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.

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.

Epilogue

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.”

Recalling Forest Service Chief’s visit to the number one ranked Job Corps Center

In light of the announcement to transfer  the management of  25 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers from the U.S. Forest Service to the Department of Labor (DOL) and to permanently close 9 of those 25 centers, it is interesting to look back on a story written and published by the Forest Service nine months ago about then Interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen’s visit to “the number one Job Corps Center out of 123 nationwide.” She was later confirmed as Chief of the Forest Service.

The text and photos below are from the Forest Service article posted at www.fs.fed.us:


Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen, Schenck Job Corps celebrate number one ranking

Schenck Job Corps Center Chief Christiansen
From left, Forests of North Carolina Forest Supervisor Allen Nicholas, USDA Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen, Southern Research Station Director Rob Doudrick, and Southern Region Acting Regional Forester Ken Arney preserve the memory of their visit by posing alongside the Schenck Job Corps sign. USDA Forest Service photo by Marvin Ramsey.

NORTH CAROLINA – “Look for the fire that burns within you and gives you the juice. You are capable of doing anything you put your mind to.” USDA Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen offered these words of advice to the students at Schenck Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center, located on the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina.

Christiansen journeyed to Schenck Job Corps Center on September 26, 2018, to congratulate the students and staff on the center’s remarkable Program Year 2017 performance. The center’s program year ended on June 30, 2018 and resulted in it being ranked as the number one Job Corps Center out of 123 nationwide. Not only did Schenck achieve the number one overall ranking, it also ranked number one in graduate job placement.

Having also been recognized as the number one center in 2014, this is a repeat performance for Schenck within a span of five years. Job Corps Centers are evaluated on weighted measures and performance goals that include credential and high school diploma attainment, job placement and wages.

Along with Schenck, eleven other Forest Service Job Corps Centers–Flatwoods, Trapper Creek, Frenchburg, Blackwell, Centennial, Curlew, Wolf Creek, Weber Basin, Anaconda, Pine Knot and Lyndon B. Johnson–finished in the top 50 of the 123 Job Corps Centers.

“Having the Chief here is really cool,” said Rosalyn Velasquez, a member of Schenck’s Advanced Fire Management Program and its associated Davidson River Initial Attack Crew. The DVR has built a stellar reputation with its 100% graduation rate and consistent graduate job placement into career positions with the Forest Service and other public lands management agencies. The DVR students were impressed that, like them, Christiansen began her career as a wildland firefighter and has now risen to the heights of her current position.

Christiansen was enthusiastic about the value Civilian Conservation Centers bring to the Forest Service. In PY17 alone, Job Corps students contributed 42,912 hours to national forests and grasslands project work. These hours equate to a dollar contribution of $1,059,497. Additionally, Job Corps students have contributed approximately 460,000 hours to wildland fire support and 5,000 hours to hurricane support.

Schenck Job Corps Center Chief Christiansen
Having begun her career as a wildland firefighter and state forester, Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen, recalls her classes studying fire behavior with members of the Davidson River Initial Attack Crew. USDA Forest Service photo by Marvin Ramsey.

Christiansen offered wise advice to the students on how to approach a job as they begin their careers. “Good leaders first learned to be good followers,” she stated before sharing this fable. “One day a traveler came upon three bricklayers and inquired what are you doing? The first one replied ‘laying these brick,’ the second one replied ‘working as a member of this team’, while the third replied ‘I’m part of this team that is building this grand cathedral.’” Christiansen ended by saying, “The moral of the fable of ‘The Three Bricklayers’ is that we all have our roles.”

Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers changes lives one student at a time by equipping them with valuable skills to help them find jobs and support the nation’s economy. Along with supporting the Forest Service national priority of promoting shared stewardship, Civilian Conservation Centers also provide critical support to their local communities and, in PY17, volunteered 60,274 hours to community projects, equating to a dollar contribution of $1,488,156.

Schenck Job Corps Center Chief Christiansen
From left, Davidson River Initial Attack Crew enjoy a picture with Forest Service leaders. Southern Research Station Director Rob Doudrick, Southern Region Acting Regional Forester Ken Arney, USDA Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen, Schenck Job Corps Davidson River Initial Attack Crew members David Williams, Joseph Mousseaux, Austin Griffin, Cortney Brown, Christopher Sanchez, Osman Guzman-Reyes, Abdusalam Ibrahim, Joseph Woods, Richard Alidon, Trevon Lindsay, Dylan Hobbs, Lerron Dugars, Trey Brandenburg, Walter Moore, Shavonte Crosby, Taj Pham, Richard Bostic, Rosalyn Velasquez, Patrique Hall, Samuel Leach, Schenck Job Corps Works Program Officer Kenneth Barton, Job Corps National Office Acting Assistant Director Jimmy Copeland, and National Forests of North Carolina Forest Supervisor Allen Nicholas. USDA Forest Service photo by Marvin Ramsey.

Forest Service Chief issues Letter of Intent for Wildland Fire

Among other directives, it urges Forest Service firefighting personnel to use “the best science available” when making decisions.

