Friday, August 23, 2013

In incident commander, quiet competence

Beth Lund: Deft, subtle organizational tiger led the fight to save the valley from fire

Express Staff Writer

Firefighter Kole Berriochoa and Incident Commander Beth Lund share a hug and a smile between duties on the Beaver Creek Fire.
Express photo by Willy Cook

In the modern world of firefighting, mavericks are discouraged, a strong and flexible mind excels and only quiet competence is rewarded.
It’s in this world that a 58-year-old woman, who is halfheartedly eyeing a retirement in which she will learn to quilt, has risen to become the face of fire news at its best and worst.
    She is one of only two women in the already tiny national cadre of 16 U.S. Forest Service Type I incident commanders—the people who try to tame the most complicated wildland fires.
    “My policy is to tell what I know and to tell the truth while being mindful that we don’t want people to hear it from the news first,” says Beaver Creek Fire Incident Command Leader Beth Lund.
    She’s been the calm center in a relentless stream of media and public inquiry since arriving nearly two weeks ago to manage and expand the efforts to repel the fire that threatened the length of the Wood River Valley.
    Even in the diciest moments as she bounces from gathering recon to live TV on demand, to fielding questions from strangers, with nearly every step she takes, she remains unflustered—even when she delivers unsavory news.
    Most of the time she talks, it’s clear, but not at all impolite, that she has an ear open and that her eyes are on the smoldering hills across from the base camp located on Buttercup Road north of Hailey.
    She doesn’t rely on large gestures or even the direct eye contact often utilized by public officials. She just starts telling it like it is as she knows it.
    “When you have a fire with a lot of urban interface like we have here, there are a lot of relationships to manage. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I found out in 38 years that I have skills managing people and managing relationships, and that’s what I’m doing here.”
    And to her, it’s really as simple as that.
    In a short 10 days, Lund has engendered trust on a national scale while focusing on the local community, offering a comforting welcome as wide as her smile and empathy based on personal loss.
    She watched her own community in Garden Valley near Lowman, where she still owns a house, dissipate and shift after fires raged through it in 1989. A young firefighter then, she shipped her kids downriver with grandma. She fought fire and missed them for a month.
    She knows what Wood River Valley residents are facing.
    “Their whole palette has been changed. It is devastating. But it really makes you learn to live with the landscape,” she said. “But then you get to see nature’s rejuvenation. Fire’s been a part of nature’s thinning-out process for ages. We’ve just gotten in the way.”

“To be quite honest,
it’s mind over matter in this work.”

Beth Lund
Incident commander

    Fire Information Officer Wayne Patterson said Lund’s is a career inherited through hard work in the trenches and through building trust with time-tested teamwork.
    “People have this idea that firefighting is all huge muscular people, but to be quite honest, it’s mind over matter in this work,” he said. “The biggest asset is to be able to stay within the protocol of being on a crew; to be able to listen and give and take direction as one.”
    Lund has brought her mind to bear on gender differences along the way, which she admits hasn’t always been the case with women in firefighting.
    A Navy brat, she was in a junior college in California when U.S. Forest Service recruiters, aiming to plump the ranks of fire crews with women, crossed her path. Her significant other at the time thought it was silly—so she dumped him.
    “I was 21 and I was drawn to the adrenalin, excitement and travel,” she said. “I’ve always been the type of person who works hard and likes to look back and see something that I’ve accomplished, and, even though my people wondered when I would get over it, they finally saw that it’s a necessary industry and it’s in my blood.”
    It’s in her daughter Allison’s blood, too. The 27-year-old chose to become a hotshot—a specially trained wildland firefighter—in Boise. Lund’s son Casey, 25, works for ABC News in Spokane, Wash.
    Allison still deals with some discrimination, her mother says, “but I’d like to think it is not as extreme as it was on me and Jeanne in the ’70s.”
    She was referring to Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, the first woman to serve as an incident commander and whose crews brought the 2007 Castle Rock Fire to heel.
    Lund’s ambition to persevere was her ability to “recognize a bust interaction and move on. I’ve learned to not take it personally. It’s really their problem and not mine. Eventually, they are going to come to grips with the fact that I am in charge and at some point we are going to have to start working together.”
    Stamina levels the playing field between men and women in fire work, not the mind or the body.
    “Women tend to have a lot of good stamina. Firefighting is a difficult job and a dangerous one, but everyone can agree we (women) will never have the same strength, but we can have the same stamina,” she said.
    Looking nonchalantly at her watch that’s set to military time and nearing another community meeting, she stands and offers a warm handshake to indicate it’s time to move on.
    On Sunday, she’ll head back to her temporary home in Ogden, Utah, where she serves as deputy director of fire and aviation management for the Intermountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service. In a few years, she’ll give up the game, as much as she can, and head back to Lowman to live.
    “I think I have the wisdom to step aside when the time comes,” she said. “I like mentoring and I like watching the young firefighters coming up. But I’ll find something to do there in fire. I do like getting out of a cubicle.”
    And, just maybe, she’ll finally learn to quilt.

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