Domains of Reality and Their Dynamics: Seeking an Applied Philosophy through Wildland Firefighting

An expanded look at Maturana's domains of reality and their dynamics through the use of wildland firefighting as an example aided by the introduction of visual approach to domains.

Domains of Reality and Their Dynamics: Seeking an Applied Philosophy through Wildland Firefighting


I recently wrote and shared an essay titled "Domains of Reality and Their Dynamics," founded upon the later work of Humberto Maturana, elements of Francisco Varela's writings, and my own insights. I am now expanding upon this work and moving it forward by applying it to the example of wildland firefighting which was my former occupation (I took the header photo on a fire at the Grand Canyon in 2014). While the examples pertain specifically to fighting forest fires, I hope they will be found useful in other incident response and risk management contexts as well. For a much abbreviated version of this post, see this Twitter thread.

A three-axes model for visualizing domains. The nexus marks and ideal state whereas the ends of each of the axes represents the boundary of the domain. 

This is a longer post broken up into about three sections. First, the notion of domains and their constitutive explanations are reviewed and expanded upon from the previous post and treated visually. Next, domains are visualized via a three-axis model (see image above) discussed briefly before entering into the third and main section of the paper where the entire project is visually grounded in wildland firefighting.

As I find them, domains of reality are another way of making sense of the world around us and our actions in it. To that end, this project is about finding ourselves in the domains we are already in, recognizing their influence, identifying when the domains we are in are slipping and starting to become ineffective, considering the domains we might occupy next, and finding opportunities for the creation of new ones.


The previous essay provided a detailed and abstract perspective on how we flow through daily life by moving from one domain to the next. To differentiate from other uses of the term, I define "domain" as:

A domain of reality is a particular, bounded way of being in and understanding the world. More than a perspective, a domain of reality is a larger field of being situated in the world and manner of being disposed toward it. Domains are modes of being and understanding.

Important to understand is the way domains bring together action and understanding within the confines of a certain domain and its related ways of action through the linguistic act of explaining discussed below. In terms of their dimensions or scope, domains are as coarse or granular as we need them to be. In the example of forest fire fighting used in this essay, the domain of wildfire response may be sufficient in certain contexts whereas, for example, a more granular domain of fighting a forest fire with a direct attack strategy may be more useful in others.

Explanations as the Core of Domains

The defining quality of any domain is the collection of actions seen as legitimate from within it. What are and are not legitimate ways of acting is determined by the domain's manner of explaining the phenomenon we experience in the world as well as the actions we take in it. Explanations are constructed out of each domain's set of coherences. Unfortunately, Maturana never directly defines coherences or "operational coherences" as he also refers to them. His closest offering to a definition appears in his book written with Verden-Zöller:

We see, we touch, we measure, and so forth, and in the same way that we use the coherences and regularities of our seeing, our touching, and our measuring as we formulate, describe, or present what we want to explain, we use the regularities and coherences of our seeing, touching,and measuring to propose the [formal condition] that will be our explanatory proposition (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008, p.15.).

He writes in his article "Reality: The Search for Objectivity or the Quest for
a Compelling Argument:"

Furthermore, the use that we make of the operational coherences of daily life for successful cognitive predictions of the consequences of our operations in it with objects also contributes to support this implicit view (Maturana, 1988, p.38-39).

Given these two excerpts and a larger reading of Maturana's works, coherences are how we have found the world, its entities, events, processes, objects, and so on to "be" in the past, expect we would encounter them in the present, and how we anticipate they will be in the future (Mingers, 1995). Importantly, coherences are not just experience, but coherence across experiences.

Derived from our still unfolding experience, coherences are used to generate what Maturana refers to as formal conditions (alternatively referred to as generative mechanisms; Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008). The formal condition, formulated by ourselves or someone else, either provides a basis for action (we are doing this and this because of such and such) or a mechanism that could give rise to our experience (“if this and this happens, then the result is such and such; Maturana & Verden-Zöller, p.14, 2008). In other words, formal conditions are explanations, but they are not its only component.

