In Congressional hearing Forest Service Chief Randy Moore recommended improved pay for federal wildland firefighters

He was asked about the Tamarack Fire which was not aggressively attacked for 13 days

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2:27 p.m. PDT Oct. 13, 2021

USFS Chief Randy Moore
USFS Chief Randy Moore during Sept. 29, 2021 Congressional hearing.

In a Congressional committee hearing September 29 the new Chief of the U.S. Forest Service hit a lot of the right notes in his testimony. It was before the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry. The hearing was titled, “The 2021 Wildland Fire Year: Responding to and mitigating threats to communities.”

In his prepared statement, Chief Randy Moore, apparently standing in front of a real or virtual photo of Mt. Shasta topped by lenticular clouds, said “America’s forests are in a state of emergency and it’s time to treat them like one.”

He spoke for several minutes about issues related to the status of federal wildland firefighters. Here is an excerpt:

“We must maintain a stable resilient firefighting force. That starts with taking care of our brave men and women who fight fires.

“They deserve better work/life balance and benefits. They deserve a supportive workplace in return for the grueling hard work they do. At a time of increased stress, suicide, and depression they also need counseling and support services to prevent tragedy. They deserve better pay, above all. Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with states.

“We must also modernize our wildland fire management system. This includes improving the use of technology. It also includes upgrading our models and systems for decision making and strengthening our cooperative relationships.

“We will never hire enough firefighters, we will never buy enough engines or aircraft to fight these fires. We must actively treat forests. That’s what it takes to turn this situation around. We must shift from small scale treatments to strategic science-based treatments across boundaries. It must start with those places most critically at risk. We must treat 20 million acres over 10 years. Done right in the right places, treatments make a difference.”

Later the committee went on to talk more about firefighter pay, filling positions that are now occupied by detailers, aggressive forest management,  timber harvesting, and other issues.

An interesting but very brief discussion occurred at 1:41:08 (see the video above) when Representative Doug LaMalfa of California’s 1st Congressional District (Oroville) asked the Chief about a report of difficulties in the working relationship between the Forest Service and CAL FIRE that surfaced during the Caldor Fire west of South Lake Tahoe according to 60 Minutes September 26, 2021.

“I think I have different information than you do, Congressman,” the Chief said. “I am not aware of any problems between the Forest Service and CAL FIRE. As I indicated earlier that relationship is really solid. So, I am not aware of anything that might be going on.”

Earlier Representative LaMalfa tried to get the Chief to say the Forest Service is committed to aggressive initial attack on new fires, but the Chief preferred to use the term “aggressive forest management.” (He later said that they already do aggressive initial attack.)

Representative LaMalfa asked about the Tamarack Fire near Markleeville, CA which started as a single tree on July 4, 2021 and was monitored but not suppressed for 13 days while it was very small until it suddenly grew very large. It burned at least 15 structures and more than 67,000 acres as it ran from California into Nevada jumping Highway 395 and prompting the evacuation of 2,000 people.

In the hearing Chief Moore said that after the fire started the Forest Service “spiked out a small crew to monitor” the fire. If that was the case, they apparently took no action, because the USFS reported on July 10 that it was 0.25 acre, they were not going to insert crews due to safety concerns, and it “posed no threat to the public, infrastructure, or resource values.”

In describing the situation, the Chief said that when the Tamarack Fire started on July 4 there were 100 large wildland fires and 27,000 fire personnel had been deployed. “We would have loved to have had enough crews to put on that fire,” the Chief said. “What we should be talking about is a very active forest management program. There will always be situations where you can second guess decisions that were made.”

The national Situation Report from July 5, 2021 shows that there were only 33 large uncontained fires at the time and 7,652 personnel had been mobilized. On July 22 the incident management team working on the Tamarack Fire reported that 1,200 personnel were assigned to the fire.

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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.

13 thoughts on “In Congressional hearing Forest Service Chief Randy Moore recommended improved pay for federal wildland firefighters”

  1. Regarding the Tamarack fire… At the time the fire started much of the western US was in the midst of a multi year drought; California was in the midst of a multi year drought of historic proportions; northern California, including the Stanislaus and Humboldt-Toiyabe Nation Forests were in the midst of an extreme heat wave. Fire danger was at extreme levels. On existing fires, throughout California, fire behavior was exhibiting record setting ferocity.

    The conditions at the time should have been obvious to fire managers on the National Forest/s. An aggressive initial attack was obviously called for. Instead, they sat back and watched for 13 days.

    If the conditions didn’t move fire managers to act, then the fact that there were 33 active fires at the time should have been the justification they needed for an aggressive initial attack – put the fire out when it was .25 acre using 2 crews and a helicopter over the course of 3 days, (+/- ?) to prevent needing 1200 people, all the heavy equipment and multiple aircraft over the course of several weeks or months that were needed then elsewhere.

    The Cal Fire controls well over 90% of wildfire starts in their jurisdiction because they engage every start with and aggressive initial attack. They don’t stand around and “monitor” a fire to see what’s going to happen.

    In light of the well known weather and fuel conditions, coupled with resource commitments statewide and throughout the west, the fact that the Tamarack fire was left to burn at will for 13 days is, in my humble opinion, a gross act of negligence on the part of the National Forest/s staff involved. Those people responsible for those decisions must be held accountable. Heads should roll!

