Elmo Fire spreads toward Lake Mary Ronan in Montana

We discovered it is difficult to find evacuation information

Updated 4:33 p.m. MDT August 4, 2022

Elmo Fire map, north end, 3-08 p.m. Aug. 4, 2022
Elmo Fire map, north end. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 3:08 p.m. Aug. 4, 2022. The fire continues to spread closer to Lake Mary Ronan.

A satellite overflight at 3:08 p.m. MDT Thursday detected heat from the Elmo Fire very close to the south end of Lake Mary Ronan.

There are many structures on the east side of the lake. The Incident Management Team said Thursday morning they hoped to keep the fire from spreading beyond Camp Tuffit Road.

Updated 3:23 p.m. MDT August 4, 2022

Elmo Fire 3-D map 4:39 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022
Elmo Fire 3-D map 4:39 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022.

The Elmo Fire which started July 29 continues to spread north toward Lake Mary Ronan. The south edge is secure along Highway 28, but firefighters are having a difficult time stopping the northward progression through the timber as it approaches the lake.

The fire was mapped Wednesday night at 20,616 acres. The east side of the fire is very close to Flathead Lake and it appears likely that the north side will reach Lake Mary Ronan.

Elmo Fire map 5:02 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022
Elmo Fire map. The red dots represent heat detected by satellites at 5:02 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022. The white line was the perimeter at 12:53 a.m. August 1, 2022.

On Wednesday winds increased out of the southwest in the afternoon resulting in upslope runs, spotting, and significant growth on the north side, limiting firefighters’ ability to engage directly on the fire’s edge.  All areas of the fire were supported by numerous aircraft dropping water and retardant.

On Thursday firefighters are focusing on Camp Tuffit Road and are working to hold the fire as it approaches the southeast shore of Lake Mary Ronan. Firefighters are prepping structures and constructing secondary firelines.

The Flathead Beacon reported that four homes have been destroyed, quoting an information officer at the fire.

It is not easy to find up to date evacuation information for this incident. At InciWeb the last time it was mentioned was on August 2, 2022 (no time was included). It listed a change, then said “all prior evacuations are in effect.” But there was no link to “prior evacuations”.  The change at that time was to include “all residents residing north and south of Hwy 352 (Lake Mary Ronan Road) and all residents who live along Lake Mary Ronan. ”

Another announcement on InciWeb said, “At approximately 2 PM, Northern Rockies Incident Management Team 7 recommended the evacuation of the Lake Mary Ronan corridor to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.”

No date or time was included in the announcement, other than “three days ago.”

Our take
Ordering the public to evacuate and leave their homes is an earth-shattering event for most residents. It can mean the difference between life and death. Then there are the practical logistics of hauling off your critical medicines, documents, family photos, electronics, and pets, then finding a place to shelter which may involve a large expenditure of money.

For the Incident Management Team to treat the evacuation so casually, is not acceptable.

Firefighters do not order an evacuation. They may recommend it, but it can only be ordered and implemented by law enforcement. If the Incident Management Team does not have the current information, they should at least provide a link so someone can easily find this critical data. Assuming that the general public visiting InciWeb will happily mentally cut and paste little bits of evacuation information from multiple web pages to form a complete picture of whether they have to evacuate or not, is poor incident management.

I conducted a search in an attempt to find the information that may have been posted by a law enforcement or emergency management agency, with no success.

When I discovered this issue, I asked the Incident Management Team if they knew of one place where a citizen could get the information, and was told that it was on their InciWeb page under “Announcements.” The email reply was not signed by a person, just “Public Information, Northern Rockies Team 7.” Apparently no one there wants to be held accountable.

“If the announcement is a couple days old, then no changes have occurred to evacuations,” the reply said. “We will continue to post Evacuation updates here as soon as we hear from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.”

An Incident Management Team should either:

  1. Provide accurate, complete, easy to understand, current evacuation information. OR:
  2. Provide a link to a website that has the information.

If an Incident Management Team finds that their recommendation for evacuation has not been implemented, or has not been communicated to the public in a useful way, the Incident Commander should follow up. Maybe the local jurisdiction rarely has to implement evacuations and does not have a check list of all the steps that must be taken. It can be turned into a teachable moment. But the follow up must occur.

