Forest Service firefighter wins whistleblower retaliation complaint

A judge ordered that he receive back pay and be reinstated

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Pedro Rios
Pedro Rios

A seasonal firefighter who the US Forest Service (FS) refused to rehire due to something he wrote Facebook, won his case before the Merit Systems Protection Board. After the judge ordered that the agency reinstate him and give him back pay, the firefighter agreed to a $115,000 settlement from the FS.

Pedro Rios worked on the Klamath National Forest at Grass Lake Station on the Goosenest Ranger District. He had 12 years of firefighting experience with a private contractor and the FS.

In July, 2020, about six months into the COVID pandemic, Mr. Rios and his strike team were dispatched to Southern California. They did not quarantine before or after traveling. When they were told to return from what was considered a “hot zone”, and being on standby at a fire station where employees had tested positive for COVID days or weeks before their arrival, they were told that instead of quarantining for a week or more, they were supposed to “self-isolate” if they experienced symptoms after return.

Mr. Rios at that point thought of his son who in 2019 was life flighted to Children’s Hospital in Davis, California and kept for 2 days for labored breathing due to severe asthma. His fiancée also has asthma, but not to the same degree.

Worried about the impact his crew returning without quarantining would have on his hometown and his family, on July 8, 2020 he wrote a post on the Siskiyou Coronavirus Community Response Facebook page. He included a screenshot of the top management positions on the Klamath NF.

Pedro Rios Facebook post
Pedro Rios Facebook post, July 8, 2020.

In the post, after explaining that the plan was for the personnel to return without a quarantine, he name-checked the Fire Staff Officer on his home forest, “so the public can voice their concerns to him as well.”

District Ranger Drew Stroberg led the effort to not rehire Mr. Rios for the next season even though his performance ratings were fully satisfactory and an employee relations specialist told the Ranger that Mr. Rios likely had whistleblower status. Mr. Stroberg was also advised that he had no choice but to rehire the firefighter.

While working with a crew at the Little Soda Fire on the Klamath NF in late July, 2020, Mr. Rios noticed a newly hired firefighter who was exhibiting symptoms of rhabdomyolysis. If left untreated, severe rhabdo may be fatal or result in permanent disability. After Mr. Rios took the necessary steps to ensure he received medical attention, the firefighter was removed from the fire and was hospitalized. The crew boss had failed to take action earlier after the firefighter was throwing up in the truck. The crew boss reported that Mr. Rios had a negative attitude. One of the crewmen testified in the hearing that Mr. Rios “saved the guy’s life,” was a good leader, and he did not have a bad attitude. In the court proceeding several witnesses in addition to Mr. Rios testified that the crew boss did not prioritize safety.

Michael S. Shachat, the Administrative Judge who oversaw the case for the Merit Systems Protection Board, said Mr. Rios’s Facebook post “broke no rules and raised legitimate concerns through the only forum he felt he had available to him to do so.” He also ruled that Mr. Rios had whistleblower status and that the Forest Service retaliated against him by preventing him from being rehired.

“I find that Stroberg’s frustration with the appellant’s alleged unprofessional choice to raise his concerns on social media and his comments to the appellant in setting ‘expectations’ for future conduct is itself evidence of a motive to retaliate,” the judge wrote. “Considering the record as a whole, I find that there is strong evidence of a retaliatory motive on the agency’s part, particularly with respect to Stroberg.”

In his decision, Judge Shachat ordered the FS to pay Mr. Rio the back pay he missed, with interest. In addition, he ordered the agency to place Mr. Rios in the same position he would have been in had he been rehired for the 2021 fire season. He also ordered the agency to remove Mr. Rios from any “DO NOT REHIRE” lists.

Mr. Rios told Wildfire Today that he “applied for 350 permanent positions with a stellar record of signed evals.” But now, “Although I have zero interest in returning to USFS I will continue to speak out against USFS Management in the hopes that my verdict can and will be used as a precedent and expose how limited USFS Management’s authority is and show if they try to retaliate EEOs can uncover their behind the scenes behavior regardless of how they try to pass it off to the employee and ER/HR.”

“I’d also like to point out,” Mr. Rios said, “[the crew boss’s] history of lack of safety for his personnel resulted in several employees being put on light duty after several dehydration issues. My case is just the best documented incident so far.”

Pedro Rios
Pedro Rios and his son. Photo courtesy of Mr. Rios.

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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.

32 thoughts on “Forest Service firefighter wins whistleblower retaliation complaint”

  1. Congratulations Mr. Rios! I went to MSPB back in 2018 because the FS fired me because Tony Tooke grabbed my butt. I still don’t have a hearing date. But, I’m glad you won! Congratulations!!!

  2. Why did the Forest Service bureaucracy retaliate against Mr. Rios? Because Mr. Rios chose loyalty to his family, his community, and his crew over loyalty to his bureaucracy’s higher-ups. The Forest Service has an opportunity to send a message to its managers. Will that message be to continue shooting, shoveling, and shutting-up? Or will it be zero tolerance for illegal retaliation?

