Eleven Senators sign letter asking Forest Service how they will suppress wildfires during the COVID-19 pandemic

One of the Senators’ questions was about the Forest Service’s projection of a worst-case scenario of a six percent “cumulative mortality rate” at large fire camps

BIA briefing
Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighters participating in a fire briefing. Bureau of Indian Affairs photo.

Eleven Senators signed a letter dated April 30 asking Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen a series of very pointed, detailed questions about how the agency will manage their 10,000 wildland firefighters and safely suppress wildfires during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are some of their questions, paraphrased:

  • According to the Agency’s Quantitative Risk Assessment, the worst-case scenario gives a six percent “cumulative mortality rate” at large fire camps.
    • What measures and training protocols are the agency implementing to mitigate COVID-19 virus exposure and response?
    • How are you communicating the level of risk to field staff and local leaders, and how are you setting national guidance for priortizing firefighter safety?
    • Will national crews and assets be able to move between regions to respond to wildfires?
    • What are you doing to communicate the scale of risk?
  • How will you coordinate with other agencies to ensure communities impacted by wildfire smoke have access to health care and air filters, in light of COVID-19?
  • Do you need additional resources? (this question was asked multiple times)
  • How are you working with state, federal, and local partners to ensure consistency of response and COVID-19 related precautions are consistent, realistic, and implementable on multi-jurisdictional fire responses?
  • What is the agency doing to continue implementing forest management and hazardous fuels reduction activities?
  • In a letter from the Chief dated April 3, 2020 you mention that the agency would commit resources “only when there is a reasonable expectation of success in protecting life and critical property infrastructure.” This has led to some confusion about how quickly and aggressively the FS will respond to wildfires. Please expand on how you and the agency define a “reasonable expectation for success”.
  •  Given that large fires will increase fire crew interaction and demand for outside assistance, what steps are the agency taking to plan for these scenarios and provide appropriate precautions to protect firefighter health and safety?
  • If you plan to work with local partners and businesses to help bolster capacity, supply meals, and offer temporary housing, how are you communicating agency direction to prevent transmission fo COVID-19?
  • Since a new contract for exclusive use Type 1 helicopters has not been issued and the contract for five additional large air tankers has been protested and may not be resolved until July:
    • Has the agency considered adding more exclusive use contracts for rotor and fixed wing aircraft?
    • Would additional aerial suppression assets assist in this year’s prioritization of initial attack and reducing smoke for vulnerable populations?

The letter was signed by eleven senators, all Democrats from western states:  Kamala D. Harris (CA), Dianne Feinstein (CA), Ron Wyden (OR), Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), Jeff Merkley (OR), Patty Murray (WA), Catherine Cortez Masto (NV), Martin Heinrich (NM), Jacky Rosen (NV), Michael Bennet (CO), and Maria Cantwell (WA).

From my experience in the last three months of trying obtain information along these lines from the Forest Service, the agency is extremely reluctant to disclose anything meaningful about how operating procedures have changed during COVID-19. For example they flat refused to divulge any information about the peculiar 30-day contracts awarded to a handful of Type 1 helicopter companies — or even admit that the contracts existed. This is important, since the previous four-year contracts for Type 1 exclusive use helicopters ended April 30.

It appears that there is a degree of micro-managing going on in the federal land management agencies. Some questions from reporters that used to be routinely answered quickly at the local or Boise level now have to be filtered through not just the Washington office level, but may go all the way up to the Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior. At that point the proposed response may be modified, sometimes to the point of producing useless gibberish.

For example, a question to a Forest Service spokesperson about the reasons for the unusual 30-day helicopter contracts and how they were awarded resulted in this “answer” several days later:

The USDA FS is utilizing all options available via the existing aviation contracts and Call When Needed Agreements to ensure that historical helicopter coverage remains in place.

