Forest Service Chief’s letter covers fire use and work-rest guidelines for firefighters

The annual Letter of Intent for Wildfire

Randy Moore Forest Service
Randy Moore, 20th Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore has released what has become in recent years an annual ritual, a Chief’s Letter of Intent.

This year’s version dated April 14 begins with a discussion about the 2021 fire year and the new emphasis on increasing hazardous fuels reduction work by two to four times current levels. (The full document is below.) Then he moved to other subjects.

Suppress, or not suppress fires

Tucked away in a paragraph about COVID is a sideways reference to fire suppression strategy: “Finite resources require making choices, including to commit firefighters only to operations where they have a high probability of success and can operate effectively with no exposure to unnecessary risk to meet reasonable objectives.” Three paragraphs later the Chief mentions “using fire on the landscape”, and then:

I recognize that can be controversial and cause concern. Therefore, we must have a clear understanding of when, where, how and under what conditions we use this tool. We do not have a “let it burn” policy. The Forest Service’s policy is that every fire receives a strategic, risk-based response, commensurate with the threats and opportunities, and uses the full spectrum of management actions, that consider fire and fuel conditions, weather, values at risk, and resources available and that is in alignment with the applicable Land and Resource Management Plan. Line officers approve decisions on strategies and Incident Commanders implement those through tactics in line with the conditions they are dealing with on each incident. We know the dynamic wildland fire environment requires the use of multiple suppression strategies on any incident; however, this year we will more clearly articulate how and when we specifically use fire for resource benefit. The Red Book will be updated to require that during National and/or Regional Preparedness Levels 4 and 5, when difficult trade-off decisions must be made in how to deploy scarce resources most effectively, Regional Forester approval will be required to use this fire management strategy. This is commensurate with Red Book prescribed fire direction during these periods.

Firefighter well-being

The letter from the Chief mentions that high stress working environments and extensive time away from families can affect a firefighter’s physical and psychological resilience.

To help address these very real problems, changes have been made to Chapter 7 of the 2022 Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book) that update work-rest guidelines to require three days of rest for every 14 days worked, excluding travel days, upon return to their home unit.

Pay and a firefighter job series

The paragraph about work-rest guidelines ends with two sentences about firefighter pay and a job series:

Work is also ongoing with the Department of the Interior and the Office of Personnel Management to develop a wildland firefighter series and improve pay parity to better recognize the value of the work done by our wildland firefighters. We will continue to provide information on these efforts as they move forward and will engage with our wildland firefighters to ensure their voices are part of this work.


The Chief wrote that the Forest Service “will align our COVID-19 mitigation strategies with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with respect to masks and testing of our firefighters.” There was no mention of requiring vaccinations. The text at the CDC link  has statements such as, “Layered prevention strategies — like staying up to date on vaccines, screening testing, ventilation and wearing masks — can help limit severe disease and reduce the potential for strain on the healthcare system.”

The letter also says the FS will “continue with small, dispersed fire camps and remote incident management.”

Our take

With difficulties in hiring and retention, and the consumer price index rising by 8.5% over the past 12 months — the largest inflation surge in 40 years — a much broader discussion about pay and a growing unease and dissatisfaction in the firefighter ranks should have been job number one in the Intent letter. Thought should have been given to addressing the inability to fill jobs, skilled firefighters resigning, and positions being vacant for years. Some firefighters are considering this year to be a put up or shut up moment. For them it is important to know exactly where the Chief of the Forest Service, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Administration stand on allowing firefighters to earn a living wage, and what, if any, progress has been made to fix these issues. An honest Report on Conditions is needed — now. This letter, which is meant to be distributed down to the lowest levels, was a squandered opportunity. Maybe these problems have been addressed in another venue, but in this widely circulated missive, just quickly glossing over matters that are critical to the workforce, was a mistake.

In an April 5 hearing before a congressional committee, USFS Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry Jaelith Hall-Rivera said, “I do think we are on pace [to meet the hiring goal of increasing the number of USFS firefighters by 1,300]. We are seeing a very high acceptance rate in our permanent and seasonal permanent firefighting positions.” Maybe Chief Moore is receiving similar rosy information about the state of his workforce.

