Witness panel is set for June 9 Congressional hearing about COVID-19 and firefighting

When the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds their hearing at 10 a.m. EDT June 9, 2020 on “Wildfire Management in the Midst of COVID-19” neither U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen or Fire and Aviation Director Shawna Legarza are slated to be present. Usually the Chief testifies at hearings about the Forest Service, and since Ms. Legarza testified last year at a hearing about expectations for the fire season, there was speculation that she would attend this one as well.

It is likely that the Senators will ask about the results from the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness Study that has been going on for eight years. Chief Christiansen has been testifying for the last two years before this committee saying it would be released “soon”. When pressed in February by Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, who last year made his opinion about the delay very clear, she said it would be released “this Spring.” Senator Gardner said, “Before June?” She said, “Yes.”

I asked Ms. Legarza by email why she was not going to testify, and she replied, “Normally the Fire Director does not testify. Last year was the first time ever. Was a great experience. I am very appreciative of all the work the committee has done while I have been in this job.”

David Pitcher and Tom Harbour
Tom Harbour (left) the U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation Management (who did not testify), and David Pitcher (right) President and CEO of the Wolf Creek Ski Area at Pagosa Creek, Colorado. November 5, 2013.

A quick search of Wildfire Today found two examples of former Fire Director Tom Harbour attending congressional committee hearings. On October 17, 2011 he testified before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security committee at a field hearing in Austin entitled “Texas Wildfire Review: Did Bureaucracy Prevent a Timely Response?” On November 5, 2013 he sat directly behind the witnesses but did not testify at a hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources titled, “Shortchanging Our Forests: How Tight Budgets and Management Decisions Can Increase the Risk of Wildfire”.

I obtained from a Washington insider the list of government employees who ARE slated to testify Tuesday:

  • John Phipps, Forest Service, Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry
  • Amanda Kaster, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land & Minerals, DOI
  • George Geissler, Washington State Forester
  • Norm McDonald, Alaska Div. of Forestry, Director Fire & Aviation

Some of the Senators and witnesses may appear virtually instead of in person. The current Senate rules during the pandemic do not allow spectators at committee meetings or hearings.

Shawna Legarza to retire from the Forest Service Fire Director position

She has accepted a job with a local government in Colorado

Shawna Legarza Aerial firefighting conference
Shawna Legarza makes a presentation at the Aerial Firefighting Conference in Sacramento, March 13, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Shawna Legarza announced that she will be retiring from her position as Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service. In an email message to other employees she said it will be effective on June 30th.

“Now, the next chapters of my life will continue as I have accepted a position with local government as the Emergency Management Coordinator in Durango, Colorado,” she explained in the email. “A place very special in my heart, built upon the practice of the 4 P’s and closer to my friends and family.”

Shawna Lagarza Tom Harbour
Shawna Legarza, the Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service’s California Region, and Tom Harbour, the Director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service, at the Rose Parade, January 1, 2015.

She was selected as the national Director of Fire and Aviation in June, 2016, taking the place of Tom Harbour who retired at the end of 2015. Previously Ms. Legarza was the regional Fire Director for the Forest Service’s California region.

Ms. Legarza launched her federal career with the Bureau of Land Management in 1989 as an engine crew member in Elko, NV. A short time later, she joined the Forest Service and worked as a hotshot crew member in Carson City, NV, and a Hotshot Superintendent in Durango, CO. She subsequently took on a number of leadership positions in fire and aviation that include District Fire Management Officer on the San Juan National Forest, CO, and Forest Fire Management Officer on the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California.

Photos of North American firefighters in Australia

U.S. Firefighters assisting Australia
Thirty-nine firefighters and two liaison officers from across the US, including from Phoenix, Georgia and Idaho, joined Victorian crews in eastern Victoria following their arrival in Melbourne on January 2. Vic Emergency photo.

By mid-week 155 firefighters will have deployed from the United States to assist with the fires in Australia, including a group of 71 (61 from  the U.S. and 10 from Canada) that is expected to arrive Wednesday.

U.S. Firefighters assisting Australia Canadian Firefighters assisting Australia U.S. Firefighters assisting Australia

U.S. Firefighters assisting Australia
Shawna Legarza (right), Fire Director for the U.S. Forest Service, was part of a group welcoming firefighters to Australia. Screenshot form @gracefitz_9 video.
U.S. Firefighters assisting Australia
Shawna Legarza (center), Fire Director for the U.S. Forest Service, was part of a group welcoming firefighters to Australia. Photo by @USConGenSydney


Shawna Legarza discusses firefighting aircraft available this year

The U.S. Forest Service Director of Fire and Aviation spoke at the Aerial Firefighting conference in Sacramento Tuesday.

Above: Shawna Legarza speaks at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento, March 13, 2018.