It is possible that Regional and National leaders within the Forest Service do not have the support of appointees at the Department and White House level to make decisions based on their years of knowledge, skills, and experience. They may not have the confidence or authority to demonstrate real leadership or make the necessary decisions called for relative to the topics brought forward in this letter from the Senators. These eleven elected officials may be cognizant of this.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bill and Jason. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

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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. Google+

20 thoughts on “Eleven Senators sign letter asking Forest Service how they will suppress wildfires during the COVID-19 pandemic”

  1. Will be waiting for @usfs response with baited breath….

    And hoping we all stay well while we continue doing what we do…

  2. I am certainly no expert on USFS logistics but it seems like the additional mitigation measures asked about will require additional funding. Has Congress appropriated additional funds to meet these needs?

  3. Regarding the comment on additional costs. The answer is, “unfortunately no.” At least not yet.

    Based on my continued analysis and number crunching, the COVID-19 will cost in the range of an additional +$130 up to +$250 per acres burned in 2020. This includes new suppression tactics [“preparedness closer to the incident”]; new skill sets in and around incidents; equipment; medical assistance; backup personnel for sickness; etc.]. My projection for 2020 is in the range of about 7.1 to 10.2 million acres burned. Costs go up exponentially above 8.8 million acres.

    Thus, if I were asking Congress for additional funds for the 2020 fire season to more effectively address the COVID-19 pandemic and keep those associated with the fire suppression effort and the citizenry safe, I would ask in the range of about +$900 million to +$1.7 billion.

  4. From what I have read on the intwebs and the lack of owning the situation and no one wanting to make decisions with the fear of being responsible…..all Fires will be attacked by Air the best they can …..possibly just dropping on structures that are at risk and hope for the best .

  5. When I read the last paragraph – “It is possible that Regional and National leaders within the Forest Service do not have the support of appointees at the Department and White House level to make decisions based on their years of knowledge, skills, and experience. They may not have the confidence or authority to demonstrate real leadership or make the necessary decisions called for relative to the topics brought forward in this letter from the Senators.”
    I immediately thought of a book – The Fifth Risk – I read in October 2018 by author Michael Lewis. The read was very eyeopening, if not just about the responsibility of a functional government in managing risks, but also the lack of concern for functional government and risk management by the current administration.

  6. So FFs being injured or killed by snags, rockslides, traffic accidents etc is unacceptable but a 6% mortality rate from COVID 19 is ok? Why hasnt anyone it seems like in the fire world of agencies pulled out that handy IRPG and used the risk management section to work thru this COVID problem? Or doesnt anyone want to admit that COVID and wildfires cant be fought at the same time so they will just continue to bumble thru this as bodies stack up? For some piece of real estate? Everyone in overhead should read the RLS of the Henry Creek Fire and take some lessons from Mr. Faiella and his experiences. Regardless of who is sitting in the White House ANYBODY in the administration, Senate, Congress, or Wildland Fire USA who thinks enough money can be printed to fix this COVID problem short term and/or make it safe for FFs to work in that environment is greatly mistaken. Especially if consideration is given to how much money is already wasted at fire camps annually in the name of “hygiene “

  7. Useless gibberish: Over a 30-year career with NPS I saw statements like this become very common. I called it saying a lot about nothing. But “Gibberish” sort of has a nice ring to it.

  8. I have also been reading a lot of gibberish “guidance” that says nothing about how incidents and covid-19 safety will actually be handled. I just pray we have a slow season like last year. The holes in the swiss cheese are lining up and those of us who go out on incidents are looking like sacrificial cows.

  9. they can use contractors more then
    they do to help with early Suppression.
    But they wate till all most the end of the fire season to call off the viper list.. we as contractors are willing to help and in most cases are cheaper then Cooperators and Forestry service…

  10. Love the pic for the article. It was taken on the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community reservation which is part of Michigan Agency BIA and was the very first RX conducted for the agency back in 2009.

  11. I think it would be a good call for the US Forest Service to ask advice from the armed services as to understand how the military is managing the association of soldiers in the service. that it would be a good cause to have the National Guard being considered for emergency service to reduce fire hazards, and combat the wild fires expected to happen during the warmer months of summer.

