Top 5 Rookie Mistakes on the Fire Line

You’re going to make mistakes as a rookie. But every problem is a chance to learn, and without having made these mistakes, none of the leaders in our field would be where they are today. This week, the Michigan Prescribed Fire Council wants to remind you of some of the top mistakes a rookie can look forward to making on their first burns. Be sure to comment if you think we missed anything, and share this article if you’ve made some of these mistakes before.

1. Caught staring

My first time on a fire, I was blown away by the brilliance of the fire. Not only is it beautiful to watch the fire consume everything in its path, but it actually feels responsible to stare at the fire, so you can watch how it’s behaving and where it’s heading. While you need to be aware of your fire, too often rookies can get zoned out watching the fire, which is dangerous. There is far too much to look out for: you need to be looking up, down, and around for any impending disasters. You have to have your eyes peeled for any sudden spotting, any visual cues from fellow team members that they need immediate assistance. Remember to keep your primary focus on your crew’s duties, and you’ll create a much safer environment for yourself and your team.

2. Casual with Personal protective equipment (PPE)

One of my first burns, I remember stepping out of a truck with my helmet in my hand, slowly putting it on while I walked from what I thought was a perfectly safe area towards the edge of the fire. In that same place I’d been walking without my helmet, a stray ember found its way to the top of a dead tree, and silently began burning away. Not ten minutes after I walked by without my helmet on, a crew member was struck in the head by a falling tree limb. She sustained a concussion and some fractured bones, but were it not for her helmet, she might no longer be with us. You cannot afford to be casual about your PPE: you must always wear your PPE when you’re anywhere close to the fire.

3. Run out of food and water

A very obvious but common mistake for rookies. Becoming dehydrated and running out of fuel can be dangerous, so be sure to bring your own water bottle, and plenty of snacks. Most organizations will provide water and food, but you can never be over-prepared.

4. Improper tool technique

Often, we get newbies on a burn who haven’t had a lick of training. We love the enthusiasm of those folks, but they’re not always sure how to use, say, a flapper. Smothering a fire gently but quickly is totally different than whacking it haphazardly with your flapper, fanning the flames and shooting embers into the air. Same goes for water packs, drip torches, or any other tools - be sure you understand how to make your tools work properly before you get anywhere near the fire.

5. Beating yourself up

You’re going to make a mistake. You might make a handful of them. Heck, you might mess up pretty bad. But you’re going to learn and grow from those experiences more than any others. Fire is unique in that there’s a pretty slim margin for error - a truly large mistake can cost you your life. So don’t get me wrong, you should be cautious. You should be over-cautious. You should quadruple check your actions, ensure you’re behaving safely at all times, and make sure you’re listening to everyone around you. But you should also be okay with slipping up. We all have, and we’re all better for it. So don’t beat yourself up. Learn, make a change, and come back prepared to keep burning.

Leave us a comment if you think we missed anything, and be sure to share this post if you’ve experienced these mistakes as a rookie. I’ve messed up loads of times - but I always keep coming back for more.