Legislation introduced to provide benefits for families of firefighters killed by COVID-19

Senators are also seeking hazard pay for federal employees in essential positions whose jobs cannot be accomplished while maintaining social distancing recommendations

David Ruhl memorial service
The memorial service for fallen U.S. Forest Service firefighter David Ruhl, Rapid City, SD August 9, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A bipartisan group of senators has introduced a bill to ensure families of public safety officers lost to COVID-19 can quickly access survivor benefits.

(UPDATE at 10:40 a.m. MDT May 15, 2020: the Senate passed the bill. Now it goes to the House of Representatives)

The Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act (SAFR), led by senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), clarifies the certification requirements for survivor benefits under the Public Safety Officers Benefits Program (PSOB) to account for the unique challenges presented by the pandemic. The legislation is cosponsored by Senators Cruz (R-Texas), Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tillis (R-N.C.), Coons (D-Del.), Daines (R-Mont.), Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Scott (R-Fla.), Menendez (D-N.J.), Loeffler (R-Ga.), Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Moran (R-Kan.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The PSOB program provides the families of public safety officers who are killed in the line of duty with a one-time lump sum payment of $359,316 and/or education assistance of $1,224.00 per month to their children or spouse. Wildland firefighters who work for the federal agencies are included in the PSOB program.

Infectious diseases are covered under a line-of-duty death as long as evidence indicates that the infectious disease was contracted while on duty. Providing evidence that a deadly disease was contracted on duty can be straightforward in instances where an officer comes into contact with a dirty needle, however in the case of COVID-19, it can be very difficult to provide evidence that the virus was contracted on duty.

What the bill does:

  • Creates a presumption that if a first responder is diagnosed with COVID-19 within 45 days of their last day on duty, the Department of Justice will treat it as a line of duty incident.
  • The presumption will guarantee payment of benefits to any first responder who dies from COVID-19 or a complication therefrom.
  • The presumption will run from January 1, 2020 through December 31, 2021.
  • The presumption will require a diagnosis of COVID-19 or evidence indicating that the officer had COVID-19 at the time of death. This covers officers in high impact areas where finding tests can be difficult.

Another proposal – Hazard pay

A group of 19 Senators have sent letters  to the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget requesting 25 percent hazard pay for federal employees in essential positions whose jobs cannot be accomplished while maintaining social distancing recommendations

The letter is below:

2020-05-05 Senators Letter … by FedSmith Inc. on Scribd

Firefighters that are already victims of COVID-19

Victor Stagnaro of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation said on May 8, 2020 they are tracking 26 people connected with fire departments and 30 Emergency Medical Services personnel whose deaths appear to be caused by COVID-19.

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

Wildfire burns structures and closes I-10 south of Milton, Florida

Started from an escaped prescribed fire on May 4

map Five Mile Fire Milton Florida Interstate 10
Map showing heat detected on the Five Mile Swamp Fire by a satellite at 2:48 a.m. CDT May 7, 2020.

(UPDATED at 9:50 a.m. CDT May 7, 2020)

Satellite data collected overnight shows heat from the Five Mile Swamp Fire well south of Interstate 10 on both sides of Garcon Point Road approaching Blackwater Bay.

(Originally published at 9 p.m. CDT May 6, 2020)

map Five Mile Fire Milton Florida Interstate 10
Map showing heat detected on the Five Mile Swamp Fire by a satellite at 3:24 p.m. CDT May 6, 2020.

Strong winds and low relative humidity caused a wildfire in the panhandle of Florida to grow about eight times its size Wednesday. The Five Mile Swamp Fire started from an escaped prescribed fire Monday afternoon and by Wednesday afternoon had blackened approximately 2,000 acres (up from 250 acres Wednesday morning) forcing the closure of Interstate 10 south of Milton, Florida.

The fire is burning on both sides of Interstate 10 about five miles south of Milton. The Florida Forest Service (FFS) reports several structures south of I-10 have been damaged or destroyed.

On Wednesday resources working the fire included 18 tractor/plow units, 3 helicopters, and firefighters from multiple departments throughout Santa Rosa County.

Residents of Ski Lane north of I-10, and those south of I-10 and east of Avalon Boulevard have been ordered to evacuate.

