What Have We Learned Here?

On May 7, 2004 I was taking my daily 4 mile exercise and think walk in Atlanta as usual. I take different routes each time. Today, the most pleasant part was a long grassy strip between a street and the railroad track. There I was, walking along, enjoying the late Springtime wildflowers that you can find here and there on the grassy strip. I heard the train whistle blow and looked over my shoulder. There it was, coming towards me. Soon it passed in a loud cacaphony of engine and wheel noise. The engineer waved hi and I waved back. I just kept walking parallel to the tracks as the train passed.

Closeup of burnt areaAnd then I noticed something. About 3 cars back from the engine, a wheel was throwing off a shower of sparks. Not just a few, but lots of them. It looked like the wheel was rubbing on something metallic. It looked so serious I thought the wheel could go any minute and derail the train, so I immediately changed my course and began walking well away from the train, which hurltled on.

I'd never seen sparks that bad. I wondered how I could alert the driver, who could not possibly see them. How normal was this? It had probably happened many times before. What was probably going to happen was when the train arrived at the next depot, someone would notice the sparks or their effect on the wheel. And....

Still walking, my thought were interrupted as I noticed something smoldering in the ditch besides the train, which was still passing. As I got closer, it was definitely smoke. And as I got even closer, I could see it was a very small fire, obviously started by the sparks.

My first reaction was to walk over to the ditch and stomp it out with my feet while it was small. But that would put me very close to the train. Not safe. Something could fall off and hit me. Or it might still derail. So, not wanting to make a small problem bigger, I waited.

My next thoughts were back to my childhood, growing up on a farm in Maryland, when we had a small trash fire get out of control. What had my dad done? He'd called my three brothers and a few helpers over to look at it. It was big, maybe one or two hundred meters in diameter and spreading through a field of dry, harvested wheat towards the woods. Once it reached the woods, it would be unstoppable. But nobody panicked. The men got a few buckets, filled them only half full with water so they wouldn't be too heavy, and soaked two burlap bags in each bucket. Then they gave one bucket to each team of two people, a man and a boy. Then the teams spread out and worked the rim of the fire, swatting it with the wet bags. As big as that fire was, it was out in what seemed to a little boy like me in a few minutes. But somehow the whole event had taken hours....

While waiting for the last car to pass, I looked around for something to swat the advancing rim of the fire with. There was nothing suitable. No rags, no green branches with leaves, no thrown away shirt, nothing. I didn't even have a jacket on I could use. It was a hot day, so I was in shorts and a sleeveless mesh T shirt. So I decided to try to stomp it out with my walking shoes, which have thick soles.

The last car passed. I walked up to the fire. By now the flames were over my knees in places. Dry leaves, dry grass, and small twigs were what was burning. The fire was still small, about 5 meters long and advancing slowly. I wondered, should I try to put it out myself or call for help? I knew the neighborhood well. I could be at someone's home in 3 minutes flat. We could call the fire department. They would arrive in about 10 minutes. But did we really need them? Not if I could put it out myself. And if my efforts failed, there was nothing the flames were about to endanger, just the grassy strip between the railroad the street. I would still have plenty of time to call of help. So I began stomping.

I tried a variety of techniques. Because the smoke was heavy and the flames were hot, you could only dash in, stomp awhile, and dash out before it got too hot. That didn't work too well, so I tried something else. Bending down, I used my hands to drag the dry leaves out of the way, to create a fuel gap around the fire and starve it out. But this was slow, and I soon noticed the fire was jumping the gap, which was only a foot wide. What to do?

As I worked, I kept observing my actions and questioning how well they were working. Was there a better way? I even stopped and looked around now and then, to see if maybe a car had pulled over due to all the smoke and might want to help. None did, which I thought was interesting. I also looked around to make sure the fire hadn't taken any long jumps and was getting away from me without my realizing it.

Once again, should I stop and go call the fire department? No. There was another alternative to try. There was a slight breeze. The fire was advancing mostly in one direction. So I got behind it to get out of the smoke and largest flames, and began stomping it out again, starting where the flames were the lowest. I worked the rim here and there. Where I could see there was little fuel in front of the fire, I didn't bother to work there. Where the flames were too high to get close, I waited until it had burnt along a ways and became low again, and then stomped it out there. I worked out an efficient technique of press, twist, and drag with one foot while balancing on the other. The fire was so hot I could only do this for about 15 seconds at a time. Then I had to pull back. By studying the ring of fire closely while letting my legs and shoes cool, I could see that using this technique, it was under control. The problem was solved. So I continued. In another ten minutes, all flames were out.

But there were dozens of smoldering plumes of smoke, and due to the breeze they kept bursting into flame. So I had to go back and forth for another ten minutes, dragging my shoes back and forth over these flare ups to open up the coals and embers and mix them into the dirt below.

Even then, there were many small tendrils of smoke left. It was like a forest fire scene in the minature. The black, still hot, burned out core was only about 10 meters long and 3 meters wide. Some of the small pillars of smoke were still bursting into tiny flames, but there was no fuel around them, and I knew they would go out. But to be certain, because a gust might blow a burning ember or leaf far enough to reach new fuel, I stayed around awhile and stomped every last trace of smoke out. This took awhile. And then, it was all over. No more smoke. The ground was still hot. I was wearing shorts. I looked down and noticed the hair on both legs was scorched. The flesh was blackened in places from the soot. At times, my shoes had become so hot I wondered if I could continue. But now it was over. To cool off, I backed away, still watching where the fire had been, just to be sure.

Here's a photo taken the next day of the long grassy strip. You can see the burned area on the left. The fire started in the bottom of the ditch and moved up the slope.

The Grassy Strip with Burned Area

And here's a closer look at the burn itself. Imagine what it was like with a ring of flames and smoke all around the edge of the burn, and you trying to stomp it out with your feet, and not get burned or too much smoke....

The Burned Area

What have we learned here? This is the question that asked itself as I walked on. If one can learn from each experience, then the problems ahead become easier and easier to solve. Or one can choose to face bigger challenges, or even challenges in a new field. The sky's the limit for the person who can learn. So I walked home, took a shower, sat down, and wrote this up, while it was fresh in my imagination.

These seem to be the main problem solving principles I automatically applied:

1. Solve the problem while it's still small.

2. Don't make the problem bigger.

3. Plan your work, then work your plan.

4. Get help if you need it.

5. Keep calm, even in the heat of the battle.

6. Have you seen this pattern before?

7. Try a wide variety of solution alternatives.

8. Use the right tool.

9. If your main plan might fail, have a contengency plan ready.

10. Stay detached and examine your own behavior as you work.

11. Don't give up if there is one more promising alternative.

12. Improvise and learn in real time, so as to evolve your solution on the spot.

13. Be sure the problem is completely solved.

14. Once a problem is solved, be sure it remains solved.

15. After a problem is solved, do a lessons learned.

So, what did I learn here? That when faced with a problem I immediately go into a certain sort of problem solving mode, where I'm calmly and objectively applying a complex problem solving process. This process and its elements have been accumulated over a lifetime. And they are still evolving, because I'm always learning.

But I already knew that. What did I learn this time? Nothing. Examining it now, I can't think of a single new principle I learned. But then again, maybe I did learn something.... That I'm still committed to a lifetime of learning.

Most interesting. I wonder what the next walk will bring my way....