Opinion: With fires in Flagstaff and northern Arizona, it’s not a matter of if, but when

Tunnel Fire, April 19, 2022
Tunnel Fire north of Flagstaff, AZ, April 19, 2022, as seen from O’Leary Lookout in Northern Arizona. USFS photo.

This article first appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun. It is used here with their permission and the author’s.

Arizona Daily Sun Editor’s note: This is a bit unusual, to run a column on the front page, but I thought Mark’s perspective from his more than two decades working with Hotshots was a valuable read. He wrote this on a personal basis and not on behalf of any fire or forest management organization.

By Mark Adams

This has been a rough year for extreme fires in Flagstaff.

Before most of the U.S. Forest Service seasonal workforce was even finished with their mandatory two weeks of training, the Tunnel Fire started in one of the windiest areas of the San Francisco Peaks, during one of the windiest springs I can remember. In addition to that, it was located in the Schultz burn scar, which, at 12 years old, was primed for a fast-moving and difficult-to-contain fire due to the tall grass and kiln-dried logs that are easily receptive to any hot ember that decides to land on it. The Tunnel is what one seasoned “fire dog” referred to as a career fire — meaning that experiencing a fire like that happens once a career, if at all.

Amazingly, this fire was in mid-April, and sadly, many structures were lost, despite the huge, aggressive firefighting effort. The Tunnel Fire was unprecedented for the amount of damage caused in that short amount of time. In a typical year the Coconino averages around 175 fires, and nearly all of them are caught early and mostly go unnoticed by the average Flagstaffian. This summer we have had around 23 fires already and two of them have become career fires. Both escalated to become the No. 1 priority fires in the nation, the Tunnel and now the Pipeline Fire.

I moved to Flagstaff 28 years ago from the East Coast and like most other Flagstaff transplants, the Peaks drew me here and have been my sacred place. The Peaks are the heart and soul of Flagstaff; some might say they are the heart and soul of the state. When I moved here, I knew nothing about wildfires. The little I did know was from what I saw on the news about the Yellowstone fires of 1988. Like most people, I didn’t understand why fire managers were letting Yellowstone burn and not putting them out; I was mad that all those forests were burning. If the internet had been around, I would have been a loud critic of the Forest Service, just like so many people today commenting in online forums like they are experts in forest and fire management.

Fast forward many years later, after a long career as a Hotshot, I now better understand wildfire and the critical role it plays throughout our Western forests. All of the forests are flammable and will burn, eventually. The work we do and our efforts each year are done in hopes that they burn under our terms.

During my career, my crew and I have been emergency-shifted from one fire to another two times. The first time was on an afternoon in 2010 when I was a Mormon Lake Hotshot and we were on the Tecolote Fire in New Mexico. The radio sounded out from Incident Command: “Get Flagstaff and Mormon Lake hotshots off the mountain and come to ICP and demob immediately, there is a situation on the Peaks in Flagstaff.” In a matter of hours (which is lightning fast in federal government time), we were out of the Santa Fe Wilderness and on the road home to help fight the Schultz Fire. The next day we were briefing with fire managers at the Chevron station on Highway 89. We would be deployed behind the homes of Timberline and tasked with doing whatever we could to protect them.

History repeated itself this week. While on the Cerro Bandera Fire south of Grants, New Mexico, I received a text from Flag Dispatch of a new start. These texts come daily and normally I read them and say to myself, “Oh, they’ll catch that one” — because we do 98% of the time. This time was different. Upon checking the text, I immediately realized this one could be a problem — it’s windy and it’s in a bad spot. After making a few phone calls, once again my crew and I were quickly released and on the way back home to protect the mountain we and so many others love so much. We made it to the fire seven hours after it was first reported, lightning fast considering we started that day in a different time zone.

Pipeline Fire north of Flagstaff June 13, 2022, by @russdussel
Pipeline Fire north of Flagstaff June 13, 2022, by @russdussel

Luckily that night we were able to help others piece together a plan and save many homes through quick action and, ironically, having the already burned ground of the Tunnel Fire helping us. Had that fire scar not been there, the Pipeline Fire would have destroyed many more homes than the Tunnel Fire had.

