Fireline fatality shines light on Forest Service workforce

Logo Laguna Hotshots
An example of a crew logo worn on hard hats and t-shirts. This is the logo of the Laguna Hotshots, created in 1974 by Kyle Rayon, wife of Howard Rayon, one of the Squad Bosses on the crew. The oak tree was chosen because it represented the  trees most commonly found on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California.

Like other wildland firefighter fatalities, the death of Captain Brian Hughes of the Arrowhead Hotshots last year during the felling of a hazardous tree has had an effect on many of the 15,000 wildland firefighters in the Federal government. As described in the report that was released last week, Captain Hughes and others on the crew did many things right while working to get the tree on the ground, but he ended up in an unfortunate location when the tree fell in an unexpected direction. Many firefighters can relate to that and may have been in similar situations, but had a better outcome.

Captain Kevin Mecham, a U.S. Forest Service employee and Captain on the Truckee Hotshots in Northern California, was motivated to put some of his ideas into a letter. It was intended to be read primarily by other Forest Service personnel, but we have his permission to publish it here. After the letter, below, we explain some of the acronyms, the names mentioned, and the issue regarding the “t-shirt mandate”.

My name is Kevin Mecham and I am a Captain on the Truckee Hotshots. I am writing this letter to provoke a larger discussion about wildfires and the Federal Employees whose lives are defined by them. I started fighting fire with the US Forest Service when I was 19. I was enrolled in a Natural Resources program and was aiming to have a career that was meaningful, conservation oriented, adventurous, in the great outdoors and contributed to something bigger than myself. I attended an employment outreach seminar where a Forest Service Firefighter spoke and I thought to myself “that sounds great, I’ll be outside, it sounds noble and it’ll be an adventure.” I didn’t know a single Firefighter. The thought of being a Firefighter had never crossed my mind; in fact when I was 12 my family almost lost our home in a wildfire and I remember driving through the flames with my Mom to escape and I was terrified. But, seven years later and I had become a passion driven, adventure seeking 19 year old and it sounded great.

15 fire seasons later a lot has changed. I am a husband, a father and my perception of the world has changed. Wildfires themselves have changed; size, severity and frequency have all increased. My career still parallels what I anticipated as a college student seeking a meaningful career. I am outside a lot, it is noble and it is definitely an adventure. I’ve worked on Engines, a Helitack module and two Hotshots Crews. It was Hotshoting that really resonated with me. I have enough pride and emotion about being a Hotshot that I could write more than anyone would ever want to read so I’ll keep it short. Just know that I have a lot of heart and a ton of pride in the people and places that developed me into the person that I am. But a lot has changed and what my younger self failed to foresee was the weight of the psychological toll of this profession and how unnecessarily exasperated it is by the Agency. Some of the psychological weight is part of the job. We work in the woods and the woods are an inherently dangerous place. Introduce fire, increased fuel loading, wilder deviations from weather norms, an ever expanding reach of the wildland urban interface, more state and local government working with a scale of fire and an environment they are unfamiliar with and we find ourselves in very dynamic and complex situations. But the single most vexing and compounding factor is that we are a conservation agency ran by politicians and science based academics that just happen to oversee the most effective and comprehensive wildland firefighting force in the world.

The catalyst of this letter is the line of duty death of friend and co-worker Daniel Laird and the WO and RO’s management of its Forestry Technicians. Our current management structure and its subsequent repercussions on our Firefighting workforce are not new problems. Line of Duty deaths are not new problems. But Dan’s death and the Agency’s structure have shone a glaring light on the implications of our current leadership organization. As these tragedies and issues hit closer and closer to home for the “boots on the ground” it makes the weight feel even heavier. The loss of Dan and the Agency’s proposed attempts at solving our problems: hiring / staffing, retention, fatigue management, work life balance and the aborted uniform t-shirt mandate illustrate our greatest obstacles. We are being managed by people that don’t have experience in our profession. There isn’t the necessary context to the commitment and sacrifice required to prepare for and work a tough fire season. Incident complexity has increased and demand has increased. When will the Agency embrace what we do on a daily basis? When will the Agency recognize what the public already expects of us? We invented wildland firefighting and yet the individuals making the decisions that impact us the gravest have never done our job. We have leadership attempting to manage fatigue when they don’t understand the complexities of our fatigue. I wouldn’t supervise a botany crew. I wouldn’t oversee a multi-million dollar budget. Ancient hunters wouldn’t select a gatherer to lead a hunt. How can we expect to succeed if we have people supervising in facets in which they have no experience? This is an illogical structure that would universally fail across all spectrums of humanity throughout time.

