From the transcript of “The Big Burn,” an American Experience film (1):
“On August 19th, 1910, an assistant Forest Ranger named Ed Pulaski rode out of the smoke-filled Bitterroot Mountains that loomed over the town of Wallace, Idaho. For months he and his crew had been fighting wildfires in the Bitterroots, but despite all of their efforts, he was afraid the town was going to burn.
Ed Pulaski comes down and sees his wife and sees his adopted daughter, Elsie, and says, “Leave. You’ve got to get out. You’ve got to leave to save your life,” and she says, “No, I’m gonna stay here.” And so he tells her to go up and hide in this reservoir. If it really gets bad, they can go into the water. So, the next day they go out to the edge of the trail there, kiss and say goodbye, thinking that would be the last time they ever see each other.
That afternoon, without warning, the wind began to blow, and flaming embers shot down from the sky, igniting buildings. Within minutes, Wallace was ablaze.” (1)
This was the start of the biggest, most destructive wildfire in the Northern Rockies, the Devil’s Broom fire. The fire burned 3 million acres of forest, an area the size of the State of Connecticut, in 36 hours and killed 87 people, most of them firefighters. It was the largest loss of life in Forest Service history and a complete failure of the Forest Service’s fire strategy.
In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, many government and industry leaders believed that they, through technology and human ingenuity, could control nature. When President Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot organized the Forest Service, the idea was to manage the millions of acres of land newly designated as National Forest land. The Forest Service’s fire strategy was “control.”
Following the Devil’s Broom fire, horrified by the loss of life and property, the Forest Service changed its strategy from “fire control” to singular, unwavering pursuit of “fire suppression” (that fires should be suppressed by 10 am the morning after they were first spotted). This made for good headlines and reports to Congress and saved many lives and…. as it turns out… it meant that forest land that would normally burn every 20 years would, thanks to Forest Service heroic efforts, burn much less frequently, meaning that, when it did burn, there would be two times or four times or ten times the fuel in the forest to burn and the fires would much more destructive.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, sixty years later, that renewed interest in conservation and better science lead to a deeper understanding of forest systems and ecologies; the Forest Service changed its operating guidelines from “fire suppression” to “fire management.”
Whenever we, sales people, arrive in a client’s or prospect’s office, we sit down in the middle of decades of accumulated assumptions and philosophies much like sitting the middle of decades of underbrush in the fire-suppressed forests.
If we were in the forest, we could see the accumulated underbrush. In our clients’ and prospects’ offices, the accumulated attitudes, preferences, and conclusions from past experience swirl around us, unseen, expressed as “we’ve always done it this way.”
It’s our job to ask, “Why?… Has anything changed since then?” and to point to the potential, unintended yet flammable consequences of pursuing policies designed for one era or purpose when circumstances have changed or will be changing.
Why, why, why, why, and why?
By day’s end on August 21, 1920, more than half of the town of Wallace had burned to the ground. Ed survived the fire in the mountains, saving 40 of his 45 men by sheltering in an abandoned mineshaft. Emma and Elsie Pulaski survived, thanks to the reservoir. The Pulaski house stood, untouched.
Nick Miller is President of Clarity Advantage based in Concord, MA. He assists banks and credit unions to generate more and more profitable relationships, faster, with business clients, their owners, and their employees. Additional articles on Clarity’s web site.