The next few days, grueling work was put in by my crew and many other crews from around the nation. I am forever grateful to the three Hotshot crews from California that were with us on the ridge below Fremont Peak. Ninety people hiked in and out every day, working some tough ground that spanned from 8,500 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The air was thin, the hazards were too numerous to count and if someone got hurt, medical extraction would be challenging. The alternative to this option was not good. Had we not been up to the work, the fire would have continued to the west and with the strong westerly winds gone, it would have torched the entire mountain. All of Flagstaff would have been buried under sandbags for the foreseeable future.

Flagstaff dodged another bullet. We got lucky — lucky the firefighting resources were available, lucky they recognized the situation, lucky we were willing to accept the risk of injury or worse. It’s coming. It’s only a matter of time. All of the Peaks, minus the rocks, are flammable and will burn someday.

End of story.

Recognizing and accepting this will only help to protect our Peaks. I say this because we have altered the natural cycle of fire for far too long. Now we have one of the most sacred places in the Southwest that is primed and more than ready for a catastrophic fire. Our challenge is to ensure that it doesn’t burn all at once and try to stay as close to the natural cycle as possible. And that natural cycle includes stand-replacing fires. We have a long way to go in protecting not only the Peaks but our forests in general, and it is time that we wake up and do what needs to be done. Everyone talks a good game, but we all can do more to ensure that we have healthy ecosystems to live in for generations to come.

There are ways that we, as a community, can limit the catastrophic results of the Big One:
1. Allow for day use only on the Peaks and Dry Lake Hills near Highway 89, 180 and across Forest Road 418.
2. Follow all campfire restrictions.
3. Educate the influx of out-of-towners moving here, often unaware of our wildfire-dependent and prone ecosystem.
4. Do everything in your abilities to prepare your home/property for wildfire. The 10 years you prepare before a fire are far more important than the 10 minutes or even hours before a fire — no matter how many engines, crews, airtankers and helicopters are available.
5. Support and obey any forest closures and don’t whine about it!
6. Get used to smoke! Support aggressive, forward-thinking fire management, including managing fires under the right conditions on the Peaks and across the forest.
7. Reward and support active fire and forest management, including prescribed burning, even if there is an occasional bad outcome (99.8% of all prescribed fires are successful).
8. Question managers that do not take risks, by choosing the safe route — putting all forest fires out small, never managing a fire for resource benefit and not conducting as many prescribed fires as possible. They are just kicking the can down the road.

The Peaks are going to burn again and I would much rather they burn when we say so. Not when a campfire or burning toilet paper decides to get one going in the wrong spot on the wrong day. The choice to manage a fire or light a torch for prescribed fire is not one that we take lightly, the responsibility is huge! Things sometimes go wrong despite the best intentions. But the alternative of doing nothing has only one outcome and it’s not good.

Remember, it’s not if, it’s when.

Mark Adams has been a Hotshot on the Coconino National Forest since 1999, working on all three crews: Blue Ridge, Mormon Lake and Flagstaff Hotshots. He is currently the superintendent of the Flagstaff Hotshots. He wrote this as a concerned resident of the Flagstaff area — not as a representative of the Forest Service or Coconino National Forest.

Opinion: Rebuttal to Forest Service Deputy Chief’s statement

Firefighter with chainsaw
Firefighter with chainsaw. NWCG photo.

(Editor’s note: this was written by a person who asked to remain anonymous.)

After reading the press release from Jaelith Hall-Rivera, I felt a need to reply. And I want to thank Wildfire Today for running my opinion here.

Jaelith Hall-Rivera is the Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry, and her boss is the Chief of the US Forest Service, Randy Moore. Jaelith’s department is Fire and Aviation Management, which houses the wildfire programs that firefighters work. There is no excuse for her testimony to differ from her bosses testimony, yet that is exactly what happened. It’s almost as if Jaelith’s press release came out before Chief Moore testified the previous day in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee. While Jaelith assured California representatives that they were on pace to have full staffing in California, just 30 days later Chief Moore testified that California, Oregon and Washington may be 50% staffed, something Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley called, “a scary situation.”