[pdf-embedder url=”” title=”Forest Service Chief’s Letter of Intent for Wildfire – 2022″]

One National Forest will have two 30-person hotshot crews next year

And, three 10-person engine crews

Angeles National Forest pilot program for Engine crew to have 10 personnel
Angeles National Forest pilot program for Engine crew with 10 personnel, working 12-hour days. “D/O” means day off.

During the last three weeks there has been a surprising amount of discussion about increasing the size of wildland fire crews. One national forest is hiring 30-person hotshot crews and 10-person engine crews.

  • October, 20, 2021: Tim Swedberg recommended 30-person hotshot crews in an article on Wildfire Today;
  • October 27, 2021: In testimony before the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Natural Resources, Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Forest Service Chief for State and Private Forestry said, “We need to have larger crew sizes, so that people can take time off so they can rest and have a work/life balance. That’s going to mean we are going to need more firefighters.”
  • November 9, 2021: Ms. Hall-Rivera sent a memo to all U.S. Forest Service Regional Foresters directing them to add five firefighters to Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC) to bring the size up to 25.

However, the effort to increase the size of USFS crews had been seriously discussed earlier. Wildfire Today has learned that the Angeles National Forest (ANF) in Southern California developed a proposal in 2018 for 30-person Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC). Not only that, but we have obtained two memos written August 12, 2021 by the Fire Chief of the ANF recommending a pilot program for IHCs to be staffed with 30 people and engine crews to have 10.

Below is the ANF memo dated August 12, 2021 about 30-person hotshot crews.

[pdf-embedder url=”” title=”30-person Interagency Hotshot Crews”]


And next is the ANF memo dated August 12, 2021 about 9 or 10-person engine crews. (Since then, they have decided on 10-person engine crews.)

[pdf-embedder url=”” title=”ANF Engine Staffing”]


The Angeles National Forest (ANF) is not only proposing larger IHC and engine crews, they are stepping out ahead of the crowd according to a person who prefers not to publicly disclose their identity. In recent weeks they completed hiring to have two 30-person hotshot crews and three 10-person engine crews in 2022. The newly selected personnel (promotions of existing permanent employees) will be effective in January, 2022. The crews will be fully staffed to start annual training in April.

One of the ANF memos states, “Although this [20-person IHC] model was effective for decades the current standard does not provide the depth to meet the higher demands for crew availability to provide employee wellbeing or meet the needs of crew availability across the fire year…This proposed module will increase capacity from 12 pay periods (6 Months) of availability to 18 Pay Periods (9 Months) of availability. This proposal will significantly improve work life balance for Hotshot firefighters… Although the IHC will have a full 3rd squad, the IHC will maintain the current deployment/mobilization standards of 20 personnel. Adherence to the current mobilization standard of 20 personnel will allow for an ongoing rotation for the 3rd module to stand down and remain “local only”. This stand-down period will help to provide ample opportunities for hotshot firefighters to manage annual leave and balance work with time at home. This will also help to provide the workload pacing to sustain a crew for 9 months while better managing the effects of cumulative fatigue and burn out. Finally, it will provide increased capacity for employees to develop for the next level of leadership through single resource assignments.”

Configuration of the 30-person ANF IHC

Two ANF IHCs will each add seven apprentice/Permanent Seasonals working at least 18 pay periods, a third hotshot Captain, a third squad leader, and two senior firefighters.

ANF IHC staffing pilot program
ANF Interagency Hotshot Crew pilot program staffing pattern.

Configuration of the 10-person ANF Engine Crew

To the standard USFS Region 5 (California) Type 3 engine crew of seven people working five days a week, the upgraded crew will add three positions — a second Engineer, a second Assistant Fire Engine Operator, and a third Senior Firefighter. With the 12 hours per day staffing pattern, which we have been told the ANF has selected, they will work three days one week and four the other, with three days off in a row and four days off in a row during a two-week pay period. All of these staffing patterns call for five on each day.