About 1,100 residences are threatened by the Five Mile Swamp Fire.

Five Mile Fire Milton Florida Interstate 10

The prescribed fire from which the wildfire escaped was on private land east of the former Moors golf course, east of Avalon Blvd., and north of I-10. Described as a “#GoodFire” by the Florida Forest Service in a May 4 tweet, it was expected to burn only 250 acres.

Estimated cost for prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore fireworks site was $30,000

The President said he would attend the event July 3 event

Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Visitors can almost see the sculpture at Mount Rushmore during the prescribed fire April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.

President Trump said in an interview Friday that he intends to travel to South Dakota to see the fireworks as they explode over the Mount Rushmore sculpture July 3.

The 260-acre prescribed fire completed at the Memorial April 29 was planned at least in part to reduce the chances of fireworks igniting what would be the 21st wildfire started by the devices during Independence Day ceremonies over an 11-year span.

Below is an excerpt from an article at the New York Post:

Trump confirmed the visit during a radio interview Friday with conservative pundit and news aggregator Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent.

“I got fireworks. For 20 years or something it hasn’t been allowed for environmental reasons, you believe that one? It’s all stone,” Trump said. “I got it approved, so I’m going to go there on July 3 and they’re gonna have the big fireworks.”

On at least two occasions, May 7, 2019 and December 18, 2019, President Trump said fireworks were going to be shot over Mount Rushmore long before the Environmental Assessment process was finished.

The exact price tag for last week’s prescribed fire has not been tabulated, but Maureen McGee-Ballinger, the Memorial’s Chief of Interpretation and Education, told us the estimated expenditure was $30,000. It was conducted by a total of 54 personnel, including 24 firefighters from the National Park Service, 8 from the State of South Dakota, 6 from the State of North Dakota, 8 from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 4 from the Department of Defense and 2 local volunteer fire department engines.

This was the first broadcast burn ever conducted at the Memorial. One of the objectives in the Incident Action Plan for the project was to “reduce the likelihood of unwanted ignitions in this area.”

Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 30 2020
Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 29, 2020. Photo by Matt Danilchick.
Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.

Robert Ziel receives Paul Gleason Lead by Example award

Robert (Zeke) Ziel
Robert (Zeke) Ziel

Robert (Zeke) Ziel, the fire analyst for the International Arctic Research Center’s Alaska Fire Science Consortium, was recently named one of the three recipients from across the wildland fire services for the 2019 Paul Gleason Lead by Example award. The award was created by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) Leadership Subcommittee to remember Paul Gleason’s contributions to the wildland fire service. More information about the award, including past recipients, is available on the NWCG website. A group of managers from Alaska and the lower 48, representing the Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, and National Park Service, nominated Zeke for the award. The following information is modified from their submitted nomination.

Zeke has been instrumental in the evolution of the interagency fire management and science enterprise in Alaska on many levels. His work is driven by the thought of how Alaska’s interagency management community might do better in the realm of modeling and analysis, and he has reinvented how fire analysis is performed in Alaska. His curiosity and drive are evident in the tools that are available to fire managers in Alaska today.  For example, his work with Predictive Services to build and maintain the Alaska Fire and Fuels website, an innovative web platform for displaying the fire, fuels and weather environment, as well as engagement with the GIS specialists and web designers to incorporate modeling outputs, have provided managers and decision makers with ‘one-stop shopping’ information.

Through classroom and web-based instruction, development of user guides, analyses relating fire behavior to fuels and weather inputs, and mentoring budding fire analysts, Zeke has enabled practitioners from different backgrounds within the fire community to more fully understand and successfully implement the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System (CFFDRS) in Alaska. He is a key figure in not only fire behavior, analysis, and decision support, but also the cross-boundary engagement of scientist and practitioners in the lower 48 and across Canada. The fostering of relationships across the continuum of science and practice is clearly Zeke’s passion. He finds opportunities to bring people together who may not otherwise interact. In doing so, there is a momentum that he starts, participates in, and feeds continually to address new ideas, challenges, and initiatives.

At the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Zeke has been involved in several research efforts, including as a member of the Boreal Fires team under the current Alaska EPSCoR Fire and Ice project, funded by the National Science Foundation.