Multiple articles have been published since Jaelith’s testimony on April 5th, pointing out that she falsely painted a rosy picture to legislators when the situation was dire. Read excellent articles about the testimony from NBC News, Thomson Reuters and BuzzFeed, and listen to the audio of an NPR interview with the BuzzFeed reporter.

Watch all the testimonies from April 5th, to April 27th, to May 4th and see how they change.

Jaelith testified on April 5th that their goal for staffing was 11,300 wildland firefighters, stating “and that is an increase.” But looking at a memo from Jaelith last fall, she claims that the USFS provided bonuses to 11,300 wildland firefighters (GS3-9 only) last year. So even if they are at 90% of that now, then that represents a 10% LOSS at minimum. Something is wrong here: either Jaelith lied about the numbers, or the USFS sent bonuses to a lot of people last year that should not have received them. Either way, it doesn’t instill confidence in the Forest Service Management.

There is a lie somewhere, and the misrepresentation to Representative Porter is infuriating for a workforce. Claiming we are on pace to be fully staffed when the spring fire hire event had not even started is misrepresenting the truth, at best. Especially when the same Fire Hire event in 2021 only netted an additional 56 hires. Why would this year be any different when the work environment and pay have continued to devolve?

Finally, Randy Moore decided to do some damage control and admit that although they were at 90% nationally, in some areas such as California, Oregon and Washington, staffing was as low as 50%. Again, that’s a shocking statement, but the numbers still don’t add up.

California makes up about 50% of the USFS firefighting workforce, so if they are near 50%, as well as Oregon and Washington, then how can we realistically be above 60-75% staffing nationally? This is 4th grade math: averages.

As a workforce, we simply want truth and transparency. That’s really the minimum. There can’t be that many FMOs in the USFS. Tell each of them to spend 30 minutes entering in the data from their district so we know exactly what positions are vacant. And make this database public and searchable. This database would take a GS6 a day or two to complete, and another 30-60 minutes for each FMO to fill out. Until this project is completed, we can assume the USFS either has no idea what their staffing level is, or they are lying about it.

I want to offer solutions whenever I offer criticism, so here are a few more:

1. Explain very clearly what the holdup is with the funded infrastructure pay raises, and what your plan is for payments including backpay as stated by law.

2. Explain your goal for what a career ladder looks like, even if it doesn’t become reality. Will we be able to have a living wage? Or should we get out now?

3. Start showing some receipts. Show you care. Why are NFFE and Grassroots Wildland Firefighters lobbying the Secretary of Labor instead of our own agency? Why are senators asking for OWCP reforms instead of our own agency? My friend was seriously injured and the USFS told him to call a charity. Is that acceptable to those in the Washington Office?

4. Rebuild the credibility of the USFS Washington Office by including an average employee (GS5-7) on all planning and workforce related meetings. Allow them to represent the workforce, and to the workforce. This would be a detail assignment

5. Explain exactly how we can increase not only our female participation in the workforce (6% of Fire workforce), but other minorities as well as LGBTQ individuals and what actionable items are happening now to make that happen.

6. Credibility only comes with transparency. Our workforce has never been more united and connected through shared struggle and technology. We have more knowledge of the situation than our predecessors and can see through the misinformation and deceit. We will not sit by idly or submit to threats from the DC office. Accountability, authenticity and transparency are not optional anymore.

I understand that the USFS did not ask for these new reforms in classification and pay, but they are here now, and our workforce needs them. But not just firefighters, the whole USFS workforce needs to be brought into the modern federal workforce that exists seemingly in every other agency.

I am optimistic that better times are ahead, but our leadership needs to show their hand a bit more, and offer some hope and motivation for those of us that are putting our physical and mental health on the line every single day for our employer and our country.

Bill introduced to require suppression of all US Forest Service fires

Tamarack Fire crosses Hwy 395
Tamarack Fire crosses Hwy. 395 July 22, 2021. IMT photo.

Yesterday two US Congressmen, Tom McClintock (CA-04) and Doug LaMalfa (CA-01), introduced legislation directing the U.S. Forest Service to immediately suppress wildfires on National Forest System.