In the spring of 2017 at the Wildland Fire Training Center Randy Moore and two widely respected former Hotshot Superintendents addressed a group of 100 plus Wildland Fire Apprentices. They had been invited as guest speakers to build passion and spur pride in the Apprentices for the career path they had recently chosen. The speakers were there to create enthusiasm and to fortify duty, respect and integrity. The two former Superintendents spoke from the heart and gave blood pumping speeches that were teeming with energy, pride and nostalgia for a job they loved so much. Speeches from leaders carry weight. Their actions matter. Leaders are constantly being judged and evaluated. That’s part of the role. They set the tempo, they build the culture, and they are responsible for their followers conduct and performance. How one carries themselves and the message they deliver have effects.

When Randy Moore addresses a room full of Apprentices and informs them they should identify as Forest Service employees and not as Firefighters it has a negative impact. As the implications of this statement rippled throughout the fire community it was perceived as another hit to morale. It was an inclusionary statement that had the opposite effect on Firefighters. The risk, exposure, liability and commitment accepted by Firefighters is not the same as employees of other departments and cannot be lumped under the broad Forest Service umbrella without acknowledgement. The deliberate approach to steer away from the classification of Firefighter is hard to swallow. And for the young, impressionable, passionate men and women who just accepted their first permanent job on a wildland fire engine or an Interagency Hotshot Crew that were in attendance, they could feel the air being sucked out of the room. The entire ambiance was said to have shifted and the mood plummeted. This is wrong. They were at the WILDLAND FIRE Training Center. He was addressing Apprentices in the WILDLAND FIRE Apprenticeship Program, they work on WILDLAND FIRE engines and HOTSHOT crews. Their positions meet the WO’s definition of an Interagency Fire Program Management position. How does this happen? We would be proud to identify as Forest Service Firefighters; we already are.

Currently an individual is only identified as a Firefighter after a Line of Duty death. How is this acceptable? To the ground level resources it doesn’t equate. We fight fire year round. Our surplus time is spent preparing for the upcoming fire season. We have Firefighter retirement. All signs point to Firefighters. And it’s morally and ethically wrong to have a position title only in death. At Dan’s memorial, Chief Vicki Christiansen called Dan a Firefighter. And every time a Forestry Technician dies we receive an email from the Regional and Washington office stating something to the effect of: “It is with a heavy heart that I must share with you the passing of Forest Service firefighter Daniel Jacob Laird…” (Secretary Sonny). Sonny you forgot to capitalize Firefighter. Intentional or accidental it has an effect. It illustrates the decade’s long struggle for Firefighter classification and feels like a belittlement of our commitment and effort.

There are 17 Wildland Firefighter line of duty deaths each year. Attending memorials and paying tributes of respect is becoming common place for us. There aren’t many professions that experience death at those rates. And Forestry Technicians shouldn’t be one of them. But as Firefighters we have accepted our reality. If we didn’t attend the formal memorial we probably observed a moment of silence for the fallen at an IMT’s operational briefing before our next shift on a dark smoky morning. And then we went to work. We went back to the fire line. Often performing the same exact role as the deceased. Have you experienced that? Have you tried to dissect that dichotomy and articulate it to a group of young seasonal Forestry Technicians you are about to lead into a fire fight? It is impossible to extrapolate the psychological burden of this load. But we carry the weight and we carry on. All fire season long we work ourselves past complete mental and physical exhaustion. That is what fire season demands of us. And many of us are people of high moral standing and can’t stomach the thought of sitting idle while people’s lives and homes are burning. We do the job because we have pride in it. Because somebody has to do it. Because not everyone can do it. Someone has to accept the risk. But why for an agency that doesn’t understand and genuinely appreciate its workforce? Or at the least have people in positions that know what it feels like to lose a friend to the “job”. Or what it takes to spend a 100 days a year on the fireline, breathing smoke, dodging falling burning trees, rolling boulders, working with aircraft, driving dangerous roads and sleeping in the dirt. Leaders that can advocate for us.

