Shawna Legarza: There’s no task book for National Fire Director

An interview with the U.S. Forest Service’s National Fire Director.

About seven weeks after Shawna Legarza started her new job July 4, 2016 as the National Fire Director for the U.S. Forest Service, she experienced what so far has been her toughest challenge in that position. She was asked to speak at the memorial service for Justin Beebe, a member of the Missoula-based Lolo Hotshots who was killed by a falling tree August 13 as he was running a chainsaw on the Strawberry Fire in eastern Nevada. She searched for the right words to say in front of what turned out to be 750 to 1,000 people at the service.

“I thought, what will I say?”, she told us on Monday. “I didn’t know Justin Beebe, and I knew that their eyes would be on me because I was the new Fire Director”, she said.

Shawna Legarza
Shawna Legarza at the Rose Parade, January 1, 2015. USFS photo.

She spoke to the crowd in Ogren Park in Missoula from a podium set in front of the pitcher’s mound. The attendees included approximately 15 fire crews dressed in fire resistant pants and their own crew T-shirts.

“You know what I did Bill?” she said. “I wrote [and read from] a letter to his parents. I thought long and hard about the stuff I put in that letter to mom and dad. That probably has been the most difficult thing I have done. They don’t give you a task book for how to be the National Fire Director”.

I reminded her about an interview she did with CBS News June 30, 2014 when she was the Regional Fire Director for the USFS in California. The subject of the 19 fatalities on the Yarnell Hill Fire came up and she mentioned the concept of a Common Operating Picture “… of what the fire is doing and where our people are”. I asked if the federal wildland fire agencies will implement this technology in the near future.

“I still believe and I still want a Common Operating Picture and I also believe that we have a long ways to go on information technology”, she said. “I think the federal land management agencies are behind the curve on that. We work with the Department of the Interior. We have an [Interagency Fire Unmanned Aircraft Systems Subcommittee] that’s looking at the different policies, rules, and regulations using technology — drones — to help us in wildland firefighting. You know, it takes time to work through some of those things, but we’re working through them right now….. I live for the day when there is a drone carrying a jerry can [with fuel] up the hill to help the firefighters for a burnout or carrying supplies to fire camp.”

She said that would lessen the exposure of aviation personnel.

“I hope someday there are approved unmanned aerial aircraft that can fly the fire and instantly download a map to our Incident Management Team or agency administrator to see where the fire is at and where the resources are…. We could look at fires before we go in, to make sure it’s safe for us to go.”

I asked if there was an area that she felt strongly about, enough that she would give it special attention, and she said, “Absolutely! I’m trying to make some changes in the workplace environment, I feel very strongly about that. I want to see the agency have a work force that is completely inclusive of each other … and that people’s voices can be heard, understood, listened to and incorporated into all that we do, and that there is no discrimination of any kind. I am very passionate about that and I want to try to make a difference in the workplace environment for all wildland firefighters, for the Forest Service and other agencies.”

“I talk about,” she said, “having a workforce where everybody comes to work, they’re proud to be there, and included in whatever area they are working in, their voices are heard, they are listened to — free of discrimination, free of bias — it’s just a way of being. We’ve got some new initiatives that we are trying to roll out to the work force.

I asked her if there was one thing she would like a new Type 3 Incident Commander to know. She asked if she could name two, saying they need to know that “we have their back”, and “to ask for help.” She said, “I can remember when I got signed off as a Type 3 IC. Ask if you need help and guidance on a fire assignment. It’s OK. We don’t know all the answers. That’s why we’re a team.”

To answer the question, how many large or very large air tankers do we need, she said, “I would say we need anywhere from 18 to 28, you know that’s what it says in the [2012 Large Airtanker] Modernization Strategy. I think that’s a good range….I think the big thing to understand is that the Forest Service has become the overarching contract agreement holder of large air tankers and they are not all just for us. They are used by state and local governments all across the nation, so it’s hard to say how many just us, the Forest Service, needs because we work together with state, local, and tribal agencies to help them with wildland fire response across the nation. I think it’s hard to target just one number just for the Forest Service knowing that we’re all in it together in the cohesive strategy. I think we’re setting up with a good mix for this year and the coming years.”

