They were an experienced crew of smokejumpers—firefighters who parachute in to the forest—and they were battling an out-of-control blaze in the Los Padres National Forest of California. But while they rushed to tackle a spot in front of them, they didn’t notice that a vertical plume of flame and smoke had burst above them, cutting off their only path to safety. Trapped, they resorted to the small cocoon- like shelters they each carry to protect them from the intense heat.
Fortunately, no one was killed that day, but three of the firefighters needed treatment for burns. One was in hospital for a week.
“They got caught in tunnel vision,” says veteran firefighter Jim Saveland, who studied the 2008 fire as part of his work in risk management at the US Forest Service. For Saveland, who is a smokejumper himself, the incident raised an important, potentially life-or-death challenge: how to help firefighters maintain situational awareness, especially in the midst of dangerous, high-stress situations.
“So we developed a mindfulness course,” Saveland says, “and piloted it with some crews in the West.”
Saveland, 59 and a longtime meditator, has gone on to develop a series of programs with…