Perhaps most importantly, explanations include informal conditions. Informal conditions are generally implicit criteria for accepting the formal conditions proposed by ourselves or others. Said another way, informal conditions are the reasons why we accept an explanation as valid. The informal condition can be anything, but is likely to include mood, consideration of the legitimacy of the action the explanation serves as a basis for or explicitly directs, doctrine, and the coherences of the domain (Mingers, 1995; Maturana, 1988). As this discussion of domains is set within an incident and risk management context, the legitimacy of action includes the degree of risk, exposure, and vulnerability it generates. This is in addition to the general criteria of whether or not the action is legitimate with the domain itself and the larger context.

Risk: “The likelihood of an event occurring multiplied by the consequences of that event, were it to occur: Risk = Likelihood X Consequence” (Coppola, 2015, p. 33).
Exposure: “The measure of whether a person, building, population, or nation is likely to experience a hazard” (Coppola, 2015, p. 192),
Vulnerability: “A measurement of the propensity of an object, area, individual, group, community, country, or other entity to incur the consequence of a hazard” (Coppola, 2015, p. 33).

To unpack elements of informal conditions further, mood influences what we are and are not willing to accept as a valid explanation. For example, if we are upset or angry, our mood may limit what explanations we are willing to accept especially for the behavior of the person who has made us mad. Whereas if we are excited to go do something and have a bias for action, the explanations we may be willing to accept may increase.

In terms of the legitimacy of action, we may not accept an explanation responsible for producing a course of action seen as illegitimate within the domain or the surrounding context or both. Here, doctrine can be used as an example through the use of the Standard Firefighting Orders and Watch Out Situations known by all wildland firefighters and kept on their person at all times. If a member of an Incident Management Team explains to a fire crew they are to build fireline (another term for "fire break" where grass, shrubs, and timber are removed from the path of the fire) downhill with the fire below them (Watch Out Number 8, see image below), the course of action may be evaluated as illegitimate due to the risk of moving down towards a fire that could come racing up the hill toward them and their exposure to vulnerability to the hazard. It is even more likely to be seen as illegitimate if more of the Watch Out Situations are met and Standard Firefighting Orders cannot be maintained - further increasing risk. Also playing a role in the evaluation of Incident Management Team's tasking are the coherences of the fire crew leadership's experience. The coherences of their experience will be used to determine if the task can be completed safely, even if it meets some of the Watch Out Situations.

(National Wildfire Coordination Group, 2018).

The coherence of an explanation or course of action can be evaluated in one of two ways, though both are needed for a complete assessment. The first is internal coherence concerned with whether or not the explanation or course of actions is coherent with the coherences of the domain. Here, an explanation or course of action is evaluated relative to the coherences of the domain we are already inhabiting. To continue the example from the above, the tasking of building fire breaks down a hill with the fire burning below the crew using chainsaws and hand tools to clear away vegetation may be internally incoherent as it violates the coherences of our experience including experience with the doctrine posted above. The other assessment is external coherence where explanations and courses of action are assessed in consideration of the context the domain is operating in. To keep the example going, the assignment may be externally coherent as the fire may be exhibiting only minimal fire behavior, lookouts may be already posted and the fire may be observable at all times (Standard Firefighting Orders two and five). This external coherence may render the assignment legitimate. Speaking more broadly, coherence may be improved by switching domains or creating a new one. Alternatively, coherence may be created somewhat forcefully by using an explanation to move an experience from incoherent to coherent while staying in one domain (see the section Maintaining the Domain of a Direct Attack Strategy.")

Once the explanation is accepted by the informal condition, it becomes integrated into the lives of the person or group who accept it. In doing so, the explanation modifies the course of their living. In the example here, the firefighters accept the explanation of cutting fireline downhill with the fire below as they can safely mitigate the involved risk. In accepting it, it has become part of their life insofar as it drives their actions. It will remain this way unless the initial experience or course of actions is brought into question again ("Is this still a safe thing to be doing?"). This process of explaining is core to the constitution of domains and the dynamics among them.