Tom Harbour Shawna Legarza rose parade
Tom Harbor (in front, on left) and Shawna Legarza (in front, on right) pose with firefighters who walked in the Rose Parade, January 1, 2015. At that time Mr. Harbour was the National Fire Director and Ms. Legarza was the Fire Director for the California Region. USFS photo.

She said the FS will have about 10,000 firefighters this year, which is the same as the last several years, and that the Trump administration’s federal hiring freeze did not have a huge effect on the hiring of firefighters for this summer. “We worked really swiftly… to get the exemptions through for firefighting, but we’re alright”.

When asked about her advanced degrees, she said, “Yeah, I’m an overeducated hotshot! I have a doctorate in psychology and organizational leadership. My masters is in kinesiology.”

Does that help you in your present job, I asked?

“Absolutely. I focused on transformational leadership. The four elements of transformational leadership I believe have helped me in my job, in this position I am in and my ability to influence others to help them in their decisions. I’m not a line officer, I’m a staff officer so I feel I need to influence inspirational motivation. I need to inspire and motivate the folks where I go and talk and be an inspiration to them for the agency…. individualized consideration. So everybody is different, right, so if you work for me, how I interact with Bill may be different from how I would with Mike, or Tom, or Bob, or whatever, so I find that really gratifying because I believe that leadership takes energy and to have that energy you have to be motivated and you have to treat everybody for who they are as a human being so that they feel they are more valued and inclusive into the team. That’s easy when you’re running a hotshot crew, you’re right there with morning briefing and evening briefing, you’re there with them, but when you come into a large organization it becomes more challenging for those different attributes of transformational leadership to be able to influence my small team and they can continue to influence their teams throughout the organization, and hoping that it makes a difference down the road for how people feel valued in the Forest Service.”

“I went to college my whole career”, she continued. “I’ll be paying for it until l turn 74 — working hard and taking out loans. I think it finally paid off. My parents would say, ‘Why are you still going to school? What are you studying now?’ … I continue to learn every day, I make mistakes just about every day. I learn from them and continue on the next day.”

About the next fire season, she said, “I’ve always prepared for every fire season like it’s going to be the worst. So you get ready and you prepare your team. You prepare like it’s the real deal. I saw that on hotshot crews and I see that now with the staff here, getting them ready…You have to be prepared, you can’t say, oh, it snowed and rained a lot in California so we’re not going to have a fire season, it could be just the opposite. All those fine fuels could dry out and we could have a very destructive fire season.”

New USFS Fire Director selected

Shawna Lagarza Tom Harbour
Shawna Legarza (left) the Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service’s California Region, and Tom Harbour, the Director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service, at the Rose Parade, January 1, 2015.

Shawna Legarza has been selected as the national Director of Fire and Aviation for the US Forest Service. She will replace Tom Harbour who retired at the end of 2015. Currently Ms. Legarza is the regional Fire Director for the Forest Service’s California region. She will start in the position on July 4.

Ms. Legarza launched her federal career with the Bureau of Land Management in 1989 as an engine crew member in Elko, NV. A short time later, she joined the Forest Service and worked as a hotshot crew member in Carson City, NV, and a Hotshot Superintendent in Durango, CO. She subsequently took on a number of leadership positions in fire and aviation that include District Fire Management Officer on the San Juan National Forest, CO, and Forest Fire Management Officer on the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California.

Ms. Legarza earned a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Kinesiology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and Doctorate of Psychology at the University of the Rockies, Colorado Springs, CO.