When do we face our real challenges? When do we stop pretending to be a zero fatality organization? When do we solve staffing, retention, Firefighter classification, pay and morale? People are willing to make sacrifices when they feel good about what they do, but right now not many do. I’m not complaining, this is the career I have chosen. I’m taking the loss of Dan Laird and the Forestry Technicians that have died before him as an opportunity to provide some insight into our lives. Having leadership and supervision that doesn’t recognize the shortcoming of the Agency and doesn’t acknowledge the hardships of the job is brutal. Despite the personal sacrifice at the expense of our families and our long term health we choose to eke out a living as Forestry Technicians because we believe in what we do and how we do it. But it is getting harder every day. In a time when we need to be increasing scope and scale we’re watching our workforce be dismantled.

As fire seasons get longer, more devastating, more complex and more dynamic we are eroding. We have unprecedented staffing and retention problems. The root of these problems need to be accepted, understood and mitigated. We invest incalculable amounts of money and time into training individuals who inevitably leave the agency because of the pay and schedule. Case in point the Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program. This program is currently our sole pipeline to filling our entry level permanent vacancies and it is completely failing to meet our staffing needs. Where are all of the Apprentices going? We can’t attract higher caliber individuals because of the pay and schedule. If the Agency is worried about fatigue, solve our staffing and retention problems. It isn’t about restricting our hours, it’s about providing us with the tools to do our jobs and the staffing ability to take a day off. We need to be classified by what we do, we are Firefighters. We need to be paid commensurate with our cooperators if we are going to continue to work shoulder to shoulder with them on the fireline. We need to change our hiring practices and correct our hiring delays. We need to be able to staff our modules with quality folks.

I’m still proud of what I do. I’m proud of where I come from. I still put my best foot forward. I still lead by example. I try and only express these views to people that I should both up and down the chain of command. I do not want crewmembers that are bogged down by bureaucratic issues. I want engaged individuals enjoying the job: being in the woods, developing character, building relationships and solving problems in the adverse conditions of one of the most humbling forces of nature. I also never wanted to be perceived as a complainer. My hope isn’t to ruffle feathers it’s to incite change. Countless Case Studies and Lessons Learned have found that we are a “can do” culture. We have silently and diligently “can do’d” ourselves into a corner. We work harder, longer, for less and our workforce is finally showing signs of attrition.

Federal Firefighting has become a stepping stone for most. We are the place to get wildland fire experience and the state, local government and private sector knows it. Municipal departments that are dealing with more wildland fire know it, CalFire knows it, Pacific Gas and Electric knows it and they are all actively hiring our employees. But municipal departments aren’t going to absorb our jurisdictions. CalFire isn’t going to fight fire in our wildernesses. PG&E isn’t leaving their powerlines. Even with monumental DPA restructuring we still have land to protect. No one fights more fire than us. We develop, we train and we are inevitably losing our employees. The talent has largely been cut out of our workforce. The quality of our Wildland Fire modules is weaker and more diluted than it has ever been. Where will we be when the next faction jumps off the ship? Our safety, efficiency and production are certainly not going to look the same.

