Part 3 of Tom Harbour’s Exit Interview

Tom Harbour, National Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, was interviewed by Bill Gabbert for Wildfire Today, December 14, 2015.

In this final installment of the three part series, Mr. Harbour talked about the Cantwell-Hastings Bill that requires a criminal investigation of firefighter fatalities, fire areas that need more research, the accomplishments he’s most proud of, previous fire directors, what he will do after leaving the USFS and whether or not he will lobby for Lockheed-Martin.

Previously we published Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview.

Part 2 of the Tom Harbour Exit Interview

Part two of the three-part series of interviews with Tom Harbour, National Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, is now available.

Bill Gabbert interviewed Mr. Harbor for Wildfire Today two weeks before his retirement date. In this segment, Mr. Harbour talks about how many firefighters the USFS will have in 2016, tracking firefighters and the location of a flaming front, smokejumpers, the agency’s responsibility regarding protecting structures, and the decline in the number of air tankers between 2002 and 2013.

UPDATE:  Part 1 and Part 3 of the interview are available.

Tom Harbour, Exit Interview Part 1

Tom Harbour, National Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, was interviewed by Bill Gabbert for Wildfire Today, December 14, 2015. In this Part 1 of 3, Mr. Harbour talked about his early years, how studying chemical engineering helped him in his USFS job, working with politicians, and what it was like dealing with firefighter fatalities.

UPDATE:  Part 2 and Part 3 of the interview are available.

Tom Harbour, USFS Fire Director, announces retirement

Tom Harbour at Little Bear Fire
Tom Harbour at the Little Bear Fire, Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico, June, 2012. USFS photo.

Tom Harbour, the National Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service has announced that he is going to retire after serving in the position for 11 years. He plans to leave the agency in January after a 46-year career.

Mr. Harbour headed the wildfire organization during challenging times. Fires continued the ongoing trend of becoming larger (most likely due to climate change and increasing fuels), they consumed more of the USFS budget, and the air tanker fleet decreased by 80 percent following accidents and contracting issues until it started to be reconstructed again during the last two years.

Mr. Harbour spent much of his career in the Pacific Southwest, Southwestern, Intermountain and Northern Regions. His early assignments were on the Stanislaus National Forest in California, the Challis National Forest in Idaho, and the Apache National Forest in Arizona. He later worked as District Ranger on the Modoc National Forest and was the Forest Fire Management Officer on the Angeles National Forest in southern California. He served as Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation in the Northern Region, and Regional Director, Fire and Aviation in the Intermountain Region. In 2001, he moved east to Washington D.C. to become the Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation at the agency headquarters. In 2004 he was named National Director.

Dan Olsen, currently the Deputy Director, Fire and Aviation, will serve as Acting Director after Mr. Harbour retires until the position is permanently filled.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.

Kyle Dickman profiles Tom Harbour

The author of On the Burning Edge, a book about the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew that was virtually wiped out fighting the Yarnell Hill fire in 2013, has written a long form article about the August wildfires in the west. A good portion of the piece by Kyle Dickman profiles Tom Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service’s National Director of Fire and Aviation Management. I don’t recall seeing such a personal look at the man who wields power at the top of the USFS firefighting food chain — with the possible exception of when he answered our 12 Questions.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

…To contend with California’s regular fires, the Forest Service set up two command centers, with one, in Redding, called North Ops. Redding sits in a bowl in the Sacramento Valley, and as Harbour arrives, the wind is filling that bowl with eye-stinging smoke. On the grounds, a long-haired smokejumper in flip-flops pedals a cruiser bike around the base while air tankers loaded with fire retardant take off from the runway. The mood isn’t festive, but one feels the excitement and gravity of a shared sense of purpose. The command staff hustle about to send firefighters and gear to the front lines. Several stop to shake Harbour’s hand. He joins a briefing headed by Paige Boyer, the assistant director for fire and aviation management for Northern California.

“We really want to get that fire off the map,” Boyer says to a half-dozen of her colleagues gathered before a map. “We want it out of the public eye.” Boyer taps the northeast corner of the map, where red colors the fire where a firefighter died.

Three days earlier, Harbour had flown to Alturas, Calif., to pay his respects to the family of that engine captain, 38-year-old Dave Ruhl. He’d disappeared while scouting a fire near the city limits. His crew didn’t find his body right away, and while CNN and the Associated Press zeroed in on the details of the first fire death of the 2015 season, Harbour arranged to meet his folks, as he’s tried to do for each of the 163 firefighters—both Forest Service and non—lost on duty in the past 10 years…

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.