During the pandemic, Forest Service Chief emphasizes “rapid containment” of wildfires

Plus, our opinion about fighting fire during the pandemic

Price Valley Rx Fire 2019 Idaho Kari Greer
Price Valley Prescribed Fire in Idaho, 2019. Photo by Kari Greer.

The Chief of the U.S. Forest Service has laid out some very broad guidelines about how the agency will approach fire management during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a letter to Regional Directors dated April 3, 2020, Chief Victoria Christiansen said one of the objectives during this fire year will be to minimize the exposure from the virus and smoke to firefighters and communities. Local resources will be prioritized and the predominant strategy will be rapid containment, Chief Christiansen said.

Coronavirus Response wildfireAdditionally, resources should be committed to fires “only when there is a reasonable expectation of success in protecting life and critical property and infrastructure.”

Click here to read the full letter from Chief Christiansen.

Kari Cobb, a Public Affairs Officer with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise told us about some steps the federal wildland fire agencies are considering:

  • Hiring more seasonal employees than usual to help reduce risk;
  • Focusing on aggressive initial attack to quickly contain fires while relying more on aviation and local resources;
  • Social distancing by unit, without traditional fire camps and with quarantines both before and after fires;
  • Deploying resources in a way that minimizes travel to other geographic areas;
  • Where feasible, increasing technology use through virtual work to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus;
  • Setting up systems for screening, testing, quarantining, and tracking our firefighters;
  • Tailoring the way we communicate and coordinate with our workforce, partners, cooperators, and the public to the novel risks we face this year; and;
  • Shifting our workloads to respond to COVID-19, protect the public, and safely manage wildland fire throughout the fire year.

Area Command Teams

As we first reported on March 17, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) has assigned three Area Command Teams to work with partners at all levels in the fire community to develop protocols for wildfire response during the COVID-19 pandemic. The protocols will be integrated into Wildland Fire Response Plans and will be available to Geographic Areas, Incident Management Teams, and local units to help guide effective wildfire response. The Teams will also be working with and following guidance from federal, state, county and tribal health officials. Area Command Teams are working directly with NMAC and agency representatives; Geographic Area Coordination Groups; the National Wildfire Coordinating Group; dispatch and coordination centers; local units; and federal, state and county health officials as appropriate to ensure thorough and current wildfire response plans are in place.

Response plans will include procedures for potential wildland fire personnel infection, which will be led by the local State Health Department following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and protocol.

Annual training and fitness tests

The Fire Management Board reported last week that Work Capacity Tests, including Pack Tests, are suspended in 2020 for some returning employees.

The annual refresher training, RT-130, is also not required this year. Instead, employees are encouraged to complete a self-study refresher utilizing the WFSTAR videos and support materials. The Board recommends that the study include topics that focus on entrapment avoidance, related case studies, current issues, and other hazards and safety issues.

Many training events, meetings, and conferences that had been scheduled for months have been cancelled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Will firefighters be tested for COVID-19?

We asked Kaari E. Carpenter, a Lead Public Affairs Specialist with the Forest Service if wildland firefighters would be tested for the virus. She told us, “Specific risk-based protocols for how we will respond will be developed at the field level by line officers and through the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group.”

Ms. Carpenter said no Forest Service firefighters have tested positive for the virus or died from COVID-19. She did not say how many have been tested.

Leadership defers some COVID-19 decisions to field level

When asked if firefighters are still reporting for duty at their fire stations, Ms. Cobb replied, “Specific risk-based protocols for how fire stations are being staffed is developed at the field level by line officers and can vary by location.”

Our take

It is hard for me to conceptualize how small, medium, and large wildfires can be safely suppressed during this pandemic. Wildland firefighting in the best of times is one of the more hazardous occupations, but now, with no treatment, widespread testing, or vaccines for COVID-19 firefighters will be risking their lives at another level by working together as they always have. The three Area Command Teams have been laboring for 17 days to develop protocols for managing a wildland fire department during the pandemic, so it will be interesting to see what they are able to develop.

In a couple of examples above, important decisions about the health and safety of federal employees are being punted. Instead of leaders making tough decisions about how to protect personnel they are backing away and ordering them to be made at the field level. Leaders at the highest level should be making decisions about how to utilize testing, for example. Leaders at the Department or White House level should have the authority and responsibility to order that tests be made available for all wildland firefighters on a recurring basis. This is not a field level decision. The Area Command Teams should make this their Number One Recommendation. But firefighters ought not to have to wait for the Teams to put this in writing. Testing should have been implemented a month ago.

