Wildfire – What Leadership’s True Nature Looks Like

by Sep 8, 2020

This is our friend Jon Trapp. He has spent a career moving through military service and then into work with wolves through the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Today, much of his life work is focused on wildland firefighting. Jon’s been all over the country as a commander and on-the-ground firefighter. This summer, he’s been busy.

Today, it’s raining here in Bozeman, Montana. After temperatures yesterday in the high 80s, today started in the low 50’s and will drop below freezing. About 2.5 miles from where I’m writing, a wildfire has been raging since Friday. It broke out mid-afternoon in the foothills of the Bridger Mountain Range.

The fire grew quickly. It raced uphill, climbing at a rate faster than most of us could run. By the end of Friday, the burn was estimated at 400 acres.  But after high winds and 90+ temps and 12% humidity on Saturday, it spread to roughly 7,500 acres. Conditions were extreme. Homes were lost. Cattle and Horses were killed. Tree after tree crowned out, flaring high into smoky sky and igniting its neighbors.

We don’t know if Jon was on this fire. He could be in Idaho or Colorado, in Arizona or any part of California. What we do know is that, the leaders on our fire are likely very much like the leaders on all the others. They are on non-stop, but a part of what they do is to keep the public informed. In their reports, they say what they can based on what they know – for now. They describe what’s going on, what equipment and person power is being employed. Often, they add clear summaries of the several most likely ways the fire will behave next. They make crystal clear that any calls to evacuate will be timely. And they will be for absolute real. They’re smart and they’re looking out for us.

Here in the community, this is what follows. Networks form on the spot to organize community members who, spared direct impact, are ready and willing to be of help. People who have been quarantining open their homes – their spare rooms – to those who have been evacuated. People who have space for displaced pets pick them up and take them to safe keeping. People who know cattle and horses coordinate to move the animals to safety, to make sure they are fed, to offer some measure of calm. Parking lots in town are opened – for bottled water donations, for food donations, for donations of clothing and other necessities.

When public leadership is based in honest description, in respect for the community, in assurance of competence alongside admission of fallibility – this is our best understanding for now – the natural leadership and cooperation within the community follows.

Wildfire is unforgiving. Its course can never be predicted with 100% accuracy. So it is, finally, with every one of our days, weeks, years, lifetimes. Survival is never 100% guaranteed. But our chances for continuing on – through destruction and repair – always grow best from the ground of our cooperation. Clear, descriptive, informed and humble leadership naturally activate cooperation.

Take it as the reality wildfire brings forward. Take it as a profound metaphor for how leadership in human community best supports survival, repair and the thriving procession of life. Our truest nature – cooperation, community, resilience.

NOTE: With profound gratitude to the wildland firefighters and other emergency response professionals – and to all the community members who show up. Each a vital thread in the weave. #trappjon