(Originally published at 8:18 PDT March 13, 2018)

Shawna Legarza, the U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation, gave a presentation at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento, March 13, 2018. She said we are no longer experiencing fire seasons — fires now occur year round. Firefighters in Southern California have been saying that for a couple of decades, but the epidemic is spreading.

After her talk we spoke with her for a couple of minutes before she had to leave for a meeting in Arizona. We asked her about the firefighting aircraft that will be available in 2018.

Shawna Legarza fire aviation
Shawna Legarza speaks at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento, March 13, 2018.

Wildfire activity continues in northwest California and southwest Oregon

Oregon’s Chetco Bar Fire has exceeded 100,000 acres

Above: Firefighters on structure protection duty set up a sprinkler system on the Chetco Bar Fire in Southwest Oregon. Undated photo on Inciweb.

(Originally published at 9:03 a.m. PDT August 24, 2017)

The wildfires in Southwest Oregon and Northwest California continue to grow at a fairly steady pace, with occasional large expansions during wind events.

The Chetco Bar Fire five miles northeast of Brookings, Oregon was mapped very early Thursday morning at 102,333 acres, moving past the 100,000-acre threshold into “megafire” territory. But it is still one-fifth the size of the Biscuit Fire that covered almost half a million acres in the same general area in 2002.

The red line was the perimeter of the Chetco Bar Fire at 12:16 a.m. PDT August 24, 2017. The white line was the perimeter two days before.

The map of the Chetco Bar Fire shows that while it continues to spread along much of the perimeter that growth has slowed since it quadrupled in size over a four-day period, August 18 to 22. It added 2,389 acres on Wednesday through minimal flanking, backing, and creeping fire behavior due to cooler temperatures and higher humidities.

More fighters have poured in to the Brookings, Oregon area which is five miles southwest of the fire. Over 1,100 personnel are now working on the blaze, including 21 hand crews, 118 engines, and 8 helicopters. The incident management teams report that 25 structures have burned.

Three teams are assigned to the Chetco Bar Fire: Livingston’s Type 1 team, Greer’s Type 2 team, and Houseman’s National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) team. (The NIMO folks need to come up with a better name for their teams.)

wildfires in southwest Oregon and Northwest California
The red, brown, and yellow dots represent heat detected only within the last week on wildfires in southwest Oregon and Northwest California.

The fires in Northwest California do not receive much press coverage since they are in remote, sparsely populated areas. The largest is the Eclipse Complex of five fires 10 miles north of Happy Camp which has burned 40,500 acres. It is also known as “CA-KNF-006098 Complex”. On Wednesday the inversion that had been moderating fire behavior lifted over one of the five fires, the Prescott Fire, which became active and burned towards the Oak Fire. This produced a large smoke column that caused ash fall along the Hwy 96 corridor and throughout the Happy Camp area.

Toll and Squirrel Fires
The Toll and Squirrel Fires are not in Northwest California, but are near Quincy, California. August 20, 2017. Inciweb.

In other wildfire news, the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture are visiting Missoula and the Lolo Peak Fire today (August 24), accompanied by the USFS National Fire Director, Shawna Legarza.

Continue reading “Wildfire activity continues in northwest California and southwest Oregon”

Shawna Legarza: There’s no task book for National Fire Director

An interview with the U.S. Forest Service’s National Fire Director.

About seven weeks after Shawna Legarza started her new job July 4, 2016 as the National Fire Director for the U.S. Forest Service, she experienced what so far has been her toughest challenge in that position. She was asked to speak at the memorial service for Justin Beebe, a member of the Missoula-based Lolo Hotshots who was killed by a falling tree August 13 as he was running a chainsaw on the Strawberry Fire in eastern Nevada. She searched for the right words to say in front of what turned out to be 750 to 1,000 people at the service.

“I thought, what will I say?”, she told us on Monday. “I didn’t know Justin Beebe, and I knew that their eyes would be on me because I was the new Fire Director”, she said.

Shawna Legarza
Shawna Legarza at the Rose Parade, January 1, 2015. USFS photo.

She spoke to the crowd in Ogren Park in Missoula from a podium set in front of the pitcher’s mound. The attendees included approximately 15 fire crews dressed in fire resistant pants and their own crew T-shirts.

“You know what I did Bill?” she said. “I wrote [and read from] a letter to his parents. I thought long and hard about the stuff I put in that letter to mom and dad. That probably has been the most difficult thing I have done. They don’t give you a task book for how to be the National Fire Director”.

I reminded her about an interview she did with CBS News June 30, 2014 when she was the Regional Fire Director for the USFS in California. The subject of the 19 fatalities on the Yarnell Hill Fire came up and she mentioned the concept of a Common Operating Picture “… of what the fire is doing and where our people are”. I asked if the federal wildland fire agencies will implement this technology in the near future.

