23. COVID-19: One Lesson from a Past Catastrophe

My dear learning community,

In the summer of 1994, a forest fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado killed 14 firefighters. This fire was ignited by a lightning strike and initially did not spread and was given a low priority; it was a classic routine fire that the firefighters had all seen before and had experience fighting. It was hardly news. No one was worried or concerned, as it was far away from any property or houses. So, what happened, and how is this related to COVID-19?


This letter will be about COVID-19: One Lesson from a Past Catastrophe


On July 2, 1994, a thunderstorm blew through western Colorado. A lightning strike was the spark for a fire in the forested area in a canyon at the base of Storm King Mountain. As the fire was not near where people lived, and not spreading, they let it burn for a few days, thinking it would burn itself out. By July 4, 1994, the fire had burned downhill, claiming only about 3 acres of land (approximately 12,000 square meters, less than twice the size of two football pitches). On July 5, the fire picked up speed with some intermittent flare-ups and now covered 50 acres (approximately 200,000 square meters, roughly 28 football pitches). Firefighters began hiking to the area, making an approach from the west. They constructed fortified firelines, areas with little flammable vegetation, to act as a barrier to prevent the fire from spreading more. Smokejumpers, specially trained firefighters who parachute into forest fires, joined the firefighters to assist with building the fire lines.


By the morning of July 6, the fire had accelerated and covered 127 acres (513,000 square meters, or roughly 72 football pitches). As the fire became more serious and deadly, the firefighters called in more assistance, including the hotshots, an elite group of firefighters. Later in the afternoon, the weather suddenly shifted, as a dry cold front passed through. The wind changed direction, now coming from the south, and blew the fire back uphill through the canyon. The behavior of the fire changed dramatically. It became a high intensity, fast-moving continuous fire, burning up the landscape at a rate of approximately 3 feet per second (just under 1 meter per second) with bursts upslope estimated at 6 to 9 feet per second (1.8 to 2.7 meters per second). 


The 14 firefighters on the hill were likely distracted by the smoke and did not notice the abrupt change in the behavior of the fire. When they did become aware, they attempted to outrun the fire. Unfortunately, it was too late, as the fire was racing upslope through the canyon. The fire caught up with these 14 firefighters and they all perished.


Why did this happen? Was the escape route blocked? No, these were experienced firefighters, they had an escape route in case of shifts in the fire or if the fire overran the firelines. Part of the challenge was the smoke blocking them from seeing that the fire had changed direction, combined with the split-second decision to start running. These 14 firefighters died with 70 pounds (32 kg) of tools, equipment, and other firefighting gear still attached to their uniforms. If the firefighters had dropped and abandoned the 70 pounds (32 kg) before starting to run, thus allowing them to run much faster, they would have all survived. One firefighter died still holding a heavy chain saw in his right hand. 


What lessons can we take from this Storm Canyon fire catastrophe for COVID-19?


Think about your organization. There are strategic plans, policies, and assessments that have guided the organization to success. None of these documents anticipated COVID-19, just like none of the firefighters anticipated the abrupt change in the fire due to the wind changing direction. COVID-19 is the fire that has turned around and is currently chasing us. We are running as fast as we can, but if we are being honest, we are still carrying our heavy tools, and it is weighing us down, preventing us from outrunning COVID-19. Economists warn us about recessions and unemployment, not to mention bankruptcy of some companies. Is your organization flexible enough (“Semper Gumby”) to drop old ways of operating, abandon tools no longer useful, in order to survive, and then begin again? Are you brave enough to drop and abandon your old strategic plan?


We are still holding on to our old ways of operating – the old normal, before COVID-19. We want to get back to our comfort zone of going to work and going to school. We want our old routines and schedules back. We miss our work colleagues and friends. The stress of COVID-19 is profound, and when under stress, we regress to old ways of operating, often not realizing that the old ways of operating will be insufficient for us to stay in the game, to remain relevant, to remain operational, in a world with COVID-19. Dropping our old tools is not failure, it is survival.


When I consider higher education, I observe that universities have migrated to online platforms to complete the Spring 2020 semester. While this shift ensures our students will stay on track, I do not believe it is enough. Our paradigm of university education is still using the old tools – one professor, many students; each course packaged in mutually exclusive syllabi representing a specific area of knowledge or skillset; and assessments designed to measure the level of mastery acquired. Our definition of learning has not changed, it has just moved online. Our definition of the purpose of a university has not evolved. All we have done is react to COVID-19. To survive and prosper, we need to shift from being reactive to being proactive. It is time to drop the tools and move forward, get out ahead of the fire chasing us in the canyon.


Isn’t it time organizations and universities drop the old mission statements, and replace them with bold new visions? If organizations and universities embrace the current challenges facing the world, from climate change, inequality, poverty, public health, corruption, insurgency, to civic engagement, and create new strategic plans, with new tools, then we can restore balance and create a future capable of staying one step ahead of unanticipated fires. But first we must drop the heavy tools we are carrying, and run with all our hearts to the safe spaces we see before us, beyond the firelines of COVID-19. Can we all hold hands and run there together?


The problems facing our planet do not have passports; they do not recognize state boundaries, so our learning and research must be interdisciplinary and international in order to have any hope of overcoming them. Old habits die hard, and cultural norms we have adopted in our organizations and universities will try to pull us back to our old ways of operating, with our old tools, which are now outdated. Now is the time for reflection, and soon it will be the time for renewal, and if we do not realize the opportunity in front of us, it just takes the next unexpected event to catch us off guard and on the run again.


Don’t be reluctant to drop your old tools. Once you are not weighed down with old habits and behaviors, you will be light and fast, and ready to unlearn old patterns and adapt to changing conditions. 


Thank you for reading my daily letters during this COVID-19 crisis. This letter will be my last daily letter, as I want all of us to enter a period of reflection and renewal now, while we remain Together at Home. I have shared my thoughts and observations about the time we are living through, and now it is time for each of you to find meaning in our new reality. I will write again periodically with updates about AUN and COVID-19. 


From today onwards, I want each of you to think about the heavy tools you are carrying at work or school, and how you are going to have the courage to drop those old tools and begin the process of identifying new tools that will carry us to a future in balance with COVID-19. After self-reflection, it will be time to reach out to others. An old African proverb sums it up best, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” COVID-19 has shattered this proverb – we are in a world where we must go far, and go fast. Our only hope for a bright future is if we do this together


Always, with best regards, stay safe, Semper Gumby


Dawn Dekle, PhD

AUN President (Vice-Chancellor)


Now: It is time for each of you to write your own letter to yourself about the meaning of COVID-19 for you. Who are you going to be, and what are you going to do, in a world with COVID-19?