Examples of Zeke’s work:

CFFDRS Online Training Modules (initial framework, development, and implementation)
Fire Behavior Field Reference Guide (continued development and updates)
Why Alaska Fire Potential Assessments Are Different (2018 publication)
Fire Environment Poster (Developed 2019)
Fuel Moisture, Seasonal Severity, and Fire Growth Analysis in the US Fire Behavior Analysis Tools (2017 publication)
CFFDRS FBP Field Guide (2015 Publication)
CFFDRS FWI Field Guide (2015 Publication)
Modeling Fire Growth Potential in Alaska (2015 Publication)

University of Alaska Fairbanks

Geographic Areas release Wildland Fire Response Plans for COVID-19 Pandemic

Guidance for maintaining continuity of wildland fire response

SW Area Pandemic Plan wildland fire

The Geographic Areas have started to release their Wildland Fire Response Plans for the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) assigned three Area Command Teams to work with partners at all levels in the fire community to develop protocols for wildfire response during the pandemic.  All of the teams worked directly with each Geographic Area’s Coordinating Group Chair, dispatch/coordination centers, and local units. They also worked under the direction and supervision of NMAC through a Team Coordinator (Joe Reinarz) and maintained frequent contact and communication through multiple daily briefings to the NMAC.

The Eastern Area released their plan in mid-April.

As this was updated at 1:36 p.m. MDT May 7, all of the plans are now available at the links below. NIFC had some problems with FireNET causing some of the links to not work over the last two days, but we were able to obtain from them direct links to the documents. Each one is about 80 to 110 pages.


California (Northern and Southern)

Eastern Area

Great Basin

Northern Rockies


Rocky Mountain

Southern Area


Let us know in a comment what you found most interesting in the plans.

BLM issues preemptive Moses letter to all employees

Moses letter

A message sent yesterday to all Bureau of Land Management employees is a version of what has been affectionally known over the years as a “Moses Letter”.

During the heat of an exceptionally busy wildfire season the top leadership of federal land management agencies sometimes send a message to all employees beseeching them to make as many people available as possible to help with the firefighting effort.

“Let My People Go!” is a line from the spiritual “Go Down Moses.” The phrase originates in the Book of Exodus 5:1:

And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness.

Yesterday’s message was sent by William Perry Pendley (who adds  “Esq.” after his name in his signature). Mr. Pendley is the Deputy Director for Policy and Programs in the BLM, but is serving as the effective head of the agency — the administration has left the position of BLM director empty for President Trump’s entire presidency.

Messages like this are not usually seen until mid- to late summer when thousands of firefighters are battling wildfires and resources are scarce. Anticipating resource shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the letter was sent preemptively, months earlier than has been typical.

Here is an excerpt from Mr. Pendley’s Moses Letter:

“During these challenging times, our firefighters need our help.  That is why we are working to provide opportunities to permit each one of us, safely and effectively, to support wildland firefighting in some capacity.  BLM employees can help in many areas other than operational firefighting, for example, finance, logistics, planning, and public information.  Incident Management Teams need members with these skills to support firefighters and communities.  Local area support is also needed in dispatch centers and fire supply caches.

“The need is real.  The National Interagency Fire Center’s Predictive Services group, which closely analyzes weather and vegetation to create the most accurate wildland fire outlook possible, foresees above-normal wildland fire activity this year.  Following a dry fall and winter, drought is emerging and expanding across California, Oregon, and Nevada, that is, much of the Great Basin near our headquarters in Grand Junction.  Additionally, we see increased use of our public lands during the pandemic, which could increase human-caused fires.

“For all these reasons, I’m asking managers to support employee participation in wildland fire support functions.  Fire managers have the responsibility to share training schedules and educate non-fire personnel on the opportunities available, and to provide safe wildland fire suppression operations during the pandemic.

“Support for emergencies such as wildland fire management may take precedence over non-emergency activities.  Workforce contingency plans set priorities and shift local capabilities in order to continue critical work when incident response is necessary.  Employees not qualified or otherwise unavailable to directly assist with wildland fires can indirectly support the effort by filling in behind their peers to ensure that the BLM’s important daily work continues uninterrupted.”

The song below is also known as “Let my people go.”