  2. Excellent analysis and conclusion. To many F.S. managers today lack appropriate experience for their positions. And apparently common sense on top of that.
    A 1/4 ac. fire should only need 2 people not two crews. Especially in the vegetative type where the fire started.

  3. The USFS would never dare to go back to the 10:00 a.m. control policy I grew up with. The enviro’s would lose their minds. More.
    Time for the FS to take a lesson from CalFire and get back into the aggressive IA that CalFire has never wavered from.
    What’s going on now, is criminal.

  4. A quarter acre has 1089 square feet which is less than the square footage of a suburban lot. This fire was roughly 30 feet by 30 feet yet a crew sat on it for 13 days. The answer to the question as to why the Tamarack Fire wasn’t suppressed when it was nothing more than a spot fire doesn’t even make sense. One crew could have had this thing out in a matter of hours had the order been given to attack it. Throw in a copter with a bucket and the thing would have been out even faster. If the Tamarack spot fire was too dangerous to attack, was it too dangerous to even put a crew in there to monitor it. I’m sure the guys on that crew were pulling their hair out wanting to go to work on that fire and get it contained/controlled. Photos of this fire when it was what we used to call, “Skunking around”, i.e., doing nothing but creeping documented how easy it would have been to have kept a spot fire from turning into a conflagration. It’s another case of someone up the food chain making a very bad decision – indexes in the toilet, lots of major fires going, short on crews and equipment, very small fire not doing anything but in a bad location with a crew on-scene. Time to make a decision to go get it.

  5. As per what Bruce said ; is it Negligence or just gross incompetence on the part of USFS managemnt?
    Then the mumbo -jumbo starts with ” Strategic science -based treatments”? Also, what does the Chief mean specifically by saying “Aggressive forest management ” [ nebulous ?] . Then he similarly says “active forest management” ; meaning what?
    Finally what is the explanation between what Mr . More says ‘ 27,000 personnel deployed ,when there were actually 7652 personnel active at that time ? There is a lot to explain here and maybe the Chief is not up to that! Maybe this “mess ‘ just continues for years ?

  6. Thank you Bill for the article and posting the hearing. During the hearing, Mr. Moore stated that there was a 38% reduction in the workforce. Does anyone know when that started? Does anyone know WHY there was a 38% reduction of the workforce? I’m curious, was the 38% because people retired or they wanted to spend more time with their families or was it poor working conditions? I can speculate, but I’m curious if anyone has data to explain the 38% reduction. Thanks again!

  7. Hey Bill, Can you FOIA the first WFDSS from the Tamarack Fire? That would be an interesting read? Curious if it was done before or after it blew out…

  8. I don’t want to get picky Old captain, but you forgot to put the zero on the end of that 1/4 acre. It’s 10890 square feet. That much fire can be a hand full for two people.

  9. I had high hopes for Mr Moore…
    Yes, he was certainly ill prepared but he also had no shame in telling flat out lies.
    So typical with todays government officials.

  10. 2 people, no brainer. Especially if it took a few days to get bigger. But, nobody fights fire any more because it’s too dangerous. Sick of hearing that. That’s why the Fire Orders are there, to mitigate risk, and lesson the danger. How about this “policy”. Initial attacking every fire when ERCs are above 90%. Then you can “manage” the others to reduce fuel loading. There has to be balance of aggressive IA, Rx and other fuels reduction, and prescribed natural fire (or whatever the term is now days). You’d think someone like the Chief of the Forest Service would have some common sense, straight forward, EXPERIENCE-based wisdom to pass along to Congress who doesn’t understand a thing we do, but sounds like they want to. For crying out loud…

  11. Thanks Tom!!!
    That’s what happens when one is old and forgets to put their glasses on – Take care.
    Yep! They should have jumped on it as soon as they got there. Would have been a quick and easy pickup.

  12. Nice to see the comments stuck in 1935 as far as fire suppression goes. “All we have to do is suppress fires better!” I guess all the responsibility for risk has to be given over to the fire management folks. Oops slip of the tongue, fire fighters, all we do is fight battles in a losing war against fire right? All we have to do is say if we super aggressively attack ever start everything will be ok! Except that hasn’t worked in decades, but it does obscure the responsibility of the people who decide to live in a tinderbox in ever increasing numbers and the local and state governments that allow it in the name of growth with no real plans on place to mitigate the fire risk. Right now we are rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic while what is really sinking us, climate change and especially fuels conditions goes unaddressed. Full suppression all the time strategies certainly won’t help us there. At the pace prescribed fire is going in CA we surely won’t get the treated acres we need that way alone. Monitoring and letting fires burn is going to have to be a part of it.

  13. Do have this right? Representative LaMalfa asked about the Tamarack Fire near Markleeville, CA. It’s in McClintock ’s District and McClintock call wildland firefighting unskilled labor. Which he said was talkin out of Contents by the mountain democrat( according to his staffers) . But Greenville, CA which is in his District burned to the ground. From the The Dixie which started on Calfire DPA. I guess aggressive initial attack didn’t work to well for Cal fire on the Dixie. And monitoring the fire didn’t work too well for the USFS on the Tamarack. Every coin has two sides

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