They say you should never judge a book by its cover but I was in Poundland so I guess I had already put any expectations aside when I saw a flash of orange and was intrigued. As I pulled the book off the shelf I was amazed to find that the orange was in fact a sort of gold foil designed to offset the black and provide a vivid image of a huge forest scene.
The book is the memoir of a season spent in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. The author weaves his own story of working as a fire lookout through the developing debate about wildfire prevention and suppression.
Originally all fires on federal lands were suppressed for fear of damage to property (and to lumber prices). This led to a build up of burnable undergrowth and when fires got out of control they raged for weeks and over many acres of land. These were referred to as F.E.A.R fires – forget everything and run (substitute your own f word of choice) and indeed they must have been terrifying.
I mused on the acronym and thought about how the world of L&D approaches fear, I’ve seen it described as False Experience Appearing Real, specifically when someone struggles to let go of the past
Which is what was happening historically in the US Forest Service. A group of powerful interests and some old doctrine meant that the mantra of controlling fire held sway for some 60 years. There was a resistance to change which was based on outmoded thinking, some of it actually dangerous.
I earn my living talking to people, some of the time I am brought in as a sort of firefighter – often to help people change, either individually or in teams. A lot of the thinking I witness breaks down pretty well in to the two definitions of fear that I’ve outlined above. People lamenting the loss of the good old days and unable to move on or conversely avoiding the difficult conversations by running away.
These days the USFS makes a decision on every fire individually, some will be allowed to burn and clear out areas whilst others will be directed and managed. Some will of course be far too dangerous to countenance but there is a more nuanced process than there was. Even more surprisingly their “hot shot” crews sometimes start small fires to manage and control larger risks
Which is what I try to do in my work. Start small conversations, get people talking about communications, about resilience, about how they could improve their part of the world, working out what fires they can control and which ones will need back up.
It’s not an exact science but it certainly helps to get rid of the fear – whatever acronym you choose to use…………..