I wrote this letter because I care; to provide a voice from those on the ground that don’t complain. That show up every day and put their best foot forward. The contingent that soldiers along making it work. The hardworking Firefighters moonlighting as: Administrative Staff, Hiring Officials, HR Specialists, Fuels Officers, GIS consultants, Timber Fallers, Personal Trainers… The group that doesn’t whine. The group that doesn’t complain. The group that needs representation. The group whose workloads dictate their heads being down because they know fire season is coming and they’re doing everything in their power to prepare their modules and themselves. The men and women who don’t have the time or resources to fix the problems inhibiting us from being the Firefighting force we need to be. Our Agency is stacked with incredible people who put fourth incredible effort and take on incredible liability. But we are losing them. Federal Firefighters are willing to make the sacrifices required of the job. But we have to feel good about what we do. We need to know that we are supported. We need to know we have leaders that understand and appreciate our struggles. We need leaders that will tirelessly advocate for us and help us overcome our hurdles. The problems confronting the USFS Fire workforce are problems that will inevitably be felt by the public. With climate change, longer and more devastating fire seasons this issue holds relevance to all tax payers. The nation needs a well-managed elite wildland firefighting workforce.

Kevin Mecham
Captain Truckee IHC

IHC = Interagency Hotshot Crew
WO = Washington Office
RO = Regional Office
Randy Moore = Regional Forester, Pacific Southwest Region
Secretary Sonny = Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture
Chief Vicki Christiansen is Chief of the U.S. Forest Service
IMT = Incident Management Team
Cal Fire = California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE)
T-shirt mandate = Many hotshot, engine, and helitack crews have their own unique t-shirts with their customized logo that they wear under their fire resistant shirts, or when they are not actively fighting fire. A proposal (or requirement?) was floated that would have mandated that all firefighters in the Pacific Southwest Region (California) wear identical t-shirts. There would be no crew logo. However, this requirement was cancelled, or was not implemented.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

16 thoughts on “Fireline fatality shines light on Forest Service workforce”

  1. Great article.

    After one season on the USFS, half as an AD crew and half on an engine, I did three seasons on a BLM shots crew. I moved to BLM because I had heard that they treated their employees better than the USFS. Based on this article it looks like not much has changed in 30 years. Sad.

  2. It’s not just the FS that has these issues. It’s all the ” federal land management agencies” I currently work for NPS at a park that experienced a large devastating fire that resulted in the deaths of 14 civilians in 2016. Nothing has changed from the local level or national level in the way fire is dealt with. The program I work in is critically understaffed, underfunded and has poor leadership. The park management team either doesn’t care or doesn’t understand what the firefighters do on a daily basis. I’m 2 years out from being eligible to retire and I honestly don’t know if I will hang on for two more years or just get out and find something different to do. I used to be the most motivated firefighter you’d ever seen. I never missed a fire call, never missed a prescribed fire opportunity. I used to absolutely love my job and had pride in it. Now I look back and wonder if all the sacrifice, all the hard work, all the beating I put on my body was even worth I. Looking at things from an older persepective I don’t think the job matters much. We continually put out fires in the same places, year after year only to have them burn again the following year and we continue to squash small fires until we cant stop them from becoming large fires. We’re essentially creating our own job security. Prescribed fires are the same. we burn the same units year after year instead of burning the right units to get some sort of bang for our buck. It’s become more important to just get black on the ground than to get black on the ground in the right places. My son expressed interest in getting into wildland fire and I told him that he could do much better things with his time. There’s no money in it, It’s not very rewarding and it’s not an essential job. Why do we kill people every year to protect homes that homeowners themselves are unwilling to put effort in to protect? Why do we kill people every year for little more than saving trees and acres, that are destined to burn anyway? Why are we only recognized as firefighters when someone dies? Why do we not take care of our own? Firefighters are committing suicide at an alarming rate and all that’s been done is studies but there’s no real help. As a matter of fact with the current medical standards programs we’re encouraging firefighters to hide mental and physical issue. Suffer from depression( better not put that in your self-certification) you wont be able to work until you get a waiver and that’s going to cut into your overtime this fire season… and you barely make enough to get by anyway. The whole management of wildland fire from fire in the woods to managing people has become one giant CYA for the upper echelon folks in the agencies under the guise of ” caring about the ground firefighters” Like I said I think I’ve had enough

