which is used to control large burns. Interestingly, the same technique was described in James Fennimore Cooper’s 1827 novel The Prairie which Wag Dodge had never read. “Escape fire” is a powerful metaphor. Karl Weick, a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Michigan has examined the Mann Gulch incident in detail and sees in it the sudden collapse of a key and often undervalued organizational function: “Sensemaking.”
Viewing Wag Dodge’s team of firefighters as an organization, he believes that successful enterprises of all sorts actively fasion their own universe of explanations, motivations, and challenges. In the face of new, sudden, or bewildering circumstances, those understandings fall apart. Dodge’s team faced a crisis of major proportions, what Weick has called a “Cosmology Episode” in which the foundations of belief are shaken to the core.
Escape fire is also a metaphor for getting unstuck from a intractable problem. Donald M. Berwick, a physician and hospital administrator, likens the current crisis in American health care to be a cosmology episode and argues that only a series of escape fires can radically alter the broad decline that he sees taking place. The new fires he proposes would change our fundamental ideas of access to doctors, nurses, and hospitals, make them 24-7-365 enterprises, treat every patient as if they were the only patient, and place the patient in control of his or her own treatment.
Just as Wag Dodge did something counter-intuitive and radical, Berwick believes our large, expensive, and ungovernable medical system must undergo an equivalent sea-change if it is to deliver its real promise. So too with our notions of “mediation.” We often talk and write about mediation in a reified manner, meaning an abstraction that we treat as a concrete and as if we were all talking about the same thing.
In truth, and even if we share a few common values and tools, we know there are many different forms and functions and we actually do different things. In my work, I increasingly avoid the word “mediation” and use more specific descriptors to “fit the fuss” as Frank Sander used to say. Sometimes, it’s a foresight and strategy meeting. Other days, it’s troubleshooting, disentangling, or taking stock.
The bloom is off the rose and the general fashions we call evaluative, transformative, facilitative, or narrative are worn out. We really need a better vocabulary.