H.R. 6903 requires that “to the extent practicable, use all available resources to carry out wildfire suppression with the purpose of extinguishing wildfires detected on National Forest System lands not later than 24 hours after such a wildfire is detected.”

It further states, the Forest Service “may only use fire as a resource management tool if the fire is a prescribed fire that complies with applicable law and regulations; and may only initiate a backfire or burnout during a wildfire by order of the responsible incident commander.”

It does not stop there. If a wildfire is used as a resource management tool or if a backfire or burnout was not authorized by the incident commander, the bill stipulates that “any person aggrieved by a violation [of those two requirements] may bring a civil action against the United States…”

There have been a number of fires in the last couple of years that received a lot of criticism for a lack of suppressing them or for adopting a strategy of back off and burn out thousands of acres rather than construct direct fire line.

The most notorious initially unattacked fire recently was the Tamarack Fire near Markleeville, CA. It started as a single tree on July 4, 2021 and was monitored but not suppressed for 13 days while it was very small until it suddenly grew very large. It burned at least 15 structures and more than 67,000 acres as it ran from California into Nevada jumping Highway 395 and prompting the evacuation of 2,000 people.

In a Congressional committee hearing September 29, 2021 Randy Moore the new Chief of the U.S. Forest Service was asked several questions by Rep. LaMalfa, including about the Tamarack Fire. The Chief said that after the fire started the Forest Service “spiked out a small crew to monitor” the fire. If that was the case, they apparently took no action, because the USFS reported on July 10 that it was 0.25 acre, they were not going to insert crews due to safety concerns, and it “posed no threat to the public, infrastructure, or resource values.” The Chief gave grossly incorrect information about the number of fire personnel that were assigned to fires at that time and the number of large uncontained fires, in both cases inflating the numbers by factors of three or four. That appeared to be justification for not attacking the fire — a shortage of firefighters. However, a quarter-acre fire would only need a handful of personnel for a day or two. On July 23 the incident reported that 1,353 personnel were assigned.

Rep. LaMalfa tried to get the Chief to say the Forest Service is committed to aggressive initial attack on new fires, but he preferred to use the term “aggressive forest management.” (He later said that they already do aggressive initial attack.)

If the name Tom McClintock sounds familiar, he was the Representative who when asked about the difficulties in recruiting and retaining wildland firefighters last July, said,”Wildfire firefighting is hot, miserable work, but it is not skilled labor.”

Our take

“Fire science is not rocket science—it’s way more complicated.”
Robert Essenhigh, Professor Emeritus, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Ohio State University.

It is possible to manage a fire while not suppressing it, but is extremely difficult to do successfully. It takes smart, very experienced firefighters who are able to play the “what if” game, as firefighting legend Rick Gale used to say. You have to anticipate what COULD happen, and have a plan in your pocket for how to mitigate it before or after it happens, without significant unpleasant repercussions. I never heard him use the term, but in other words, consider the second and third order effects.

I have heard people say that we have too much fuel because fires have been suppressed, so this means we should greatly ramp up the use of less than full suppression fires. Many of those folks do not have a complete understanding of the full complexities.

As a member of an interagency incident management team whose sole duty was to manage less than full suppression wildfires, I learned that it is extremely difficult to allow a wildfire to successfully burn for weeks or months with little or no suppression. It requires highly skilled and long-experienced firefighters in key positions to make it work. Another ingredient that is necessary, which can’t be entered on a Resource Request, is luck. All it takes is one or two days of very strong winds and you can find yourself in a nightmare scenario. A less than full suppression fire which goes on for months will probably encounter at least one wind event. After the fire quadruples in size, changing the strategy to suppression is not a situation an Agency Administrator wants to find themselves in.

Selecting this strategy at the beginning or even the middle of the fire season is, to put it bluntly in clear text, stupid. Especially when the fuels are extremely dry. It would make more sense four to six weeks before the average date of a Season Ending Event brought on by heavy rain or snow. However as we have seen in recent years, “average” conditions are not a sure thing.

Prescribed fire — Yes

While encouraging widespread use of less than full suppression fires is not the the best solution, we can and should, greatly increase the use of prescribed fire. To pick a number out of the air, escalate it by a factor of 10. And, let’s be careful about igniting large expanses of grass or prairie just to hit a number where you can burn for $5 an acre. Make it meaningful, where it is needed.