    1. David, I am the Crew Foreman for the Umatilla Veteran Crew, out of the Umatilla National Forest. I am a former active duty Marine, an Iraq veteran and I still have many friends on active duty. I reached out to several of my friends earlier last month to explore how the USMC is taking on the COVID-19 pandemic. What I found out is (shockingly!) the military is going to wait until people die, then react.

      You see, the USFS made a committment several years ago to become a Zero Fatality organization. At the time they pointed to organizations like (no kidding) UPS, and the Coast Guard who have very good records of not killing their own members. There was quite a bit of collective disgust at the time within the fire management ranks who felt the higher leadership was essentially clueless about how hard we work to ensure the safety of everyone on the line, it felt like they were blaming us for being negligent whenever someone was killed in the line of duty.

      The military does not share this extreme aversion to risk. They are far more pragmatic about casualties, even having some of their trigger points set at certian rates, i.e. combat effectiveness of a unit is determined by what percent of the unit is still alive- and the acceptable casualty number isn’t a single digit percent. It can be 30% -70% depending on the unit type and mission. While I do think that we should be utilizing the National Guard and military units to bolster our numbers during time of crisis, I would be very careful trying to align our plans with those of an agency who sees 10% casualties as doing a good job. YMMV.

  12. What a joke, they want action due the corona but yet when i comes to classifying Forestry technicians as firefighters the government could care less. work 12 years as in wildland get hurt or get cancer from the job and loose your federal retirement and they government could care less. Maybe they should be thinking of taking care of them besides the covid B.S.

  13. While they are talking about mortality rates, I hope they talk about workers comp. If people become ill while working on fires, what evidence will they need to furnish for the illness to be considered work related? Even more importantly, what if they die? This relates to both agency employees and contractors. What happens when someone becomes ill several days after returning from an incident? If these questions can’t be answered now, I’m not sure there should be much fire response.

    1. Not to take away from your comments, because you raise some good points, especially as it relates to the paperwork if you become ill. It’s been brought up on another blog somewhere about what will happen if someone needs to be admitted to the hospital, in these days where hospitals are not allowing visitors, what will happen to that person, alone in there and hoping that the paperwork was filled out correctly. This was brought up in the Wildland Fires Lessons Learned Center under the report Verde Fire Medevac and Covid19 Leasons.
      It’s something that we all need to beware of, and work to make sure that our people are taken care of, before during and after an assignment.
      Tracking who you come into contact with during day to day operations and while on a fire will help in that regards, another piece of paper, but tracking is huge to getting the numbers down, and to also protect yourself in the event you became exposed.
      Not fighting fires is a bit extreme, however, if you don’t feel safe and that your agency, local office etc has done enough to protect you, then maybe this is the year to step back.
      I don’t foresee anything coming from this letter, nothing they say, or do will lessen the risk to all of us this summer….

      Be well and take care of your family and fellow brothers and sisters

  14. Bill, after dealing with and reading emails from high level officials over the last two months, you are spot on with micro-managing from USDA level. The soft recommendations being put out by the FS are to avoid getting high level approval. The direction to just perform risk assessments at the local level, are the only reason the FS got the keys to make any decisions independently. Essentially, just be careful what you ask for.

  15. The 6% mortality rate was on large long-term fires where we conduct business as usual. It dropped down to less than 1% with reasonable mitigations like social distancing. (I believe the 6% number came from using Lolo Peak Fire from a couple seasons ago as an example. Other modeled fires like the Highline Fire on Tonto last year, produced less than 1% under worst case scenarios.) I didn’t get to to see the inputs used for these calculations, but they were produced over a month ago, likely with COVID data that was a ways older than that, so take them with a grain of salt. They were produced to help frame the sideboards of the risk discussion and planning, not as some “acceptable/reasonable level of risk.” Keep in mind, we still have many among our ranks who believe this is the flu or a hoax all together, so having some semi-solid modeling off of available facts to paint a picture for some folks to take this seriously is important.

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