Time is being squandered.


The administration is keeping a very close handle on information about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting wildland fire management in the federal agencies. All of Wildfire Today’s official inquiries are passed along a chain that goes up to the headquarters of the agencies in Washington and then further, to the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture. Due to the laborious approval process, it is unusual to receive a substantive response in less than two days. Very specific questions about firefighting sometimes receive a response like, “we will follow guidance from local State Health Departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Forest Service’s new rule restricts photography in wilderness areas

(UPDATED at 8:15 p.m. MDT, September 25, 2014)

The Oregonian received some additional information from the U.S. Forest Service late today about the requirements of permits for photography in a wilderness area:

Tidwell’s statement said he was attempting to “clarify the agency’s intentions” and would not require a permit for news-gathering or recreational photographs in wilderness areas. Tidwell didn’t explain why others in his agency told The Oregonian the opposite just two days earlier.

On Tuesday, Liz Close, the agency’s acting wilderness director, said the Forest Service would permit reporting in wilderness depending on its subject matter, with exceptions for breaking news. “If you were engaged on reporting that was in support of wilderness characteristics, that would be permitted,” Close said.

The proposed rule states several times that permits are required for “still photography and commercial filming”. It does not specify that still photography for non-commercial uses does not require a permit.

The application for a permit for photography can be denied if a USFS official decides that there is a “suitable location outside of a wilderness area”. It can also be denied if a Forest Service official decides that the project does not have “a primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value”. That is a lot of subjective criteria to put in the hands of a Forest Service employee.

I conducted some additional research, and found that all of the details about this rule are to be found, not in the Federal Register, but in various USFS manuals, which then refer you to another manual, which then says, for example, the price of the photography permit fees are to be determined by each individual National Forest. So, it’s very confusing and time consuming to attempt to find out what the rules really are. There are 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. Navigating that jungle of bureaucracy could be a full time job.

Radio traffic for emergency management has transitioned from codes, like the the 10-codes (10-4, 10-22, 10-97) to clear text — actually using your words — that can be easily understood, without needing a translator if you are not versed in that particular version of jargon.

The U.S. Forest Service needs to write their rules in clear text.


(UPDATED at 3:05 p.m. MDT, September 25, 2014)

The Oregonian, which broke this story, reported today that the U.S. Forest Service is going to extend the comment period for the rule restricting photography in wilderness areas:

Amid growing public outcry, the U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday it will delay finalizing restrictive rules requiring media to get special permits to shoot photos or videos in wilderness areas.

The federal agency will allow public comment for an additional month, until Dec. 3, Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers said, and set up meetings to answer questions from journalists, wilderness groups and the public…


(Originally published at 2:56 p.m. MDT, September 24, 2014)

According to OregonLive, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing a new rule that would require reporters to apply for, and if approved, buy a permit to take photos in a wilderness area.

The U.S. Forest Service has tightened restrictions on media coverage in vast swaths of the country’s wild lands, requiring reporters to pay for a permit and get permission before shooting a photo or video in federally designated wilderness areas.

Under rules being finalized in November, a reporter who met a biologist, wildlife advocate or whistleblower alleging neglect in any of the nation’s 100 million acres of wilderness would first need special approval to shoot photos or videos even on an iPhone.

Permits cost up to $1,500, says Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers, and reporters who don’t get a permit could face fines up to $1,000.
First Amendment advocates say the rules ignore press freedoms and are so vague they’d allow the Forest Service to grant permits only to favored reporters shooting videos for positive stories…

Like the article says, the lines between reporters and an individual with an iPhone are blurry these days. What if a hiker sees something shocking about how the Forest Service is managing a wilderness area and submits a photo to a newspaper which then publishes it? Could they be breaking the law if they don’t buy a permit to take the photo? Does this give the USFS too much power to control what the public knows about how their lands are being managed?  It will be up to the local Forest Supervisor to decide on a case by case basis if the permit should be issued.

Are we going to have to edit the age old advice of, “Take only photos; leave only footprints”, adding an asterisk:

*However, if you are a “reporter” in a U.S. Forest Service wilderness area be sure to apply for and, if approved, buy a permit costing up to $1,500 to take a photograph.

