In 1949, thirteen of sixteen men died battling a relatively small blaze that turned deadly in Mann Gulch. Upon investigating the circumstances of why most of the smoke jumpers died while three lived, Norman Maclean wrote a book entitled Young Men and Fire, which is the true story of the smoke jumpers, (firefighters who parachute into the back country to fight fires in Montana).
Maclean found some startling facts. Mann Gulch is surrounded by steep canyon walls with the northern slope at a 75% incline. When the wind turned on the smoke jumpers, they were in a race with the fire up those steep walls. Also, most forest fires feed off dry grass, but the north slope of Mann Gulch was mostly tall grass. Unexpectedly, the fire started to spread much faster than anticipated.
One of the amazing things the author discovered was that the thirteen who died had carried their tools – heavy poleaxes, saws, shovels, as well as very heavy back packs – while attempting to out run the fire up those steep walls. In other words, the thirteen had run as far as they could with all their equipment, even though that equipment was worse than useless in a race with the fire. Their inability to drop their heavy tools and packs ultimately prevented them from outrunning the fire. To these firefighters, their tools were more than simple objects, they represented who they were, why they were there and what they were trained to do. Dropping their tools meant abandoning their existing knowledge, training and experience.
This might not seem like a hard choice to make, but because they hadn’t been trained for such a moment, they had no alternative models for behavior. In moments of uncertainty and danger, clinging to the old “right” way might seem like a good idea, but it is usually deadly.
The three survivors of the blaze were forced to think outside the box and use alternative methods of escaping the fire. Once they figured out they were no longer fighting the fire and instead trying to escape from it, they realized they had to drop all of their useless equipment. One survivor used a technique called the ‘escape fire’ where he took a match and lit a ring around him so that the fire would “jump” over him. When he tried to suggest it to the other men they continued running up the steep slope because the ‘escape fire’ technique had not been part of their training. It was their inability to drop the tools and equipment that weren’t working and seek new methods to help them escape that lead to the fire fatally engulfing them.
The question is this: What are the poleaxes, shovels and backpacks you’re running with? What are the tired, worn out strategies and tools which you are lugging around with you? What existing models of behavior do you need to drop? What existing knowledge, training or experience needs to be abandoned?
Remember you won’t get where you want to go if you do what you always have done.