This case outlines the operational challenges of decision making in a common example of high stress, high stakes, urgent situations: dealing with potentially rapidly evolving wildland fires. The case briefly outlines the policy choices during the 20th century that led to the development of modern wildland firefighting. Efforts to build firefighting capabilities succeeded in substantially suppressing fires in wildland areas, while political efforts succeeded in developing a broad political consensus for fire suppression. Over the course of a century, these widely supported policies altered, at landscape scale, the ecology of fire-adapted ecosystems, resulting in the accumulation of unburned debris and undergrowth in forests throughout the western United States, producing, in inevitable drought years, situations in which small fires can relatively suddenly morph into explosive, rapidly moving walls of flame. These "transitional fires" are extremely dangerous to firefighters--in part because firefighting teams do not always recognize their warning signs.
The case explores the characteristics of firefighting teams and allows discussion of the ways in which they are well, and not so well, organized and adapted to the challenge of noticing, assessing, and responding successfully to the rapidly evolving situation posed by a transitional fire.