You can read the Forest Service’s proposal here. At the top-right on that page you can click on “Submit a formal comment” if you have an opinion on the topic. You have until November 3, 2014 to tell the Forest Service what you think.

We are giving this our lame-ass ideas tag.

Failures of the “Open Government Initiative”

Open Government, President Obama
From the White House’s web site: http://www.whitehouse.gov/open

Unfortunately we have had to run this image previously on Wildfire Today when we pointed out examples of the U.S. Forest Service flagrantly violating the Open Government Initiative established by President Obama.

The latest occurrence is the agency’s refusal to fully cooperate with the investigations into the deaths of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona on June 30. The U.S. Forest Service provided so little information that it was described as “useless” by one of the investigation teams, short-circuiting an opportunity to learn lessons that may prevent future tragedies. They supplied heavily redacted documents and would not allow a hotshot crew that was working nearby during the accident to be interviewed. The agency cited the Privacy Act of 1974 as the reason for their intransigence. In the hundreds of investigation reports of serious accidents that have been completed over the last 80 years, I don’t recall any others in which the USFS refused to allow their employees to be interviewed due to the Privacy Act of 1974 or other similar concerns.

At Fire Aviation we first asked for a list of Type 1 helicopters that were on exclusive use contracts on April 16, 2013, hoping to receive it well before the western wildfire season got underway. We were told that the list was only available if we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which we did. After many delays, uncountable emails, excuses, and receiving incorrect information, we finally got it on September 26, five months after asking for it. Federal agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within 20 business days. In this case it took 167 days including weekends.

The USFS refused to release the $840,092 RAND air tanker study even after we filed a Freedom of Information Act Request. The agency told Wildfire Today  “…the report is proprietary and confidential RAND business information and must be withheld in entirety under FOIA Exemption 4″. Finally RAND released it two years after it was completed, but as far as we know the USFS never did. Somehow the USFS concluded that Exemption 4 did not apply to the other air tanker studies that have been completed, some of which were also done under contracts to private companies.

In lieu of new air tanker contracts, USFS extends expired contracts

P2V air tanker on Whoopup fire, July 18, 2011
P2V air tanker on Whoopup fire, July 18, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Updated at 1:44 p.m. MT, February 20, 2013

Since the U.S. Forest Service has not awarded any new contracts for next-generation, legacy, or very large air tankers and all existing contracts expired December 31, 2012, this left none available as the wildland fire season began in the southwest United States.

In order to mitigate this self-inflicted crisis, the USFS just extended Neptune’s 2012 expired contract through March 5 and Minden’s contract through April 22, according to information from Jennifer Jones of the agency’s office in Boise. The contract for the DC-10 has also been extended.

Red Flag Warnings have been issued three times this week for extreme wildland fire danger in New Mexico and western Texas.

It as has been 1 year, 2 months, and 20 days since the U.S. Forest Service issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded. Also waiting for a decision from the USFS are solicitations for 50+ year-old legacy air tankers and very large air tankers, such as the DC-10 and 747.

We inquired with the USFS about another product we are waiting on, the result of the $380,000 study that was supposed to have been completed in November by AVID that would “identify the appropriate number and types of aviation resources necessary to effectively meet future fire management needs”. This is the sixth air tanker study in the last 17 years.

Ms. Jones told us “the study has been completed and the Forest Service is currently reviewing it. When the review is completed, the report will be released to the public. No date has been set for that at this time.”

If it is released, it will be a pleasant change from how the USFS treated the last air tanker study, the RAND air tanker report which was stamped top secret. RAND released their $840,092 report July 30, 2012 two years after it was completed, but as far as we know the USFS never did, even after a Freedom of Information Act Request. The agency told Wildfire Today  “…the report is proprietary and confidential RAND business information and must be withheld in entirety under FOIA Exemption 4″.

Open Government, Presidennt Obama
From the White House’s web site: http://www.whitehouse.gov/open

This article was updated at 1:44 p.m. MT, February 20, 2013, providing more information about the AVID air tanker study.

Coulson to build a C-130H air tanker

C-130H and Firewatch 76
Coulson’s C-130H and Firewatch 76. Photo by Coulson.

Update at 1:20 p.m. MT, March 14, 2013: Brit Coulson told us a few days ago that they no longer plan to place a 5,000-gallon tank in the aircraft. It will be a 3,500 US gallon capacity tank instead.