As we switch domains, the explanations we accept as valid changes and by consequence so does what it means to act in legitimate ways. Moving from one domain to the next also means we acquire a new set of coherences for formulating explanations and different criteria for structuring informal conditions. Given these changing elements, each domain has a new realm of possibilities including the actions that can be taken, how the world is understood, and what will be accepted as truth (Bunnell, 2008).  

Domain Boundaries,  Microworlds and Microidentities

Each domain has a boundary constituted by its capacity to generate satisfactory explanations leading to legitimate action. Like coherence, determining the legitimacy of an action requires an inward as well as an outward look. For example, it might be legitimate to continue following a strategy within its domain, yet illegitimate in the larger context the domain is functioning in. Just like with coherence,  a "double look" is required and implied throughout the following example of wildland fire (Maturana & Poerksen, 2011). As an aside, there may be a tendency at large to think in terms of internal coherence and legitimacy and only occasionally look externally. Internal coherence and legitimacy create an isolated, insular environment as opposed to one that is open to the surrounding context and able to identify and react to changes. Either extreme as a constant is likely wrong (but temporarily right in context) though a middle ground might be appropriate (Cilliers, 2006). Moving on, the boundary of a domain can be reached in a number of ways. One of the ways is when the actions of the domain become or start becoming illegitimate as determined by their effectiveness, appropriateness, and actor's perceptions of them. Another route is when the coherences of the domain no longer correlate with our experience in the domain and are also unable to generate satisfactory formal conditions. Lastly, the boundary of the domain may be reached by the rejection of all formal conditions by the informal ones.

Within the boundary of each domain are multiple recurrent and transparent manners of acting known as microworlds with corresponding microidentities. Being in a domain is not a matter of maintaining one static identity and way of acting but flowing through several, provided they are coherent with the domain's larger manner of acting and understanding of the world (Varlea, 1992).

As we move further away from the center of the domain (see the section "A Visual Approach to Domains") the absorbed transparency of the domain is gradually lost. When functioning toward the center of the domain, we flow through and transparently inhabit microworld and microidentities making use of tools, language, and understandings, that withdraw from our attention - they exist but in a way that is available for our use. Once we start approaching the boundary of the domain and it as a totality stops functioning as well, then the microworlds and identities and the material and understanding they are entangled with become apparent to us (Inwood, 1997; Varela, 1999; Verbeek, 2006).  

Visualizing and Expanding the Use of Explanations  

In the previous post, I stayed consistent with Maturana's use of explanations as ways of understanding our experiences. I am going to now enlarge this understanding in two ways. First, I am going to widen the utility of explanations to include the action we take in the world. For example, "We are going to pull firefighters away from the advancing flaming front and have them construct fire breaks further away from the fire where they will be more effective" explains the actions we are going to take. On the other hand, "The fire is rapidly growing in size because the weather is getting hotter and drier," explains our experience of the fire. Both are concerned with action, one explicitly so. Through both uses of the term, our experience of the world can be accounted for as well as the actions taken in it (or actions we have already taken in the case of After Action Reviews, for example).

Second, in Maturana's work, explanations are always retrospective, meaning they propose origins for experiences after they have happened. I am going to expand upon this and offer that explanations can also be prospective, meaning they can explain experiences we expect to have or think we might someday have. The prospective nature of explanations is particularly applicable to courses of action we plan to take in the future such as those laid out by a strategy.

The Process of Explanation Visualized, Based on the Work of Maturana.