COVID was the leading cause of deaths on wildfires in 2021 according to report

Yet it is is barely mentioned in the annual lessons learned review

Fatalities, wildland fires, 2021
Fatalities, wildland fires, 2021. (The number attributed to vehicle accidents should be 4.)

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC) has released their annual review of incidents from last year, 2021.

The 10-page report discusses lessons learned from seven categories of injuries; dozer swamper, entrapment during initial attack, tree strike, entrapment during a burnout operation, crew vehicle rollover, hazard tree removal, and water tender rollover. It also mentioned other injuries — medical, feller-buncher, ATV rollover, drip torch, falling trees, rolling rocks, and dozer.

COVID was the leading cause of deaths on wildland fires in 2021

The LLC report states there were 23 fatalities, Line of Duty Deaths (LODD), connected to wildland fires in 2021. Six of those, 26 percent, were caused by COVID. That word appears twice very briefly in the report — in a chart showing COVID was the leading cause of Line of Duty Deaths on fires, and, in a word cloud showing that “COVID” was the single word mentioned more than any others in LLC incident reports in 2021. Other than that it is missing in the 2021 Incident Review Summary in spite of the six fatalities from the disease. It is not perfectly clear if the four fatalities described as “medical” had any relationship to COVID.

This annual report would have been an excellent opportunity for the LLC to summarize the most important lessons learned from COVID among firefighters over the last year. It could have identified innovative and successful methods for preventing fatalities and life-altering long-COVID, as well as policies that were not effective. It could have included important facts such as how many worker-days were spent in COVID isolation or quarantine on fires, how many firefighters tested positive during their fire and non-fire duties, and how many tested positive and were hospitalized.

If you go to the LLC website, if the database for reports is working and if you can master the search system, a person might find four reports from the summer of 2021 about “clusters” of COVID among hotshot crews, fuels modules, and engine crews. A total of 52 in these four clusters had to be quarantined and 14 tested positive. We summarized them in an August 21, 2021 article. There is no indication that these were the only COVID “clusters” in 2021.

Cameron Peak Fire Colorado smoke
Cameron Peak Fire, from the Estes Park Safeway October 16, 2020. InciWeb.

On the Cameron Peak Fire in 2020 west of Fort Collins, Colorado 76 workers at the fire tested positive for the virus and a total of 273 had to be quarantined at various times over the course of the fire. Two were hospitalized. And this is just at one fire.

I searched the LLC for COVID LODDs, but was disappointed to find there were only very brief boiler-plate firefighter fatality notifications from the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). There were no identified lessons learned. I found out last year that in some cases the USFA was not afraid to identify the actual cause if it was COVID, when the federal agencies will sometimes, if they mention a cause at all, will just list it as an “unspecified illness.”

The USFA released the information that Allen Johnson was exposed to COVID-19 on the French Fire in California last year and tested positive along with others. His positive test was on August 24, and he was then placed in isolation at the incident. He was transported to the hospital on Aug. 31, 2021 where he passed away that day. That is not a typo. He died same day he was admitted to the hospital.

Fatality rates for COVID and influenza in the United States

We have all heard people say that COVID is just like the flu, people die from both. According to data from the New York Times retrieved February 9, 2022, 907,500 people in the U.S. have died from COVID, which is about 0.3 percent of the population. With 76,961,143 reported cases, that works out to a fatality rate for the disease of 1.2 percent.

During the 2019-2020 influenza season, the estimated number of deaths in the United States from influenza was approximately 20,000, or 0.06 percent of the population. The estimated number of people in the United States symptomatic of influenza was approximately 20,000,000, which would be a fatality rate for the disease of 0.1 percent. (These influenza statistics are from Wikipedia.)

The United States does a terrible job of accurately tracking COVID testing and fatalities, so these stats should be taken with a grain of salt.

Delays in releasing lessons learned reports

It is taking longer and longer for the US Forest Service to release reports about fatalities and near fatalities.

  • Burnover of 15 firefighters at a fire station on the Dolan Fire: 17 months.
  • Helicopter crash, 1 fatality and 2 serious injuries on a prescribed fire: almost three years.