“I still believe and I still want a Common Operating Picture and I also believe that we have a long ways to go on information technology”, she said. “I think the federal land management agencies are behind the curve on that. We work with the Department of the Interior. We have an [Interagency Fire Unmanned Aircraft Systems Subcommittee] that’s looking at the different policies, rules, and regulations using technology — drones — to help us in wildland firefighting. You know, it takes time to work through some of those things, but we’re working through them right now….. I live for the day when there is a drone carrying a jerry can [with fuel] up the hill to help the firefighters for a burnout or carrying supplies to fire camp.”

She said that would lessen the exposure of aviation personnel.

“I hope someday there are approved unmanned aerial aircraft that can fly the fire and instantly download a map to our Incident Management Team or agency administrator to see where the fire is at and where the resources are…. We could look at fires before we go in, to make sure it’s safe for us to go.”

I asked if there was an area that she felt strongly about, enough that she would give it special attention, and she said, “Absolutely! I’m trying to make some changes in the workplace environment, I feel very strongly about that. I want to see the agency have a work force that is completely inclusive of each other … and that people’s voices can be heard, understood, listened to and incorporated into all that we do, and that there is no discrimination of any kind. I am very passionate about that and I want to try to make a difference in the workplace environment for all wildland firefighters, for the Forest Service and other agencies.”

“I talk about,” she said, “having a workforce where everybody comes to work, they’re proud to be there, and included in whatever area they are working in, their voices are heard, they are listened to — free of discrimination, free of bias — it’s just a way of being. We’ve got some new initiatives that we are trying to roll out to the work force.

I asked her if there was one thing she would like a new Type 3 Incident Commander to know. She asked if she could name two, saying they need to know that “we have their back”, and “to ask for help.” She said, “I can remember when I got signed off as a Type 3 IC. Ask if you need help and guidance on a fire assignment. It’s OK. We don’t know all the answers. That’s why we’re a team.”

To answer the question, how many large or very large air tankers do we need, she said, “I would say we need anywhere from 18 to 28, you know that’s what it says in the [2012 Large Airtanker] Modernization Strategy. I think that’s a good range….I think the big thing to understand is that the Forest Service has become the overarching contract agreement holder of large air tankers and they are not all just for us. They are used by state and local governments all across the nation, so it’s hard to say how many just us, the Forest Service, needs because we work together with state, local, and tribal agencies to help them with wildland fire response across the nation. I think it’s hard to target just one number just for the Forest Service knowing that we’re all in it together in the cohesive strategy. I think we’re setting up with a good mix for this year and the coming years.”

Tom Harbour Shawna Legarza rose parade
Tom Harbor (in front, on left) and Shawna Legarza (in front, on right) pose with firefighters who walked in the Rose Parade, January 1, 2015. At that time Mr. Harbour was the National Fire Director and Ms. Legarza was the Fire Director for the California Region. USFS photo.

She said the FS will have about 10,000 firefighters this year, which is the same as the last several years, and that the Trump administration’s federal hiring freeze did not have a huge effect on the hiring of firefighters for this summer. “We worked really swiftly… to get the exemptions through for firefighting, but we’re alright”.

When asked about her advanced degrees, she said, “Yeah, I’m an overeducated hotshot! I have a doctorate in psychology and organizational leadership. My masters is in kinesiology.”

Does that help you in your present job, I asked?

“Absolutely. I focused on transformational leadership. The four elements of transformational leadership I believe have helped me in my job, in this position I am in and my ability to influence others to help them in their decisions. I’m not a line officer, I’m a staff officer so I feel I need to influence inspirational motivation. I need to inspire and motivate the folks where I go and talk and be an inspiration to them for the agency…. individualized consideration. So everybody is different, right, so if you work for me, how I interact with Bill may be different from how I would with Mike, or Tom, or Bob, or whatever, so I find that really gratifying because I believe that leadership takes energy and to have that energy you have to be motivated and you have to treat everybody for who they are as a human being so that they feel they are more valued and inclusive into the team. That’s easy when you’re running a hotshot crew, you’re right there with morning briefing and evening briefing, you’re there with them, but when you come into a large organization it becomes more challenging for those different attributes of transformational leadership to be able to influence my small team and they can continue to influence their teams throughout the organization, and hoping that it makes a difference down the road for how people feel valued in the Forest Service.”

“I went to college my whole career”, she continued. “I’ll be paying for it until l turn 74 — working hard and taking out loans. I think it finally paid off. My parents would say, ‘Why are you still going to school? What are you studying now?’ … I continue to learn every day, I make mistakes just about every day. I learn from them and continue on the next day.”

About the next fire season, she said, “I’ve always prepared for every fire season like it’s going to be the worst. So you get ready and you prepare your team. You prepare like it’s the real deal. I saw that on hotshot crews and I see that now with the staff here, getting them ready…You have to be prepared, you can’t say, oh, it snowed and rained a lot in California so we’re not going to have a fire season, it could be just the opposite. All those fine fuels could dry out and we could have a very destructive fire season.”