The U.S. Forest Service may begin awarding contracts within the next several weeks based the responses to their solicitation for “Next Generation” air tankers which closed February 15, 2012 . The list of attendees at the January 11 pre-proposal conference provides some clues as to which companies are interested: Coulson, Cherokee Holdings, Erickson, Minden, Lockheed Martin, Aero Flite, Firebird, and Conair.

Britt Coulson, of Coulson Aviation, told Wildfire Today that they submitted a proposal for a C-130H which they intend to convert into an air tanker. The company has been in the aerial firefighting business since 1986 and currently has a fleet of five Sikorsky S-61 helicopters, two Bell Jet Rangers, and a very high-tech Sikorsky S-76. The S-76, or “Firewatch 76”, is outfitted with an array of sophisticated sensors for evaluating air tanker drops and the speedy helicopter serves as a bird dog or lead plane for their huge Martin Mars amphibious air tanker. In 2010 Coulson loaded the S-76 onto a 747 and transported it to Australia where it worked as an aerial platform for observing and evaluating drops made by 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10 air tanker when the state of Victoria tested the 11,600-gallon air tanker.

The Coulson C-130H was previously operated by the military, which put about 10,000 hours on it, then NASA picked it up and added another 3,000 hours. Now at 13,000 hours, the 30-year old aircraft is not very aged from an hours point of view, certainly when compared to a used airliner which might have four to eight times as many.

C-130H internal gravity tank
5,000-gallon internal retardant tank. Image provided by Coulson

Coulson has a design for a 5,000-gallon internal retardant tank that they intend to put inside the C-130H. They told us that a full 5,000-gallon gravity-fed tank weighs about the same as a pressurized 3,000-gallon tank that is used on the military MAFFS air tankers. The gravity tank does not have to have the heavy accessories like an air compressor, multiple smaller tanks, and complex piping. Gravity tank systems are much less complicated than pressurized systems. Colson will install constant-flow doors which will provide a dependable and consistent application of retardant.

One obstacle that could interfere with Coulson’s plans is the rumor that the U.S. Forest Service is looking for reasons to exclude ex-military aircraft from the awards from this “next generation” solicitation. Coulson said their C-130H meets all of the specifications in the solicitation, so they will be extremely disappointed, to say the least, if their proposal is disqualified or ignored based on the ownership history of the aircraft.

On the other hand, former Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, who oversaw the Forest Service when he worked in D.C., might be pleased. His new employer, Lockheed Martin, who hired him to lobby the federal government to buy the company’s “firefighting equipment”, would very much like to sell to the USFS or private companies a few dozen brand new C-130Js at $80 to $90 million a pop. Mr. Rey resigned from his post with the Department of Agriculture in January, 2009 and by July 6 he had already filed a Lobbying Report as a Lockheed Martin employee. This is interesting, because the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, according to Wikipedia, “prohibits Cabinet Secretaries and other very senior executive personnel from lobbying the department or agency in which they worked for two years after they leave their position”. In 2011 Lockheed Martin spent $15.2 million on lobbying in Washington.

USFS to pay for another air tanker study

P2V air tanker
P2V air tanker flying off into the sunset. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

The U.S. Forest Service is going to pay for still another air tanker study. The agency has issued a solicitation (AG-024B-S-12-0003) for private contractors to produce a report that:

…proposes at least three (3) alternatives that demonstrates the effectiveness of airtankers, heavy helicopters and water scoopers (defined in terms of aircraft use, aircraft characteristics, bases, contracts, costs, dispatching, mission objectives, tactics, strategy and communications).

This will be the sixth air tanker study in the last 17 years. Here is the list:

  1. 1995-1996: National Air Tanker Study (NATS)
  2. 2002: Blue Ribbon Panel report
  3. 2005: Wildland Fire Management Aerial Application Study
  4. 2007-2009: National Interagency Aviation Council, Interagency Aviation Strategy
  5. 2010: “An Examination of the United States Forest Service’s Need for Large Aviation”, by the Rand Corporation
  6. 2012: (this new study: “Aerial Firefighting Effective Use and Efficiency”)

(More details about these studies.)