How is COVID affecting federal firefighters?

I asked the US Forest Service several questions by email about their firefighting forces, including, what percentage of firefighters are vaccinated, how many have been terminated because they are not vaccinated, how many have been hospitalized with COVID, and how many people assigned to fires managed by the FS have tested positive while assigned to the fire and then died from COVID?

The response came from the Forest Service National Press Office. The person who wrote it was not identified. The office refused to disclose any of the numbers requested. “Reporting deaths if an employee dies outside of the workplace is voluntary,” they wrote. “The FS does not track how many employees have been hospitalized.”

Due to a court order, enforcement and disciplinary actions associated with non-compliance with the vaccine mandate for federal employees have been placed on pause. The Department of Justice appealed the preliminary injunction to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but it remains in place at this time. The Forest Service said employees who received a proposed suspension were officially notified of the pause. The injunction also pauses the requirement for new employees to provide COVID vaccination documentation prior to onboarding as a condition of employment.

Our take

The Forest Service appears to not be committed enough about workplace safety to even keep track of all of their personnel who are killed due to exposure to COVID while working for the agency. Or if they do keep track, they are lying when they report they don’t have the data. A motive for not caring or for hiding the fatality information is difficult to imagine.

A rational person would think that it is astonishing that Allen Johnson remained in isolation at the incident for eight days after testing positive, and then died the day he was admitted to a hospital. Hopefully an investigation is underway. Lives are at stake. What treatment, if any, did he receive at the fire or in isolation? Was he seen there by a doctor? Has the Medical Unit Leader been interviewed? Where was he isolated — in a tent at the fire, or a motel? What was his condition when he was admitted to the hospital? There were others at the fire who tested positive according to the USFA. What are their stories? I fought fires with Allen, so I would like to know more and how to prevent this from happening to other firefighters. Surely there are many lessons to be learned from this and other COVID-related tragedies.

The Forest Service needs to develop the courage to do the right thing for their people. When a firefighter is entrapped on a fire and injured or killed, a team of at least a half dozen subject matter experts will sometimes, but not always, try to honestly figure out what led to the incident and may develop suggestions for preventing others from suffering the same fate. Why are they scared to do the same for the fire personnel that died from COVID last year? Why are they refusing to be transparent about workplace hazards and their people being hospitalized and killed? What is the upside to the secrecy? What are they afraid of?

Already having severe problems recruiting and retaining employees, this type of uncaring management can only make it worse.

If the Forest Service refuses to conduct and release an honest investigation into the line of duty death of Allen Johnson, the chain of command from the Region 5 Director up through the Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry and the Chief of the Forest Service should be fired.

The charts below cover the 554 fatalities on wildland fires during the 32-year period ending in 2021.

Fatalities wildland fire 1990-2021

Fatalities, wildland fires, 1990 through 2021
Fatalities, wildland fires, 1990 through 2021.

Forest Service announces 10-year initiative to increase fuel treatment

It will use $2.42 billion authorized by the infrastructure bill for fiscal years 2022 through 2026 for fuels-related projects

Geronimo Hotshots
Geronimo Hotshots on the Big Windy Complex, Oregon, 2013. USFS photo by Lance Cheung.

On Tuesday the U.S. Forest Service announced a 10-year strategy to address what they call the wildfire crisis which poses immediate threats to communities. The initiative, called “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests,” combines the recent large investment funded by congress  with years of research and planning into a national effort that is intended to significantly increase the scale of forest health treatments over the next decade.

The Forest Service will work with other federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior, and with Tribes, states, local communities, private landowners, and other partners to focus fuels and forest health treatments more strategically and at a larger scale.

