Forest Service chief directs agency administrators to let their people go (on fire assignments)

Wyrick Fire
Wyrick Fire in Arizona by Jeff Zimmerman, 7 p.m. June 20, 2021.

It has become common practice in a busy wildfire season f0r high-ranking people in D.C. to write letters to the field directing that red-carded employees, meaning they are qualified to assist on a fire in a specific capacity, be made available to be dispatched to a fire. This has been affectionally called the “Moses Letter.”

In a 2021 version of the letter signed July 14 by Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen she said, “We are seeing severe fire behavior that resists control efforts.”

As is the custom in years like this, she directed mission support supervisors to make all “red-carded” personnel available for fire assignments.

The Chief also asked regional and local Certifying Officials to consider granting a one-year certification for employees who hold expired red cards in non-operations and command positions where appropriate. But the request would not override the required medical or physical fitness standards. She also emphasized the “importance of wearing masks in fire camps where vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals are coming into contact with one another.” There was no mention of mandatory mask wearing.

Chief Christiansen also announced a significant change, increasing the required 2 days of rest after returning from a 14-day assignment to three days. In addition, “a two-day rest period for those working 14 continuous and extended days in support of local fire management.


[pdf-embedder url=”” title=”2021 Wildland Fire Priority Letter”]


Here are the dates of some other Moses Letters that we happened to mention on Wildfire today. There are no doubt many others.

  • 2020, May 5. BLM Director William Perry Pendley, the employee serving as the effective head of the agency since one was never nominated during that Administration, wrote what we called a preemptive Moses Letter.
  • 2015, August 18: Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell distributed the anticipated letter.
  • 2008, July 11, from the Forest Service.

In the Bible, Exodus 5:1, the Lord told Moses to tell the Pharaoh to “Let my people go” from bondage in Egypt. This phrase is the title of the one of the most well known African American spirituals of all time.

The video below was filmed at the Christmas concert at the town hall in Puteaux, France December 11, 2016. It begins at 2:44. The traditional words are:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand
Let my people go

Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go

Forest Service Chief sends his Moses letter

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.
Exodus 5:1 KJV

When firefighting resources become stretched thin, struggling to contain dozens of large fires across the United States, the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service usually sends a “Let my People Go” letter to all USFS units. Occasionally it is referred to as the “Moses Letter”, since he reportedly said it a few thousand years ago.

That happened today, August 18, when Chief Tom Tidwell distributed the anticipated letter. An excerpt is below.

…At this time, nearly all firefighting suppression capacity has been committed.  There are over 25,000 interagency firefighters deployed for wildland fire suppression operations nationwide.

I thank you for your continued commitment to furnishing all of the assets and people you can and support your decisions to postpone other priority work to address this critical time.  If your employees are red carded and available, I ask that their first priority be providing assistance for managing wildland fires.  Additional support in the variety of areas that keep firefighting operations running is also needed.  Every employee can do their part during this critical time…

–The 2008 version of the letter.
–The song, Let My People Go, performed by Paul Robeson.
–Various translations of the Bible verse with the phrase.


Newspaper story: not enough firefighters

Reporters for the Mercury News in Silicon Valley in California reviewed Incident Status Summary forms, ICS-209’s, from many of the California fires and harvested narrative comments from the forms regarding the availability of resources. The entire article is worth reading, but here are a few excerpts:

“A shortage of equipment and manpower has contributed to the spread of fires across the state, according to frustrated fire commanders trying to subdue the state’s 320 raging wildland blazes.

Internal reports from experts out in the field reveal repeated requests for additional help – and concern for their firefighters’ lives.

“All fires on the Complex are minimally staffed . . . Due to limited resources, there are some divisions unstaffed,” according to an incident status summary by Ron Roberts at the Shasta and Trinity County fire, the site of 34 injuries. “Operational adjustments have been made due to the lack of resources.”

In Kern County’s Piute Fire, commander Chris Hoff asked repeatedly for more officers, writing “Lack of overhead positions continue to hamper suppression efforts.” In a Humboldt County fire, called Hell’s Half Complex, commander Jess Secrest wrote that “Continued inability to fill critical resource orders increases the fire’s ability to enter residential areas, expected later this week.”

More than 700,000 acres have burned – and 99 homes lost – since a series of wildfires scorched the state. The destruction – particularly the expansion of a blaze into several Shasta-based towns – prompted the governor to deploy the state’s National Guard, the first time in 31 years.

On Thursday afternoon, secretary of the Homeland Security Michael Chertoff promised to provide federal helicopters to dump water. He also said he would send out-of-state fire fighters to train incoming National Guardsmen.”


“The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, which supervises staffing of the nation’s fires, has issued a report warning that California’s needs were “stretching the national response capability.”

“The situation in California, particularly the northern part of the state, is perhaps unprecedented and the needs for crews, aircraft, equipment and support are already acute,” it said. The group cautioned that “The rate of ‘unable to fill’ orders is increasing.”

Documents called “incident status summaries,” submitted by on-site commanders to U.S. Forestry Service and Cal Fire authorities, show repeated requests for help.

In the Canyon Fire, in Plumas County, two blazes have been reduced to “patrol status,” with no one to fight them, according to Commander Jeanne Pincha-Tulley. She wrote: “Lack of sufficient suppression resources, especially hand crews. . .Multiple crews are reaching their maximum work assignment. . .This reduction in resources may affect the predicted containment date and strategies if replacement crews are not assigned.”

At Hell’s Half Complex, “fire growth has continued. . .five fewer crews being available to work today’s shift.”

The number of concerns written into official reports signals how extreme the situation has become, some said.


An estimated 84 wildfires in California are burning “unstaffed,” according to the national coordinating group, “and have the potential to burn through much of the summer and into the fall until rainfall increases.”


Meanwhile, Governor Schwarzenegger today sent a letter to President Bush requesting help with the fires in California. Some of his requests include:

  • Federal active duty forces to provide additional Type II firefighting handcrews to meet shortages;
  • Additional out-of-state federal firefighters to provide training for National Guard personnel as Type II handcrews;
  • Increasing the “Maximum Efficiency Level” (MEL) for the U.S. Forest Service to 100 percent.


I wonder if the federal bean counters are still being assigned to all the large fires with the mission of nagging Incident Commanders to fight fire on the cheap?


Today the U.S. Forest Service sent out their almost-annual “let my people go” letter, reminding managers that:

Our foundation principles guide us to support local fire emergencies as a priority over resource targets. Non-local fire emergencies can be supported at the local line officer’s discretion…. Line officers must support these fire suppression efforts and ensure employees are available to support the current national response to wildfires.”

Sometimes the letter is referred to as “The Moses Letter”.

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.
— Exodus 5: 1 (KJV)