History of IHC crew size

Since the early 1970s IHCs have been comprised of 20 people, or recently in some cases as many as 22 to help account for attrition, difficulty hiring, personal time off, sickness, and injuries. In 1970 El Cariso Hotshots had 36 people. When the size was reduced the next year, the story we were told was that the Forest Service wanted to use 20-passenger de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft, which began production in 1966, to move crews around. So their decision was to cut the size of the crews to fit that airplane. There may have also been other reasons.

As a crew foreman at the time, I thought 20 people was too many to work together efficiently as one unit to dig line in most fuels, and a 10-person squad was too few. I felt that 13 to 14 crew members was the most efficient size to work together while digging line, which you would have with a 28 to 30-person crew broken into two squads, allowing for the Superintendent and lookouts. Those numbers can change in very light or very heavy fuels.

Confusion at a National Forest as requests for work boot stipends is six times what was expected

Boots can cost more than $500

Update at 11:40 a.m. PDT April 22, 2021

The Deputy Regional Forester for the Pacific Northwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service (R6), Debbie Hollen, confirmed the boot stipend policy in an email that circulated on April 21, 2021:

I can confirm that ALL R6 employees who are eligible for a boot stipend will receive one.  This article is an example of an unfortunate misunderstanding, that we hope is limited to one National Forest.   I know we have tried to ensure understanding of the change in policy related to both the stipend, and the new budget structure across the entire RLT.   Boots are covered in FY21.

It remains to be seen if this ALL employees statement applies to all FS regions. On April 20 I asked Debra Schweizer, Acting Public Affairs Specialist in the FS Washington Office that question by email, “Will the boot stipend be available to every employee who qualifies this year?” If I receive a reply it will be posted here. Earlier she had written that the Washington Office “has been working with regions directly to ensure there are enough funds nationally available to cover all fire employees that participate in the program.”

Originally published at 1:38 p.m. PDT April 20, 2021

firefighter boots
USFS photo by Jordan Gulley, Redmond Hotshots

Some field-going personnel on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon, including those with fire duties, are being told they may have to purchase some of their own required personal protective equipment this year.

In the Forest Service, certain field-going personnel and all Forestry Technicians who fight fires are required to have boots that meet the agency’s specifications — at least 8 inches high, lace-type work boots, with lug melt-resistant soles. Prices for most models range from $340 to $560. If worn by firefighters who put a lot of miles on them, the boots have to be rebuilt, repaired, or replaced regularly.

Merv George, Forest Supervisor, Rogue River-Siskiyou NF
Merv George, Forest Supervisor, Rogue River-Siskiyou NF, USFS photo

Since 2015 the Forest Service has been giving personnel who are required to have these boots a stipend up to $300 every three years to help defray the cost. On October 1 of last year it was increased to $500. The three-year schedule was then reset for everyone, which meant they all could apply for the stipend again.

Two employees on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest told Wildfire Today that this year they were informed that not everyone who qualifies will receive a full stipend because there is not enough money available.

An explanatory email sent March 29 from the Administrative Officer on the Rogue River -Siskiyou NF laid out the new policy according to Merv George, the Forest Supervisor. Eligible employees were told to submit their stipend requests by April 19 “for final review and determination of reimbursement amount.” And…

Please note: based on the number of Forest-wide requests, the full reimbursement of $500 will not be honored if total cost exceeds our allocation; instead, Merv’s decision is to split the number of requests received by the amount allocated – this includes fire and non-fire employees, for consistency…Permanent employees remain priority and if funding remains available after covering permanent staff, we may look to support temporary employee requests.  Requests shall be submitted for employees who truly need/needed replacement boots and only employees with a position description identifying boots as a requirement will be considered.

The boot policy obtained from the USFS website seems fairly clear:

USFS Boot Stipend policy
USFS Boot Stipend policy. From USFS website April 17, 2021.

On April 19 I asked Forest Supervisor Merv George if everyone on the Rogue River-Siskiyou NF who is required to have boots that meet the agency’s specifications will receive the $500 stipend. He replied by email that afternoon:

The answer to your question all depends on how many employees submit a reimbursement request.  I have sat aside $10k for this purpose as of now. Unfortunately the forest does not receive any extra funding for these reimbursements. Instead it is expected that they will be absorbed by our existing salary and expense line item.