Funding was approved in November

The Bipartisan Infrastructure bill signed by the President November 15, 2021 authorized about $2.42 billion for fiscal years 2022 through 2026 for fuels-related projects. (M = million)

  • $100M, Pre-fire planning, and training personnel for wildland firefighting and vegetation treatments
  • $20M, Data management for fuels projects and large fires
  • $100M, Planning & implementing projects under the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program
  • $500M, Mechanical thinning, timber harvesting, pre-commercial thinning
  • $500M, Wildfire defense grants for at risk communities
  • $500M, Prescribed fires
  • $500M, Constructing fuelbreaks
  • $200M, Remove fuels, produce biochar and other innovative wood products

Previous testimony about fuel management before congressional committees

During testimony June 17, 2021  before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources former US Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said the agency treats fuels on about three million acres each year but said they need to treat two to four times that amount. She repeatedly called for a “paradigm shift” for treating hazardous fuels. Senator Ron Wyden (OR) got Ms. Christiansen to confirm that the agency’s latest estimate is that it would take $20 billion over a 10-year period  to “get in front of the hazardous fuel challenge”.

On September 29, 2021 in a hearing before the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry, new USFS Chief Randy Moore said, “We will never hire enough firefighters, we will never buy enough engines or aircraft to fight these fires. We must actively treat forests. That’s what it takes to turn this situation around. We must shift from small scale treatments to strategic science-based treatments across boundaries. It must start with those places most critically at risk. We must treat 20 million acres over 10 years. Done right in the right places, treatments make a difference.”

On October 27, 2021 Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Forest Service Chief for State and Private Forestry told the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Natural Resources, “We need to treat an additional 20 million acres over the next decade and that could cost up to $20 billion or more.”

What is now planned

The plan released Tuesday by the Forest Service calls for:

  1. Treating up to an additional 20 million acres on the National Forest System lands in the West, over and above current treatment levels;
  2. Treating up to an additional 30 million acres on other Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands in the West;

The current level of treatment in recent years has been 2-3 million acres per year for fuels and forest health, the new document stated.

The plan calls for an unprecedented “paradigm shift” in land management to increase fuels and forest health treatments across jurisdictions to match the actual scale of wildfire risk to people, communities, and natural resources, especially in the Western United States.

The Forest Service is developing staffing plans and will be increasing capacity in not only field personnel specializing in prescribed fire to complete the work but also key administrative positions like contracting officers, human resources professionals, collaboration and partnership coordinators, communications, and grants and agreements specialists who will assist in connecting with partners.

Marshall Fire, Louisville, Colorado, by WxChasing/Brandon Clement
Marshall Fire, Louisville, Colorado. Photo by WxChasing/Brandon Clement, Dec. 31, 2021.

In 2022 and 2023

During the first two years of the initiative, the agency will be looking for large landscape-scale projects that are ready to go, up until now lacking only the necessary funding.

They will be seeking projects that are:

  • Designed to reduce wildfire risk to communities, water supplies, or critical infrastructure (including utility lines, roads, and national security sites);
  • Critical ecological values (including watersheds, wildlife habitat, and old growth stands) and ecosystem services (including carbon storage);
  • Economic values (including outdoor recreation, timber, and grazing areas);
  • Areas of cultural and historic significance (including areas important to Tribes); and,
  • Areas of social importance to communities (including for access and subsistence use).


The new initiative also strives for increased rates of reforestation following forest fires.

“We currently address only 6 percent of post-wildfire replanting needs per year, resulting in a rapidly expanding list of reforestation needs,” the new plan states. “We have plans for the reforestation of more than 1.3 million acres of National Forest System land. However, these plans only address one-third of National Forest System reforestation needs, estimated to be 4 million acres and growing. As we work to recover from wildfire, we are emphasizing planting the right species, in the right place, under the right conditions, so forests will remain healthy and resilient over time.”

Our take

The testimony before congressional committees said that in order  to “get in front of the hazardous fuel challenge” and “turn this situation around” the Forest Service needs an additional $2 billion a year for the next 10 years, over and above what is currently being spent. What was appropriated for the next five years was about $0.48 billion per year, less than one-fourth of the additional funds the agency said was needed.

The growth of the climate crisis which has contributed to the “wildfire crisis” appears to be exceeding the estimates of scientists. Changes are occurring even more quickly than previously expected. So low-balling the funding for protecting our homeland will mean we will fall even further behind in treating fuels and attempting to keep fires from wiping out more communities.

The heads of the five federal land management agencies need to be honest with congress and continue to point out the scope of the fuels problem and the increasing risk of fiddling while the forests and subdivisions burn. Congress must accept the facts and pass legislation adequate to address the threats to our ecosystems and communities.