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.

Part 3 of Tom Harbour’s Exit Interview

Tom Harbour, National Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, was interviewed by Bill Gabbert for Wildfire Today, December 14, 2015.

In this final installment of the three part series, Mr. Harbour talked about the Cantwell-Hastings Bill that requires a criminal investigation of firefighter fatalities, fire areas that need more research, the accomplishments he’s most proud of, previous fire directors, what he will do after leaving the USFS and whether or not he will lobby for Lockheed-Martin.

Previously we published Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview.

Part 2 of the Tom Harbour Exit Interview

Part two of the three-part series of interviews with Tom Harbour, National Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, is now available.

Bill Gabbert interviewed Mr. Harbor for Wildfire Today two weeks before his retirement date. In this segment, Mr. Harbour talks about how many firefighters the USFS will have in 2016, tracking firefighters and the location of a flaming front, smokejumpers, the agency’s responsibility regarding protecting structures, and the decline in the number of air tankers between 2002 and 2013.

UPDATE:  Part 1 and Part 3 of the interview are available.

Tom Harbour, Exit Interview Part 1

Tom Harbour, National Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, was interviewed by Bill Gabbert for Wildfire Today, December 14, 2015. In this Part 1 of 3, Mr. Harbour talked about his early years, how studying chemical engineering helped him in his USFS job, working with politicians, and what it was like dealing with firefighter fatalities.

UPDATE:  Part 2 and Part 3 of the interview are available.

Tom Harbour, USFS Fire Director, announces retirement

Tom Harbour at Little Bear Fire
Tom Harbour at the Little Bear Fire, Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico, June, 2012. USFS photo.

Tom Harbour, the National Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service has announced that he is going to retire after serving in the position for 11 years. He plans to leave the agency in January after a 46-year career.

Mr. Harbour headed the wildfire organization during challenging times. Fires continued the ongoing trend of becoming larger (most likely due to climate change and increasing fuels), they consumed more of the USFS budget, and the air tanker fleet decreased by 80 percent following accidents and contracting issues until it started to be reconstructed again during the last two years.

Mr. Harbour spent much of his career in the Pacific Southwest, Southwestern, Intermountain and Northern Regions. His early assignments were on the Stanislaus National Forest in California, the Challis National Forest in Idaho, and the Apache National Forest in Arizona. He later worked as District Ranger on the Modoc National Forest and was the Forest Fire Management Officer on the Angeles National Forest in southern California. He served as Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation in the Northern Region, and Regional Director, Fire and Aviation in the Intermountain Region. In 2001, he moved east to Washington D.C. to become the Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation at the agency headquarters. In 2004 he was named National Director.

Dan Olsen, currently the Deputy Director, Fire and Aviation, will serve as Acting Director after Mr. Harbour retires until the position is permanently filled.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.

Kyle Dickman profiles Tom Harbour

The author of On the Burning Edge, a book about the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew that was virtually wiped out fighting the Yarnell Hill fire in 2013, has written a long form article about the August wildfires in the west. A good portion of the piece by Kyle Dickman profiles Tom Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service’s National Director of Fire and Aviation Management. I don’t recall seeing such a personal look at the man who wields power at the top of the USFS firefighting food chain — with the possible exception of when he answered our 12 Questions.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

…To contend with California’s regular fires, the Forest Service set up two command centers, with one, in Redding, called North Ops. Redding sits in a bowl in the Sacramento Valley, and as Harbour arrives, the wind is filling that bowl with eye-stinging smoke. On the grounds, a long-haired smokejumper in flip-flops pedals a cruiser bike around the base while air tankers loaded with fire retardant take off from the runway. The mood isn’t festive, but one feels the excitement and gravity of a shared sense of purpose. The command staff hustle about to send firefighters and gear to the front lines. Several stop to shake Harbour’s hand. He joins a briefing headed by Paige Boyer, the assistant director for fire and aviation management for Northern California.

“We really want to get that fire off the map,” Boyer says to a half-dozen of her colleagues gathered before a map. “We want it out of the public eye.” Boyer taps the northeast corner of the map, where red colors the fire where a firefighter died.

Three days earlier, Harbour had flown to Alturas, Calif., to pay his respects to the family of that engine captain, 38-year-old Dave Ruhl. He’d disappeared while scouting a fire near the city limits. His crew didn’t find his body right away, and while CNN and the Associated Press zeroed in on the details of the first fire death of the 2015 season, Harbour arranged to meet his folks, as he’s tried to do for each of the 163 firefighters—both Forest Service and non—lost on duty in the past 10 years…