She will be replaced in California Region 5 by Acting Fire & Aviation Director Patty Grantham, Forest Supervisor of the Klamath National Forest. Ms. Grantham works closely on the national line officer team for fire and has received awards for her fire leadership in building community partnerships and in restoring fire-adapted landscapes. She has worked on six national forests across the West and holds a bachelor’s degree in Forest Science from the University of Washington.

Forest Service represented in the Rose Parade

The U.S. Forest Service had quite a few representatives in the Rose Parade in Pasadena on New Years Day.

USFS firefighters mules

Their entry was a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the historic role of packers in supporting wildland firefighters and other backcountry operations, and appreciation of the outstanding contributions made by national forest volunteers.

The all-mule equestrian entry included an entourage of Forest Service Rangers in period uniforms anchored by three mule pack strings. The mule pack strings were guided by California-based U.S. Forest Service packers Michael Morse, Lee Roeser and Ken Graves, who have an average of 37 years of experience each in the saddle.

Forest Service Rose Parade
USFS firefighters hiked the five-mile parade route.
Forest Service Rose Parade
Smokey Bear, USFS Chief Thomas Tidwell, and Regional Forester Randy Moore were photographed riding on a wagon in the parade.
Shawna Lagarza Tom Harbour
Shawna Legarza, the Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service’s California Region, and Tom Harbour, the Director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service, at the Rose Parade, January 1, 2015.

This is something you don’t see every day — wildland fire personnel dressed up in their super-formal uniforms. (These folks are very high ranking of course, but seeing ANY non-headquarters-based U.S. Forest Service employee in a uniform is unusual.) I didn’t know the USFS had the Smokey Bear type hats except for the honor guards you see at funerals. The roses on the hats are a nice touch.

I did not see the parade, but there is a report that during the live broadcast the announcers had a debate about Smokey’s name — “Smokey Bear”, or “Smokey THE Bear”. Here’s the deal. A song written in 1952 celebrated “Smokey the Bear” and stirred a debate that lasted several decades. To maintain the proper rhythm in the song, the writers added “the” to the name, etching “Smokey the Bear” into the public psyche. But his name always was, and still is, Smokey Bear. Unfortunately the Forest Service fueled the confusion by publishing and distributing the words and music to the song in their fire prevention efforts.

All photos are provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

Shawna Legarza on the CBS Evening News

Shawna Legarza, a former Hotshot who is now the Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service’s California Region was interviewed for the CBS evening News.

The subject came up of tracking the location of firefighters. We have written often about what we call the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, a system that could track in real time the location of firefighters on the ground AND the location of the fire, all displayed on one screen — anything from a cell phone or seven-inch tablet to a laptop computer at the Incident Command post. This data should be available in real time to ground and aviation personnel on fires, as well as key supervisors and decision makers in the Operations and Planning Sections. Knowing the positions of personnel relative to the fire would be a massive step in improved situational awareness and could reduce the number of firefighters killed on fires. This information could have saved 24 lives in recent years — 19 on the Yarnell Hill Fire and 5 on the Esperanza Fire. In both cases the firefighters and their supervisors did not know where the firefighters were relative to the location of the fire.

The technology is available right now. The military has been using it for years. Our leaders in wildfire suppression need to make the decision to get it done.

BLM Fire Management Officer supports firefighting training for veterans

SCC fire training
In conjunction with the Southwest Conservation Corps, veterans are getting firefighting and fire mitigation training locally./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

On February 9 we covered a story about a training program for military veterans that is run by the the Southwest Conservation Corps, called the Veterans Green Corps. From what we’ve read, it appears to be an excellent program and a good fit for military personnel returning from war zones.

Today we heard from BLM San Juan Public Lands Fire Management Officer Shawna Legarza who pointed us toward another article about the SCC’s training program, this one specifically in Colorado. Normally, we would not post two similar articles on the same topic, but we thought that not only is this a great program that needs visibility and support, but this second article is very well written and is something that you will appreciate reading. We are posting the entire article below because there appear to be technical issues about viewing it at the Durango Telegraph site.