The secret Rand air tanker study

In 2010 the USFS hired the Rand Corporation for an air tanker study that is being kept secret. The agency would not provide a copy of it even after we requested it under the Freedom of Information Act. They replied, saying “…the report is proprietary and confidential Rand business information and must be withheld in entirety under FOIA Exemption 4”. Their refusal letter went on to say: “The data, analysis, and conclusion in this report are not accurate or complete.” The letter also said they wanted “to protect against public confusion that might result from premature disclosure.” But, according to Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise, the agency paid the Rand Corporation $840,092. What a deal for Rand, for submitting an inaccurate and incomplete report.

The new study

This new report must be submitted within 154 days after the award, which makes it due as the 2012 fire season is winding down, probably in October or November.

The USFS ordered the writers of the 2010 Rand report to specifically exclude Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) from their study. The new solicitation does not exclude them in writing, but neither does it include them. It requires the contractor to:

Define the utility and operational parameters of large airtankers (LAT), heavy helicopters (defined as Type 1), and water scoopers in accomplishing the variety of aviation missions supporting wildfire management…

The solicitation repeatedly refers to “large air tankers (LAT)” being studied, so it appears that again VLATs will not be included since they are not mentioned at all. Apparently the USFS thinks they already have enough information about the DC-10, 747, and any other air tankers that can carry 5 to 10 times more retardant than the air tankers we are currently using. In other words, “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with facts”.

The aborted study

This is at least the second solicitation for an air tanker study that has been issued since the 2010 Rand report. The USFS announced on August 15, 2011 that they intended to award a second contract, at that time a non-competitive contract, to the Rand Corporation to continue studying the air tanker issue. It seemed counter-intuitive that anyone would award another contract, especially a non-competitive contract, to a company that months before had produced a similar product the same buyer described as inaccurate and incomplete. Two weeks later the USFS canceled the solicitation, “due to the responses received expressing interest in this procurement”. The USFS has not announced that any contracting officers or high-level managers were disciplined or fired over that debacle.

Why pay for another air tanker study?

This additional air tanker study continues the analysis paralysis of the last 17 years. Continuing to kick the can farther down the road decade after decade allows our leadership in Boise and Washington D.C. to postpone the terrible ordeal of making a decision. Their air tanker strategy appears to be: “Make no tough decisions, but continue to order and pay for study after study until we retire. Then let someone else deal with it.”

And while Rome our forests and grasslands burn, the USFS leadership fiddles around, making only 11 or 12 large air tankers available on exclusive use contracts this fire season, 75 percent less than we had 10 years ago.

Another theory about why the USFS repeatedly pays for more studies is that they will keep doing it until an “unbiased” outside expert submits a result that the agency silently is hoping for. For example, the 2010 Rand report recommended an emphasis on scooper air tankers. But the USFS has never awarded an exclusive use contract for scoopers, unless the two that USFS Chief Tom Tidwell referred to when he testified before Congress on March 6 turn out to be exclusive use. (He may have been referring to the two CL-215 scoopers that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has had on contract.)

It is a common belief that USFS leaders have a strong bias against scoopers, even though many agencies have had great success with them, including: Los Angeles County, Minnnesota, North Carolina, Department of Interior, Canada, and several countries in Europe. According to the Rand report, when a suitable body of water is reasonably close, a scooper can deliver more gallons onto a fire and at a much lower annualized cost than a conventional air tanker or a large helicopter, especially when considering the cost of retardant, which ran $1.97 per gallon on the Fourmile fire in Colorado in 2010.

On a news program today someone described military officers as being decisive. My first thought was that effective managers and leaders in the fire service are decisive. (As proof, I offer the 2008 Sprint-Nextel commercial.) I’ve worked with hundreds of them. Then I thought about the inability of the U.S. Forest Service leadership to make a decision about a specific and detailed long term air tanker strategy.

The White House declares Open Government – except for the U. S. Forest Service?

I can’t find anything in this new 62-page solicitation that says the information submitted will remain private, secret, proprietary, or confidential — or, that the public is likely to be confused by its disclosure. I will be very interested to see if the U.S. Forest Service treats this report, like the Rand report, as secret as the information held in the vaults of the CIA. Mr. Tidwell and Tom Harbour, USFS Director of Fire and Aviation, should remember that the cover-up is worse than the original crime.

Open Government, President Obama
From the White House’s web site: http://www.whitehouse.gov/open

The principles of Open Government, as described by Mr. Tidwell’s boss, do not necessarily apply to the operations of the CIA, but the U.S. Forest Service is in a very different category.