A Hole In The Fire

Mann Gulch Fire – August 5, 1949

It was August 1949, a bone dry day in Montana with near 100 degree heat. The lightning-caused blaze burned more than 3,000 acres and controlling it required the efforts of more than 400 firefighters.

Fifteen brave firefighters parachuted into remote Mann Gulch to fight an out of control forest fire. Shortly after the smokejumpers were on the ground the fire jumped across a ravine, flared up and trapped them between the flames and a steep slope.

The fifteen firefighters panicked and ran, trying to make it up a 76% grade in hopes of reaching a crest for safety. It was hopeless, but they all dropped their heavy gear and ran, except their commander. He knew the climb was too great and the fire too swift. He knew that it wasn’t going to work. So he stopped, took out matches, and lit a fire in font of him in the tall dry grass that was between him and the slope.

His fire rapidly spread up the slope creating an area that was hot, but couldn’t burn anymore as all the fuel had burned. He followed his burned trail and yelled for his crew to come to him for safety. The others were so panic stricken that they just continued running and climbing up the slope.

The commander went into the middle of the burned-out area and layed down. The turbulent Mann Gulch fire raged everywhere around him, except for where he was.

A Hole In The Fire

Just 90 minutes after the 15 smokejumpers had parachuted, 10 were dead, unable to race the fire as they were consumed by a wall of 200 foot flames. Two others died the next day due to burns they received. The commander of the unit lived as he had created a safety spot, “a hole in the fire.”

AP/Forest Service Photo

This concept became known as an “escape fire,” and it became part of forest fire training. This tragedy later spawned the 1952 Hollywood movie, “Red Skies of Montana.”

What was interesting about this was that the commander had found a way to benefit everyone, he had yelled and offered sanctuary to his crew. Ultimately the Forest Service taught this technique to all forest fire fighters. This was something that would benefit the many.

This now brings us to the internet and how this can apply to your site. I will discuss two applications from the “hole in the fire” story: one, the value of a story, and two, how the “hole in the fire” works in reverse on the net.

The Value Of Stories

Does your company have a good story to tell? Can you share something with your potential customers that converts you from a cold heartless stop on a journey of a thousand clicks into a reason to pause on your site and cause the viewer to pause and say, “I think I will stay on this site and explore a little bit more?”

Across The Frozen Tundra…

I was watching an interview with the owners of NFL films. This is the company that films the NFL with lots of slow-motion action footage, crisp editing, a musical background best described as a Star Wars / 70’s action movie / Classical marching mind-meld.

They were also famous for using rich commentary behind the powerful narration by John Facenda: “The autumn wind is a pirate, blustering in relentlessly from the sea. These cold winds whisper of high hopes as helmet against helmet breaks the silence of the crisp day.”

They could make even a 17-0 sleeper look like the most dramatic game in the history of organized sports. For example, in a Dallas Cowboys highlight film in 1967, it first described Green Bay’s football field famously as “a frozen tundra” (across the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field), as they were showing the muddied and bloodied hands of lineman in their stance and cold frost forming as they breathed in and out.

Remember, Remember, Remember My Name…

When they interviewed Steve Sabol, one of the principals of NFL films, he was asked why have they been so successful given that Fox, ABC, CBS, NBC and ESPN all do essentially the same thing. He replied that they were different and then stated, “Tell me a fact and I’ll remember. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and I’ll will remember forever.”

Fire In The Hole

If you have ever found your site ranked first for a “money” keyword or phrase (mortgage, San Diego home loans, refi), you find that you are absolutely besieged with visitors, questions, orders and sales, almost to the point where you are unable to handle the volume. It literally is a “fire in the hole.” Often you are not quite sure what you have done to achieve the top ranking, and even if you knew, you would not tell anyone.

Unlike the “hole in the fire story” where what you have learned benefits everyone, when you have a “fire in the hole,” situation, you just have no reason to share that information each person you benefit possibly has a negative impact on your site and rankings.

Confusion Can Lead to Positive Outcomes; or More Confusion

The confusion and lack of communication at the Mann Gulch fire prompted major changes in smokejumper training. It has resulted in greater safety and lives saved. What was learned during this tragedy has created a method that still works today – the back burn fire.
On the internet, there is a lot of confusion about what works, and what doesn’t. Even when you find something that does work, it most likely has a short life span due to frequently changing search engine algorithms.

An early example of a technique that once helped sites achieve top rankings was called keyword stuffing. If you had a site about, say, “Seattle home loans,” you might have repeated the phrase “Seattle home loans” a hundred times on your site. This way the search engine would have surmised that, surprise, your site was more about “Seattle home loans” than any other site, so it would have ranked you first.

If you use keyword stuffing techniques today, you get banned from the search engines. And that would be a fatal fire you can’t extinquish.

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