Witness panel is set for June 9 Congressional hearing about COVID-19 and firefighting

When the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds their hearing at 10 a.m. EDT June 9, 2020 on “Wildfire Management in the Midst of COVID-19” neither U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen or Fire and Aviation Director Shawna Legarza are slated to be present. Usually the Chief testifies at hearings about the Forest Service, and since Ms. Legarza testified last year at a hearing about expectations for the fire season, there was speculation that she would attend this one as well.

It is likely that the Senators will ask about the results from the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness Study that has been going on for eight years. Chief Christiansen has been testifying for the last two years before this committee saying it would be released “soon”. When pressed in February by Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, who last year made his opinion about the delay very clear, she said it would be released “this Spring.” Senator Gardner said, “Before June?” She said, “Yes.”

I asked Ms. Legarza by email why she was not going to testify, and she replied, “Normally the Fire Director does not testify. Last year was the first time ever. Was a great experience. I am very appreciative of all the work the committee has done while I have been in this job.”

David Pitcher and Tom Harbour
Tom Harbour (left) the U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation Management (who did not testify), and David Pitcher (right) President and CEO of the Wolf Creek Ski Area at Pagosa Creek, Colorado. November 5, 2013.

A quick search of Wildfire Today found two examples of former Fire Director Tom Harbour attending congressional committee hearings. On October 17, 2011 he testified before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security committee at a field hearing in Austin entitled “Texas Wildfire Review: Did Bureaucracy Prevent a Timely Response?” On November 5, 2013 he sat directly behind the witnesses but did not testify at a hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources titled, “Shortchanging Our Forests: How Tight Budgets and Management Decisions Can Increase the Risk of Wildfire”.

I obtained from a Washington insider the list of government employees who ARE slated to testify Tuesday:

  • John Phipps, Forest Service, Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry
  • Amanda Kaster, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land & Minerals, DOI
  • George Geissler, Washington State Forester
  • Norm McDonald, Alaska Div. of Forestry, Director Fire & Aviation

Some of the Senators and witnesses may appear virtually instead of in person. The current Senate rules during the pandemic do not allow spectators at committee meetings or hearings.

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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+

2 thoughts on “Witness panel is set for June 9 Congressional hearing about COVID-19 and firefighting”

  1. One documented cornerstone of the Forest Service 2020 fire season, Covid-19 strategy is rapid initial attack from the air, to control and contain fires for the pandemic-challenged firefighters on the ground.

    No offense Gabbert, but the real issue here isn’t the historic, bureaucratic norms of who from USFS typically walks the 1/2 mile from FS HQ up to the Hill for a Senate hearing.

    The real issues are whether USFS has the right strategy and is ready to discuss it, leader to leader. Whether they’re ready or not for fire season + Covid. Whether Congress can provide any further assistance, funding, etc. And whether USFS leadership is ready to lead, which would include this hearing and discussing these and other issues with leaders who are actually elected and accountable to us real world Americans.

    Real world, big boy/girl stuff. Not gamesmanship and sending a sacrificial lamb because you’re worried about tough questions from some Senators. Either you’re in, and you show up yourself, or you’re not in. Shawna’s spin message above is just that —spin, punting, avoidance, and, per Gabbert’s story 2 days ago, total lack of transparency.

    What say you Chief Christiansen and Director Lagarza? Are you in, are you ready for fire season and execution of your…I hesitate to call it…strategy? Do you have enough helos and fixed wing aircraft? Are they deployed and ready to fly fast so that rapid initial attack is actually rapid, not rhetoric? Does Congress need to step in with any help, including more funding. Now is the time to ask, or would be if you planned to show up on Tuesday.

    If Chief Vicki gripes July-October that she didn’t have Congressional support and funding, this unbelievable snubbing of her nose at Congress relative to this hearing will not be forgotten, it will not go away. It will be just added to the list. Not just Fire Aviation, think NY Times, WSJ, and hundreds of local media outlets while the fires spin out of control. They’ll be there to remind some of the best Senators we have that USFS signaled their position on June 9, 2020. Chairwoman Murkowski and her colleagues are sure to remember this latest signal.

    USFS should consider it a high risk tactic to blame Congress for what happens in the next 8 months, given this latest example of basically giving the finger to the American people via their snubbing of elected representatives.

    Gosh what a mess. What a terribly flawed organization. Make no mistake — a high profile effort on driving USFS accountability has begun. Standby, watch for press coverage of a Change.org led effort to, at long last, clean house and make changes.

    Final thought — do La Plata/Durango CO officials know they’ve hired an emergency manager that has zero sense of accountability to the public or publicly elected officials? Let’s ask.

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