If more than 20 people submit reimbursement requests that will use up the $10k I will try and find more money….meaning hiring less [temporary employees] for this season. Or we can divide up the $10k by the number and give everyone an equal share. No decisions have been made because we are still waiting to see how many folks are requesting it this year.

Sorry if it sounds complicated but until the authors of the boot policy can find a way to help the field pay for them….units are navigating this dynamic tension.

Bottom line…the leadership team and I will do our best to make the $500 reimbursement happen for all our staff who request it.

Later that afternoon I heard from Mr. George again, saying:

I just learned that I have 130 boot reimbursement requests as of now. This puts me well over the $10k I had budgeted for. I just spoke with our new R6 Fire Director about this issue too. Looks like we may see some economic help from the region on this. As I mentioned before, I will do everything I can to honor this policy.

I reached out to the Forest Service Washington Office and explained the situation in Oregon.

Debra Schweizer, Acting Public Affairs Specialist responded by email:

The Washington Office, Fire and Aviation Management, has been working with regions directly to ensure there are enough funds nationally available to cover all fire employees that participate in the program.

One of the Forestry Technicians that reached out to us last week had strong feelings. They wanted their name withheld.

These types of leaders treat the budget like it’s taking food off their own dinner plate and it’s disheartening. I’m also really irritated at the Forest and the Agency for specifically targeting the boot stipend as a way to screw people. EVERY OTHER PROFESSION I’ve seen has provided employees PPE, so why would the Agency ask people to buy these extremely expensive boots out of pocket on the ‘chance’ that they get reimbursed? Can you imagine the outcry if the public heard that the Seattle Fire Department expected their employees to buy their own bunker gear or SCBAs?

Workforce capacity in the U.S. Forest Service

forest service workforce capacity study

The National Association of Forest Service Retirees (NAFSR) conducted an analysis of the capacity of the Forest Service’s workforce. They looked at the existing characteristics of the agency and conducted lengthy interviews with 33 employees in all nine regions.

Topics covered in the interviews:

  • Leadership, culture, and direction,
  • Workforce capacity,
  • Consolidation and zoning,
  • On the ground management, and,
  • Partnerships.

The recommendations of the NAFSR:

  1. Hire employees with skill sets necessary to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration.
  2. Totally revamp the hiring process, streamlining procedures, removing all roadblocks and restoring connections with field units.
  3. Eliminate unnecessary administrative burdens.
  4. Increase funding to hire new employees, contract work and enter into partnerships.
  5. Delegate authority to field units.
  6. Implement all actions previously suggested by NAFSR, including administrative reforms and the 2021 budget initiative.

You can download the cover letter (.docx file) the group sent to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, as well as the 11-page report (.pdf file). The documents are intended to be shared with anyone who has an interest.

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

Forest Service releases recruitment videos

Above:  Screen grab from U.S. Forest Service recruitment video featuring Johnny Walker.

The U.S. Forest Service has released four videos that appear to be designed to entice more people to apply for wildland fire jobs within the agency. Considering the allegations of sexual harassment within the agency during the last two years it is interesting that three of the four people featured in the videos are women.

OIG reports on investigations of sexual harassment in Forest Service

The OIG recommended that only contractor investigators or investigators from other Federal agencies be used for these complaints

The Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General has issued a report on how the Forest Service has handled investigations into complaints of sexual misconduct and harassment within the agency. The document was released about the same time the Chief of the FS resigned while facing allegations of sexual misconduct disclosed on the PBS NewsHour program.

The objective of the report was to evaluate the effectiveness of the investigations. The FS is part of the Department of Agriculture, so this process was basically an internal investigation.

The OIG found through interviews with 69 current and former FS employees in Region 5 (California) that 33 of them expressed some level of mistrust in FS’ process for handling sexual harassment and sexual misconduct complaints.

The OIG recommended that for a year the FS try using only contract investigators or investigators from other Federal agencies. The FS agreed with this recommendation and stated they could implement it by March 30, 2019.

The entire 9MB OIG report is here, and below is a graphic from the document.

Office of inspector general sexual harassment