Four of the trainees from this local program will be working on U.S. Forest Service fire crews this summer.

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Dressed in forest-green trousers and heavy work boots, a young woman leans against a boulder on a wooded hillside. The sleeve of her yellow work shirt is rolled just to the point of revealing the sharp-edged tattoo gracing her skin. Black sunglasses hide her eyes.

After sidestepping a question two or three times, she looks away toward a stand of scrub oak and says, “I guess I’m doing this because there’s not much that I’ve seen in the normal working world that can compare to where we’ve been or offer the same level of challenge.”

She pauses. “This comes close.”

Sarah Castaneda served with the 82nd Airborne as a combat medic. Now she and the four other Iraq War veterans are training through the combined efforts of the Veterans Green Corps and the Southwest Conservation Corps to do fire mitigation and fight wildland fires. The group is currently finding its legs on the flanks of Animas Mountain, where they are learning the ropes of wildfire mitigation and firefighting techniques.

“It’s been a life-changing experience,” said Mike Bremer who was with the Army Infantry. “At fire camp, the training was incredible, and we’ve had great instructors. Everything has been so thorough.”
Continue reading “BLM Fire Management Officer supports firefighting training for veterans”

New books about wildfire

Two books about wildfire have been published in the last couple of months. I have not had a chance to read either of them yet, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity.

These descriptions are from Amazon.com

No Grass, by Shawna Legarza

Wildland firefighters, especially “hotshots,” are a breed alone. It is a lifestyle many will never understand. They are dispatched throughout the Nation, always ready to work in the very worst kind of disaster. They sleep wherever it’s safe and often do not shower for weeks.

So why would a young woman, reared on a Nevada cattle ranch, give up the open spaces for a life of danger? This is only one of the questions answered with humor and insight in Shawna Legarza’s memoir, No Grass.

After working her way through college as a firefighter, the author was part of the World Trade Center Recovery Efforts, where she met her husband who, like Legarza, was a firefighter. When he took his own life, the author mustered a new brand of courage and formed a non-for profit program to help the many physically and emotionally wounded firefighters, too brave to ask for help. This is a passionately told story, filled with determination and hope.

[Shawna’s husband was Marc Mullenix.]

Area Ignition, by Joseph Valencia

In August 1979, along a remote ridgeline near Santa Maria, four firefighters from a California Division of Forestry (CDF) engine crew, were preparing to defend the northern flank of the Spanish Ranch fire.

Captain Ed Marty, and firefighters; Scott Cox, Ron Lorant and Steve Manley responded to the fire from the Nipomo fire station. They were all from California, but were as different as the golden state’s angles, aspects and arenas. They were defined more from where they were from; Tehama, Goleta, Long Beach and La Habra.

No one predicted what would happen next—but in a page from man versus nature, the fire accelerated and then swept across the face of the slope which the four young firefighters were on.

At 4:25 PM their thin line of defense was cut-off and a retreating bulldozer operator was overrun. Minutes later, they tried to escape from the sweeping area ignition, but the fire cut-off their retreat and along with another dozer operator they were all overrun by fire.

The tragedy that occurred and the subsequent investigation would change the way the state fire agency operated on area wildfires. Area Ignition looks back 30-years to honor the men who fought and died in the Spanish Ranch Fire. It recreates the courage, emotion and human frailties that are interwoven from the initial ignition point—to the final survivors’ thoughts as they proceeded past a solitary CDF fire engine.

Although much has changed since then—young firefighters still go out every year to battle California wildfires just like their brothers of the past. We owe it to them to understand a little bit of the awesome power of wildfires and the people who fight them.

[Mr. Valencia is also the author of From Tranquillon Ridge, a book about the Honda Canyon fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1977 on which three people were killed, including the base commander. Mr. Valencia worked as a firefighter on that fire.)

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To find out more about the books or to purchase them:

No Grass

Area Ignition

From Tranquillon Ridge