  3. Unfortunately these kinds of issues have been happening in the Forest Service for the last 40 years. There’s been numerous attempts with legislation, working groups, surveys and other methods but nothing seems to work to correct the retention issues. US Forest Service Firefighters want some one in leadership to actually show that they care about them and are willing to go to bat for them instead of creating another working group to determine the problems when we all know what the problems are already and have been shouting about them for decades:
    Firefighter series
    Hazard pay on prescribe burns
    Temp time counting towards retirement
    Hazard pay counting towards base pay retirement calculations
    Re-instating the 10% retention bonus
    Portal to portal pay or minimum 16 hours per day

    These are a few things that Forest Service Firefighters have been fighting for throughout the last 4 decades. Times are changing, the climate is changing, fire seasons are changing, when will the Forest Service also change and adapt to what the public and forest lands so desperately need? A full time, professional, competent, year round workforce that’s not constantly trying to fill vacant positions due to retention issues.

  4. Yes, this is a great letter and spot on. As a smokejumper for 27 seasons, a regular wildland firefighter for six more, and now Cal Fire Lookout for the last 17, I’ve had a lot of exposure to both fire and the agency (Forest Service) cultural changes that have weakened its capacity to fight fire properly. As Kevin so succinctly states, the problem is that the people making the decisions that affect the on-line fire personel have no direct experience that would inform them. As I’ve always said, the love of fighting wildfire is built in initial attack. It’s those times when you’re out there all night, cutting line, digging dirt, eating smoke, and working until your guts ache, your knees ache, and you’re slinging snot, and then you finally tie-in the line around the head and have caught your fire that that the passion for this great work is found. When you walk off the line the next morning knowing what you’ve done and feeling like a king, no one can take that away from you. And, you’ll have it the rest of your life. Those of us who did it, know it is true. But for those who have not had that experience, there’s no way for them to fully understand and–perhaps most importantly–respect what that effort does to build good firefighters and fire crews.
    Fire management positions should require that a person have a certain minimum amount of initial (and hotline extended) attack experience. It’s the only way you’re going to get people who can manage these forces most expediently and safely. The good people that come into wildland fire are looking for a challenge, they’re looking for something tough and hard, something where they can show what they’re made of. To bring them into camp every night, loose work time on the line, and end up with much bigger fires is a huge mistake. The good ones aren’t looking to be pampered, they’re looking for a chance to do something special and be part of a crew with special pride. The ridiculous idea of eliminating individual crew t-shirts is a classic example of just how far out of it many of these FS leaders are.

    Keep going here, Kevin. You could end up making a bit of history and a huge improvement in how Wildland Firefighters are seen and managed.
    Murry A. Taylor Author: Jumping Fire: A Smokejumpers Memoir of Fighting Wildfire, and
    More or Less Crazy, a novel of smokejumping in Alaska mid-70’s.

  5. Thank God someone has the guts and ability to to put all our thoughts and feelings to paper, I’m so proud of you you I am no longer with the service but you never leave the job if it’s in your blood I still stay in contact with everyone. Please never ever keep your thoughts to yourself people need to know how we all feel and how special we all are Wildland Firefighters never Forget!!!!

  6. Yep, sounds like we need systemic reform to grow and adapt to a changing world in this critical emergency-responsible agency too. Excellent letter and comments. Public-private partnerships are a good way forward, and better leaders in Washington and regions. Thank you for your dedicated service!

  7. I still remember November 2017.

    In between October 2017 & December 2017 wildfires, there was another fatality in the firefighter community.

    A firefighter jumped off of the Highway 8 bridge in San Diego.

    I always thought, IF GOV. NEWSOM IS SERIOUS about dealing with wildfires, he needs to go talk with that man’s family, to review his medical records, and to make system-wide adjustments accordingly.

    I remember in the 1980’s, when my co-workers that smoked tobacco were forced outdoors.

    Of course, most of them did their best work sitting at their desk smoking tobacco.