  3. PS: One of the more disturbing conclusions the administrative law judge reached is that Klamath forest supervisor Rachel Smith likely lied under oath. Smith testified that “she was not aware of the appellant’s protected disclosure at the time she made her decision” not to rehire him. The judge, however, concluded: “I find that the appellant has proved that it is more likely than not Smith was aware of his protected disclosures.”

  4. These are points I plan to bring up on a possible and likely episode of Anchorpoint Podcast. Thanks for your comments and support!

  5. Right on, Pedro! The USFS needs more people like you. I started with “Big Green” in 1976. Sure, it wasn’t perfect but the overhead was honest, hard working, and dedicated. One of my first fires was when a handcrew was gathered up from my flight crew and district office personnel (because everyone was required to have a red card). I spent a 16 hour shift as a swamper for the District Ranger who was running the saw. He was a former smokejumper. Gradually, over the years, all that changed. The red card requirement was dropped, culls and shills took over management, and the “Forestry Technician” became a disrespected, replaceable worker. I met and worked for and alongside some of the best human beings in those early years. At the end of 24 years, I left dejected and dispirited that the USFS had become a “Confederacy of Dunces”

  6. I applaud Mr. Rios for his courage. I hope he has a good job where he is appreciated. Thanks for sharing his story.

  7. Right on, Mr. Rios. Thank you for staying in the fight and righting wrongs. We need more of that.

    Thanks to Bill for covering the details.

  8. From my perspective…“Leadership” or should I say “management” on many forests continue to negatively effect the workforce by hypocritically not following policy, procedures and the MA. I truly believe a substantial part of the FS retention issues involves poor “leadership” (management) at the local and regional levels.

  9. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

    From my understanding there was a RIF in the 80s and 90s and made a reforming policy to allow people in Timber/Recreation to be able to apply for hire in USFS Management positions.

    Also my understanding that this was supposed to be temporary but obviously was never reversed.

    We are now full of low level bureaucrats with Bachelors degrees in Ecology who side stepped the fire experience/certifications who look at USFS Management as a pay/benefits package and avoid the leadership titles as much as possible

  10. Good for him!

    Wasn’t there another person in R3 that this happened to back in 2020? Thought it was reported on this site but couldn’t find the article. Any word on justice for that person? Curious if there were a bunch of similar cases in the forest service or any kind of class action. This type of behavior is crazy, especially in light of the employment crisis in the agency.

  11. As a timber-management type, I had (late fifties and early sixties) good, old fashioned Forest Service types over me. Honorable and truthful, real men. When my crew would get diverted to a fire, I found the fire overhead folks to be a mixture, but I guess even rotten apples set seed . . .

    After a military career I started operating as a consultant. I applied for a FS contract, including a detailed proposal that took a lot of time and money to prepare. They gave the contract to one of their pals who had just changed districts. He did the consulting while still being employed.

    I should have followed the Rios example; I hope more and more will. When crimes like perjury are committed, has anyone been prosecuted?

    You’re a hero in my book, Pedro.

  12. From what I’ve read Stroberg has been involved in “timber”; I didn’t see fireline experience. He (and others) should have their pay docked, along with disciplinary action. As a 31-year retired firefighter (not FS) I’m very happy you prevailed. I’ve experienced it, having one supervisor say “there’s a feeling out there” on one of my probation reports. There should be no room for someone who wants to get even, or refuses to take care of the well-being of those they supervise. Their bosses share the blame.

  13. I commend you Pedro for your actions and I agree that Forest Service management is in a total we don’t want to hear it head in the *** sand mentality not only about personnel issues but more dangerously their fire management policies, I worked in fire from 1992 – 2005 for the Forest Service and personally saw the changes in the way they dealt with fire going from aggressive action to monitor and observe don’t get me wrong I am not against fuels reduction just not trying to let wildfires try to do it during the heat of summer.

  14. Woo Woo, good for you Mr. Rios. I hope you write a book about your experience. Maybe you can get other forest professionals to send you examples of the same kind of treatment. You are an inspiration!

  15. Is it moot, SG? Is it? How would you know? Do you even play cards with J.D. Shellnut, chief of police? If you don’t, then you aren’t qualified to tell us what’s moot and what isn’t. I happen to play cards with J.D. Shellnut, and I’ll tell you right now; it’s not moot.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I ran outta somethin to drink. I’m headed over to the county line to get some.

  16. Go to the official site where these decisions are published (or not) and search for “Rios” or search for the docket number.

    This case is not in there. More recent ones are. Therefore it is not part of the record.

    The reason for this is that typically when someone takes an MSPB settlement payment, it is contingent on the finding being depublished and thus having no force of record.

    Ergo, moot. No matter what good old boys you play cards with.

  17. There’s a lot of money in fuel reduction. Chips make wonderful firebrands. Regrowth is almost all flammable, whether from mastication or burning. “Thinning” takes out merchantable timber, not the young stuff that ladders into mature crowns. In a few years, the thinning, mastication, burning, and clearing is in worse shape for fire than it was when mature. Horizontal AND vertical separation. Limbing reduces laddering and protects crowns of mature or larger timber, while increasing timber value. The good work of the fire labs continues to be ignored in the field.