Whether prospective or retrospective, about a course of action or phenomenon, the process of explanation begins with the distinction of an experience in need of explaining. In the examples given above, both explanations start with distinguishing the experience of a rapidly growing forest fire. One explanation proceeds to account for why the fire is rapidly growing while the other articulates what action will be taken and why. It can be imagined explanations of experiences frequently come before explanations of what action will be taken. The next step in the process of explaining outlined earlier is the use of the coherences of our experience in a domain to generate a formal condition in need of validation by the informal condition.  If it is not seen as valid, the loop is moved around again with the introduction of a new formal condition.

Collapsing Complexity

Once accepted, the anticipated or already lived experience is collapsed upon the explanation itself. In many cases, a considerable amount of complexity may be collapsed into what may be a brief causal statement about an experience or directive. The complexity is not "gone," it has just been reduced for the purposes of being able to act. In Cynefin terms, we may be moving experiences and courses of action into the Simple or Complicated domains so that we can move forward, especially when we want to move forward expediently (Kutz & Snowden, 2003). With this in mind, explanations become second-order realities or models of the world we have lived in or expect to live in in the future, but they are "simpler" versions of it. At any rate, we soon find we are existing in the world not in some primordial way, but through these models - many of which we create through the course of our speaking, as is the case with explanations.

"We model all the time, not only mathematical models or computational models, but if I write a narrative description it's a model, if I write a novel it's a model of something and all these models reduce the complexity of that which they deal with" (Cilliers, 2010).

Of course, just because it has been reduced does not mean the complexity we have "flattened" into an explanation will not have to be dealt with later and our models, meaning here our explanations, will be in need of revision or replacement. Ideally, this will not be a surprise, but a foreseen act recognized by seeing how we are moving toward the boundary of a domain through visualization.

A Visual Approach to Domains  

Visualizing domains is an important step in grounding this philosophy in wildland firefighting or anywhere else. Using the work of Maturana and Mingers' (1995) interpretation of it, domains are best mapped as a three-axis model.  

Domains Visualized

The three-axes model brings together the three "interlocking" components of a domain of reality: The coherences of our experience informing us how of how the world works and how we should expect to find it now and later, the informal conditions which shape and define explanations by determining their validity, and finally the legitimacy of the actions the explanations produce (Mingers, 1995, Maturana, 1988). The axes are assigned value from least to greatest moving inward. Drawn this way, the ends of each of the axes forms the boundary of the present domain. The further away from the nexus an explanation is mapped, the further away it is from being consistent with the present domain and the surrounding context. As noted earlier, this is experienced as a gradual loss of being "absorbed" in the domain. Explanations mapped toward the end of any of the dimensions may indicate it is time to transition toward another domain, create a new one, or expend energy to bring it back toward the nexus or in balance.  

Transitioning Domains

We constantly transition from one domain to another. In many cases, we transition domains as we move from one activity to the next. For example, we move from the domain of sleep, to the domain of breakfast, to the domain of work seamlessly and imperceptibly throughout daily life. In cases such as the prior, one domain anticipates the next. As I outlined in the preceding essay, we sometimes transition from one domain to the next when we have reached its boundary and the domain can no longer produce legitimate action. These transitions are perceptible on a gradient from being acknowledged to a complete breakdown in experience where we have a gap between the domains we occupy (Varela, 1992). In some rare instances, we may transition out of a domain by creating a new one. New domains are required when we are in need of new ways of acting and understanding, for example COVID-19 (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008).

Using the Model

The center of the model is an ideal state.  It is where our explanations produce fully legitimate actions, are coherent with our experiences, and are readily acceptable. Being close to the nexus signifies a high degree of consensus, a routine flow of work, and acceptable or absent risk, exposure, and vulnerability - and that we are in the correct domain. This is experienced as total transparency. The microworlds and identities we take up, their underlying understanding, and the tools and materials they use, are resided within and made use of without a second thought (Inwood, 1997; Varela, 1999; Verbeek, 2006).