    If corporate America gets a smoke-free workplace, why do they expect firefighters to breathe smoke ? In many cases, smoke with poison oak smoke mixed in, which produces an allergic reaction involving the swelling shut of the airways. Requiring a trip to the ER & a shot of epinephrine. (retired firefighter neighbor had this happen 7 times during his career.)

    Even Big Wave surfers now have their own oxygen supply apparatus.

    I made some mistakes working with rock dust when I was learning lapidary arts. Lung pain from smoke or dust is some of the worst pain a human being can experience. Firefighters need to be protected from it.

    Yes, scuba tanks are heavy, but not every fire-fighter needs a tank that holds an hour of air.

  8. I think this certainly gives the perspective of someone in region 5, which is lets face it, a huge chunk of the Forest Service fire workforce. I’ve always wondered how lower GS employees are able to make it out there in some of those communities with astromonical costs of living. I guess for many of them they aren’t making it and are just moving on to other jobs.

    However much experience in other regions (8/9) has been radically different in some respects. There you really are a forestry technician and district employee first. On many fires and prescribed burns I’ve been on most of the folks there are often militia. The job often is more about prescribed fire than suppression. By acres burned that is certainly true.

    What I’m getting at is the Forest Service isn’t a one size fits all organization. Many folks dread the imposition of the “California model” on their district.

    Many other facets of the letter I couldn’t agree with more though. For just one example Limiting OT to impose a work life balance isn’t the answer. Given the low pay most folks need a certain amount of OT just to get by. Other folks live for the off forest assignments and big fires and taking them away would take away their biggest reason for staying in fire instead of becoming a rec tech or just leaving the agency altogether.

    Anyways enough rambling by me but this is all stuff the agency and fire workforce needs to address.

  9. Captain Mecham’s letter is one of the best letters from a field perspective that I’ve heard toward justification for the forming of a Federal Wildland Fire Service. I know its been talked about for along time, and that there are many reasons why forming such a seperate service would be difficult. Half of my 35 year FS career was spent jumping back and forth between Firefighter and other duties as a Forestry Tech (Timber, Silveculture,Special Uses Admin, GIS etc). It became pretty obvious after awhile that any chance for career advancement as a Fiefighter up through the pay grades was minimal, back to school and Forestry became my ticket, and supporting Firefighters in administrative positions (IMT membership, Line Officer etc) would have to do.
    If there were a dedicated fire service run by Firefighters I can’t help but think some of the issues raised by Captain Mecham could and would be addressed.

  10. Thank you for communicating. One can certainly sense the commitment and honor behind the writing.
    It is unfortunate when those with little or no experience are put in positions where they make the policies and decisions for those who do.
    17 fatalities a year is the unnecessary price that is paid.
    Attending each and every funeral should be mandatory for management.

    1. Secretary of Agriculture, Chief of the Forest Service, Fire & Aviation, Regional Forester, Forest Supervisor, Forest FMO, District Ranger, and Zone or District FMO including a couple of Congressmen and Senators should all have to attend any memorial service held for Wildland Firefighters.

      Promises have always been made to take care of those of us who work in the field, but invariably it is nothing but talk. I look forward to real change, someday.

  11. I felled a lot of burning or partially burned trees as a firefighter. Years later I cut firewood snags with an expert commercial feller. I realize that directionally felling hundreds of trees a day builds a level of competence not found in firefighters. We should use more commercial fellers in firefighting.

    1. Dan, I agree that “directionally felling hundreds of trees a day builds a level of competence”. When I was a sawyer/feller on the El Cariso Hotshots I spent several weeks on Mt. Laguna one winter between seasons felling trees that burned during the Laguna Fire. It gave me a chance to fine tune and experiment with various techniques. I gained competence and confidence.

    2. As I read about the line death last year of Capt Hughes, even having years of experience myself as a wildland firefighter and a C Faller, I have always been an advocate of using professional contract fallers. Even tho I feel many of us with our seasonal wildfire sawing experiences over the years, professional fallers work year-round.

      This is not to judge any of us with falling experience, but to suggest anything to save one more life I will be an advocate for.


Comments are closed.