    Yes, we need more people with guts like Rios, who, by the way, earned the money. But the systems drives out the good people and leaves behind the *******s.

  18. Did one season for the USFS (late 1980’s). Went to the BLM, where for the most part they treated their workers with some level of respect as humans. In that first year with the USFS had to deal with non fire types being put in charge of crews and ordering people to do things that are directly counter, like cutting line downhill above a crowning fire below. (the mayday slurry drop on top of us was the logical conclusion)

    Recognized then that SLE’s (Smelly Little Egos) would make the USFS not a place to work. My mom retired from the USFS in another area, (in many small towns the USFS is the most obvious employer). She commented upon retirement,… ‘I would not wish a career in the USFS on my worst enemy’.

    I applaud Mr. Rios. Should we get our hopes up for meaningful improvement?

  19. Andy-these types in FS “leadership” are a dime a dozen. R1 was full of them when I worked there.

  20. Mr. Rios, again congratulations! I was curious, have they paid you yet? The reason I ask is I have heard stories from many people that they settled with the FS, but the FS never paid them and so they have to go back to EEOC or MSPB to get their money.

  21. Good job Mr. Rios. I’m glad you hung in there and saw it through. Too many employees have succumbed to the brow-beating from “management.”

  22. Yes,
    I hear your complaint. After reading Mr. Rios’ story, that I’m also glad that he had won his case against the FS of the Klamath NF.
    I too, had experienced racism and sexual harassments on the(now formerly San Gorgonio District)on the San Bernardino National Forest, among some crewmen, as well as the captain and driver of Oak Glen Fire Station, who kept taunting me and molested me, as well as both captain and driver did nothing at all to stop in. Those crewman even did those things in front of the captain and driver at Oak Glen Fire Station where I was working on from 1992 to 1994; in which the 1994 season at that station would be the very worst for me at that time. The captain, driver, and those two crewmen all should have been terminated for their actions against me at the time. This happened at Oak Glen Station on the(formerly)San Gorgonio District, as that district had some real rude and very bigoted people who I had dealt with at the time. Plus, the Fire Management Office and one of the Battalion Chief’s at that time on that district were bending rules and playing politics during those times. There was even that Americorps program that has started at the time, when I had experienced another person of interest who has also listened to the two Bigoted Engine Captain and Driver about my performance on that district that had lead a woman who was running the program to discriminate me at the times while she kept criticizing me as well as constantly lying to me for my performance in Americorps, because of her believing those negative folks who were discriminating me on that district. It took the one very honest Battalion Chief to finally stick up for me, and had gotten that woman who was running Americorps terminated from that position. The other supervisors who was on that Americorps program kept on telling how the crews had really liked working with me. Plus, those crews who had saw me kept on asking me when would I be their crew supervisor agsin.
    But no one else other than the other crew supervisors and crewmen has stuck up for me at that time. The one guy who was in charge of the whole operation had heard the complains about that one woman who discriminated at the time were informing and complaining about that woman who was in charge of that Americorps Program, and this had that woman’s position explicated.
    But I did manage to finally get away from that Oak Glen Station in 1995, when a very good concerned engine captain has chosen me to come work at Converse Station at the time. It was a real sign of relief, as I had finally gotten to be out as a second driver at the time; we thus had a real good crew that year. That same year was when a woman on another district had filed sexual harassment, and that that San Jacinto District Management did nothing about it to resolve the issues. Thus, that grievance had reached out to the Regional Office Region 5 at the time. Thus, she case was heard, and that they handed down such punishments to the people who were involved in that failure of not resolving that sexual harassment complain. I was glad to hear that she had won her case at the time.
    Then in 1996, as I was looking through the job posts on the(then called DG)website to where I had ran into this one post about Davey Tree having immediate positions in Northern to Central California. It was tree arborist positions at that time. So I had called that number and go in contact with an agent to see how to apply for one of those positions. So I had submitted a resume(which was my then called S-171 Form). Then about a week later, they had offer me a job. So I had accepted it and we flow up to Northern California and started working there. Thus, I had enjoyed that job so much, that I had decided not to go back to the Forest Service again. After that job had winded down the following year, I was able to transfer to a local office in Louisville KY at the time.
    So once again, I salute Mr. Rios on his winning his case. I’m hoping that other’s will follow up on cases like that, as well as the racism and evil politics that I had experienced on the San Bernardino National Forest at the time.

  23. I worked as a seasonal Forester in the 70’s. Things have changed so much. Most of fire management were experienced wildfire people on the Mendocino National Forest. We hit fires quick and hard to keep them small, but provided for safety first. What happened?

  24. wonder if this was the same that the Forest Supervisor was given the Acting National Fire Director job? And during that time, it was obvious on the Boots on the Ground calls that employee issues were not her concern. Leadership is sorely lacking in the FS

  25. Lucian, I am so sorry this happened to you. I wish it had never happened. I know there is nothing I can say to make it better. But, I hear you and I’m here for you if you ever need to talk.

  26. I believe that the concern about lying under oath has been referred to the USDA Office of Inspector General.

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