Imbalances may represent a lack of consensus, courses of action departing from the norm, deviating from the knowledge of past experiences, and operating in hazardous environments. Imbalances are not inherently negative, even if they impede the flow of work. For example, operating in a manner counter to the coherences of a domain may provide a break from tradition and allow for new practices and perspectives to emerge. This dynamic is similar to Cynefin's temporary and deliberate visit to the chaotic domain (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003). To the same degree, acting in an illegitimate way in a domain of strategy may allow for quick adaptation not anticipated in codified documents. This action would be internally incoherent but externally coherent due to the change in conditions. Lastly, introducing a new mode of action mapped initially toward the end of the Informal Conditions axis might represent an important point of progress in a team or organization.

Speaking generally, there is likely to be some degree of an imbalance in the mapping of explained experiences and courses of action when functioning in domains concerned with incident response owed to the presence of risk, exposure to it, and vulnerability stemming from the capacity to incur loss in some way from the hazards posed by the incident. In the past, I have heard this termed as "operating in the gray" and believe it adequately captures the experience of functioning in incident response domains. In the context of wildland firefighting, if firefighters find themselves too far down the Informal Conditions axis, as signified by the Watch Out Situations, Standard Firefighting Orders, and coherences, they may turn down an assignment given to them by the Incident Management Team. An assignment, viewed here as an explanation of what action a fire crew will take, might also be be mapped further down the axis even if the risk can be mitigated. The mitigation measures might move it further back up the axis, but not completely resolve it as mitigation measures address risk but do not erase it.

"How to Properly Refuse Risk: Every individual has the right and obligation to report safety problems and contribute ideas regarding their safety. Supervisors are expected to give these concerns and ideas serious consideration. When an individual feels an assignment is unsafe they also have the obligation to identify, to the degree possible, safe alternatives for completing that assignment. Turning down an assignment is one possible outcome of managing risk. A “turn down” is a situation where an individual has determined they cannot undertake an assignment as given and they are unable to negotiate an alternative solution" (National Wildfire Coordination Group, 2018,  p. 19).

An Applied Approach to Domains and their Dynamics

To contextualize domains of reality and their dynamics and illustrate the use of the image above to map explanations, I am going to tell an imagined story about a forest fire. To begin, we need to first situate ourselves within the domain of preparedness where legitimate actions include training, vehicle and tool maintenance, other equipment refurbishment, administrative duties, and physical training.

Getting the Fire Call

While in the domain of preparedness, an administrator explains to a wildland firefighting crew leader a lightning strike has caused a fire in the north zone of the district. The action this explanation calls for is to stop preparedness actions and transition to the domain of fire response, as fire response actions are illegitimate in the domain of preparedness.  

Getting a fire call when in the Domain of Preparedness where fire Response Actions are Illegitimate 

While incident response actions are illegitimate in the present domain, the explanation of a fire starting and switching to the domain of fire response is coherent and accepted. The horizon of the domain of preparedness already reaches into the domain of fire response - response is a known possibility of the domain of preparedness and one domain anticipates the next.  

As it is only the actions that have become illegitimate following the explanation of a new fire burning on the district, the transition to a new domain will be routine and part of the flow of every day life marked only by the need to get into vehicles, gather and put on appropriate gear, travel to the fire, gather as much information as possible while en route, and prepare to fight fire. Said another way, the transition calls for firefighters to begin inhabiting the microworlds and microidentities of another domain (Varela, 1992).

Fighting the Fire

Upon arriving at the fire, the Incident Commander of the presently small fire explains to the fire crew leader their assignment is to "fight the fire by constructing fire breaks directly on the western burning flank as this is where the fire has the most potential to spread." This is what is known as a "direct attack strategy."

