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.”

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)