"Direct Attack: Any treatment applied directly to burning fuel such as wetting, smothering, or chemically quenching the fire or by physically separating the burning from unburned fuel." (National Wildfire Coordination Group, 2008,  p. 58)

The crew leader accepts this explanation as the actions are legitimate within the domain of a direct attack strategy, it is consistent with the coherences of the domain, and it is acceptable. This marks another routine transition from the domain of fire response (not pictured) to the domain of a direct attack strategy, as again one naturally flows into the next. However, it is not acceptable without pause as it would be if it were mapped closer to the nexus. This is owed to situational risk factors including the involvement of additional firefighters from out of the area, quickly approaching the hottest part of the day where the fire will be the most active, lack of aircraft to drop water, and direct exposure to the burning fire. Fortunately, most of this can be mitigated through posting lookouts, using recently burned areas as a safety zone, and regular radio communications. The explanation and its actions are accepted only to the degree risk can be mitigated.

Accepting the Explanation of "Fighting the fire by constructing fire breaks directly on the western edge as this is where it has the most potential to spread."

A Turn in Conditions

After a few hours, the mapping of the domain changes as the common fireground explanation "fire behavior is increasing because the weather is getting hotter and drier" is used to account for the quickly growing fire. As a result, the action of fighting fire directly on the burning edge becomes less legitimate and coherent with the domain and even less acceptable to do so. However, it is still far enough from the boundary that the strategy continues to be implemented, perhaps with added mitigation. However, it should be noted that the movement further away from the nexus is an early signal the direct attack strategy may be trending away from viability. It is important to remember none of this is occurring in a vacuum. Power relationships between the Incident Commander and the firefighting crew, sunk cost bias, competition among firefighting resources, the spirit of wildland fire crews, and commitment to the task can keep the firefighters within a domain starting to lose its legitimacy. Maintaining a domain may also be more of a deliberate act, as will be discussed later on in this essay.  

Mapping the Explanation "Fire behavior is increasing because the weather is getting hotter and drier."

Within the hour, the crew leader explains to their firefighters and the Incident Commander they are "struggling to make progress because of still worsening conditions causing the fire to jump over their fire breaks." This explanation is mapped at the domain's boundary as the strategy of direct attack is no longer legitimate. The direct attack strategy is no longer coherent, meaning their present experience no longer correlates with their past experiences in the direct attack domain. At the same time, the domain's coherences could no longer be used to formulate valid explanations for continuing the action. The strategy is also no longer acceptable due to increasing risk and the vulnerability of firefighters to it as they work adjacent to the flaming front.

Mapping the explanation "Firefighters are struggling to make progress because of still worsening conditions causing the fire to jump over their fire breaks." The mapping of this explanation indicates the present domain is no longer capable of producing legitimate action signifying a point of transition.

Now at the boundary of the domain, it is clear it is time to transition from the domain of direct attack to the adjacent domain of an indirect attack strategy. The Incident Commander and crew leader reach a consensus on the explanation that "due to the rapidly growing fire, firefighters will be most effective following an indirect strategy."

Transitioning Domains of Strategy  

To implement an indirect attack strategy, firefighters will back away from the burning edge and take advantage of features such as rivers, ridges, and roads as control lines. Otherwise, fire breaks may be constructed in more favorable conditions away from the smoke and heat of the fire. In many cases, a fire will be intentionally set between the fire breaks and the main advancing fire as a way of controlling it by removing all grass, timber, and shrubs that could serve as fuel for the advancing fire.

"Indirect Attack: A method of suppression in which the control line is located some considerable distance away from the fire's active edge. Generally done in the case of a fast-spreading or high-intensity fire and to utilize natural or constructed firebreaks or fuelbreaks and favorable breaks in the topography. The intervening fuel is usually backfired; but occasionally the main fire is allowed to burn to the line, depending on conditions" (National Wildfire Coordination Group, 2008, p. 106).

The transition from the domain of direct attack to indirect attack is far more perceptible than the earlier transition from preparedness to the domain of response as it first involved a breakdown of experience where the current domain could no longer provide a legitimate course of action (Varela, 1992). Through this breakdown, their work, the context they are in, all became present to them as they disengaged (Inwood, 1997; Varela, 1999; Verbeek, 2006). It could even be said they briefly inhabited a domain of reassessment or deliberate sense-making before they moved on to the next domain of an indirect strategy. The action of fighting the fire with a direct attack strategy was no longer legitimate due to the rapidly growing fire, was unacceptable because of factors including risk, exposure, and vulnerability, and the coherences of the domain could no longer create acceptable formal conditions for explaining why the strategy should be continued nor did continuing to stay within the domain make sense in context. Given this situation, a new domain was needed.

Mapping the explanation "due to the rapidly growing fire firefighters will be most effective following an indirect strategy." Mapped similarly to the acceptance of the earlier explanation to use a direct attack strategy, this course of action is accepted with even more reservations due to increasing fire behavior and rate of spread. It is however, coherent with the still unfolding experiences of the domain of indirect attack and is a legitimate course of action.

As firefighters move into the domain of a direct attack strategy, they accept the explained course of action from the Incident Commander with greater reservations than they had earlier due to the proposed location of fire break construction, the still worsening weather, increasing fire behavior and rate of fire spread, and the continued lack of aircraft. Though moving toward the unacceptable end of the informal conditions axis, the strategy is still coherent with past and present experiences in this domain, the action it produces is at the moment is legitimate, and measures can be taken to mitigate risk. Firefighters set about implementing the strategy.

Maintaining the Domain of a Direct Attack Strategy  

A common dynamic is the exertion of energy to continue staying in one domain. Through this maintaining dynamic, an experience first distinguished as being incoherent with a domain is made to be coherent through the power of explanation. The initial incoherence of the experience first leads to feelings of strangeness, confusion, or awe depending on its nature (Maturana, 1988; Maturana, 1995). In some instances, the experience leads to the transition to another domain as it is incoherent with the present one. Or, if it is distinguished as being a new experience or explained in a new way even if it is a recurrent experience, a new domain may be created (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008). On the other hand, if we are seeking to continue doing what we are doing and stay in our present domain we may use the power of explanation to make the incoherent experience coherent with the present domain as pictured in the figure below. To do so, the coherences of the present domain are used, perhaps forcefully, to explain the incoherent experience and render it coherent with the domain. Upon explaining this incoherent experience, feelings of awe or strangeness are resolved (Maturana, 1988; Maturana, 1995).

Moving an Initially Incoherent Experience Toward Coherent end of the axis Through Explanation. 

To put it in context, while implementing an indirect attack strategy and constructing fire breaks at a distance from the advancing fire, one of the fire crews from out of the area observes the fire crew in our story abandon their piece of control line, which is incoherent with the domain of an indirect attack strategy. They then hear the other crew radio to the Incident Commander that they will be pulling off the line due to safety concerns. While the local crew is familiar with the area's fire behavior, weather patterns and were able to anticipate deteriorating conditions and greater risk, the other crew was not.

The leader of the out of region crew explains the experience found to be incoherent with the domain of an indirect attack strategy by saying, "They are leaving because they do not have the risk management in place that we do or the capacity to work as quickly." True or not, they say this rather than using the explanation, "They are leaving now because it will soon be unsafe" to transition domains. Through this dynamic, the out of area crew continues to construct fire breaks. Within a half hour, the Incident Commander calls the other crew off the line (Note: this example is purely for the purposes of this essay. It is unlikely the crew in our story would have left without communicating directly with adjoining resources).

Transitioning to Structure Protection

With firefighters pulling away from the fire, the domain of an indirect attack strategy soon maps toward the boundary of the domain. However, the anticipated arrival of incoming ground and aerial resources may make it possible to move back toward the nexus of the domain and begin implementing the strategy once again. Like with the dynamic of maintaining domains, other forms of energy may be exerted to continue operating in a certain domain such as the case with using more resources. At current, however, with limited resources and a quickly advancing fire, the Incident Commander explains to themselves that resources will be most effective if they switch to the domain of structure protection where the primary focus is not on putting the fire out, but protecting values at risk including homes and out buildings.

Structure Protection Tactics
• Remove small combustibles immediately next to structure.
• Close windows and doors, including garage (leave unlocked).
• Clean area around fuel tank and shut off tank.
• Many structures do not burn until after the fire front has passed.
• Move to closest safety zone and let fire front go through.
• Many structures do not burn until after the fire front has passed.
• Be aware of the structural collapse zone when structures are exposed to fire.
• Take suppression actions within your capability  (National Wildfire Coordination Group, 2018,  p. 16).

The domain of structure protection is inherently risky due to operations in populated areas involving combustible materials, one way in and one way out access roads, members of the public, and being in the path of the fire. Here, at our conclusion of this story, the crew leader accepts the explanation as it produces a course of action presently but tenuously legitimate, coherent with their experiences in the domain, and although it is prone with risk, their experience combined with arriving resources will help to mitigate it, though there are still concerns.  

The Incident Commander explains to themselves resources will be most effective if they switch to the domain of structure protection where the primary focus is not on putting the fire out but protecting values at risk including homes, out buildings, and resources. The crew leader accepts the explained course of action as it produces a course of action that is presently but tenuously legitimate, coherent with experience, and although it is prone with risk, their experience combined with arriving resources will help to mitigate it.

Post-Incident Review

Months after the final lingering flames were put out a post-incident review was conducted. In the domain of post-incident reviews, the actions seen as legitimate include but are not limited to reviewing what action was taken during the incident and gleaning insights with the potential to improve responses to similar incidents in the future.

First, it may be important to distinguish post-incident reviews  as third-order realities. While our explaining in the moment generates a second-order reality, the rehashing of our linked explaining and acting can be conceived of as a third-order reality representing another deviation from the original context. As we relive our experiences, we are distinguishing that which has already been distinguished, but in another context and at another time. I am not yet sure what the significance of this is (if any), it is more of a curiosity more than anything else at the moment. However, I am of the opinion post-incident reviews should try and capture key explanations underlying decisive actions.

A post-incident review can be understood as any number of the explanatory loops pictured earlier. We ask and respond to questions of what happened (the experience needing explaining) and we then generate a formal condition for why the action was taken shaped and defined by the informal condition. The prominent role of the informal condition should be remembered and perhaps brought into question along with formal conditions to get a more complete view of why an action was carried out. Perhaps somewhat on the dark side of post-incident reviews, it is important to remember only certain explanations for actions can be accepted due to informal conditions. From these explanations, lessons learned emerge as a consequence. Ideally, the lessons learned will become part of the coherences of experience of the domains they relate to and serve as a basis for future action as they are used to structure explanations.


I agree with Bunnell (2008) that we always live in one domain or another, though we generally do not realize it. Part of this project is to help make the occupation of domains and their power of shaping how we understand and act in the world around us explicit and intentional. Through its introduction of a model for mapping explanations for our experiences and the courses of action we are going to take or have already taken, this essay provided the beginnings of a method for situating ourselves or the groups we are part of within domains as part of our sense-making.

While any number of dynamics are possible, as shown through the example of firefighting, we can transition through domains imperceptibly or through a sizable breakdown of our experience. At the same time, we can also keep ourselves in domains by absorbing incoherent experiences and rendering them coherent through explanations. Of course, explanations can also serve as the transition point to another domain or the opening to a new one. Briefly discussed earlier was the creation of new domains in the sense of never before conceived anywhere, or a way of acting not yet considered in context. For example, while the domain of indirect attack is adjacent to the domain of direct attack.  Crew leadership, firefighters, or the Incident Commander may have explained the experience of observing the quickly growing fire by saying, "The limited number of firefighters will not be effective in stopping the spread of this fire but they are likely to be more effective in protecting values at risk." This explanation may have opened the new domain of structure protection that may not have existed naturally between the adjacent domains of indirect and direct attack strategy.


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