DC-10 Indian Fire air tanker
Air Tanker 912, a DC-10, drops retardant on the north side of the Indian Canyon Fire at 7:18 p.m. MDT July 17, 2016. The objective was for the retardant to serve as a contingency fire line to help protect the town of Edgemont.

The Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Victoria Christiansen, has issued a Letter of Intent for Wildland Fire for 2019. The “intent” is probably derived from the principle of “leader’s intent” which should be included in a briefing for a fast-moving, dynamic situation so that subordinates can adapt plans and exercise initiative to accomplish the objective when unanticipated opportunities arise or when the original plan no longer suffices.

This is at least the third annual Intent letter and this year’s version is much more specific than last year’s missive. Chief Christiansen’s 2018 letter talked about safety, “protect the people and communities we serve”, the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, the fire funding fix that takes effect in FY 2020, and a few miscellaneous topics.

The letter dated April 11, 2019 hits on most of those but in a more specific way. It is like the difference between Smokey Bear saying “Prevent Forest Fires”, and “Douse your campfire with water, stir it, and douse it again.”

Vicki ChristiansenDuring the last two years the Forest Service has been accused of not doing enough to create a workplace free of harassment. In the hearing on April 9 before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee six minutes was spent on this subject. In the April 11 letter, 78 words are devoted to the issue.

The Chief’s letter implores Forest Service personnel to use “the best science available” when making decisions. It also urges them to implement Administration policies such as “engage early with our partners and communities” before fires start, “use active management that focuses on wildfire risk reduction, forest products and restoration”, and “use wildland fire to achieve desired ecological conditions”.

Below are excerpts from the Chief’s 2019 Letter of Intent for Wildland Fire:


“…As I look ahead to the remainder of the 2019 fire year, it is more important than ever we remain grounded in our core values of safety, diversity, conservation, interdependence and service, while we foster a safe, respectful workplace where everyone is valued for their contributions. Everything we do—every part of our mission—depends on creating a workplace where each one of us is able to thrive in our work, free from harassment and safe from harm.

“For wildfire response, let me be clear: that we will continue to implement incident response strategies and tactics that commit responders to operations where and when we understand the risks responders may face and where they can be most successful. We will deploy our people under conditions where we protect important values at risk. These decisions will be based on risk-informed trade-off considerations, looking at all available tactics and opportunities, while maintaining relationships with the communities we serve. Each of us must remain committed to “stop, think and talk” before “acting”.

[…]

“With this in mind, I issue this direction to ALL employees. Each of you has a role to play in carrying out our key agency priorities of reducing wildfire risk and improving forest conditions. As you continue to focus on work that delivers successes in these priority areas in 2019, these principals apply:

  • We will maintain our commitment to improve the wildland fire system to one that more reliably protects responders and the public, sustains communities and conserves the land.
  • We will be responsible for ensuring sound, risk informed decision making that takes into account the best science available and most appropriate use of the right tools at the right time.
  • We will engage early with our partners and communities to strengthen relationships even where priorities may differ, to ensure we are sharing risk before fires start, to work towards achieving our shared goals and missions.
  • We will use active management that focuses on wildfire risk reduction, forest products and restoration, engaging in cross-boundary collaboration to set landscape-scale treatment priorities with our partners.
  • We will also use wildland fire to achieve desired ecological conditions where possible and where it makes sense, setting that intention together with our partners.”

(end of excerpt)


Our opinion:

As Chief Christiansen has pointed out in this new letter and other venues, she wants firefighters to “engage fires where they can be most successful.” Left unsaid is the fact that a warming climate has resulted in a longer fire season and more acres burned while the constant dollars allocated for wildland fire management decrease. Even though the USFS fire budget remains about the same, the agency has been told to expect an overall five percent reduction next fiscal year. Inflation takes a toll, wages increase, air tankers are more expensive, firefighting equipment costs more, and the flat budget for fire does not go as far. Finding help on large fires from the “militia”, non-fire agency employees who help when and if they are available, becomes more of a challenge. So, as we have seen in recent years, too often initial attacks or extended attacks fail — more fires become megafires.

And the list of fires where firefighters can’t be successful grows. Local residents look at the smoke column and ask, “Where are the firefighters?”

As one of our readers, Michael T. Rains, recently wrote in a comment:

After 30 years of striving to do more with less … it just may be time to seek another solution.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Vicki Christiansen to be Chief of the U.S. Forest Service

Victoria Christiansen forest service
Victoria Christiansen speaks at the Fire Continuum Conference in Missoula May 21, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced October 10 that Vicki Christiansen will serve as the 19th Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Ms. Christiansen has been serving as Interim Chief since March of this year when Tony Tooke resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct were aired on the PBS program NewsHour.

On October 11 Secretary Perdue will swear her in as Chief in the Sidney Yates Building in Washington, D.C. at 9:45 a.m. ET.

Ms. Christiansen has experience in wildland fire suppression. After obtaining a degree in forestry at the University of Washington in 1983 she accrued firefighting experience with the Washington Department of Natural Resources. There is one report that she was qualified to use fireline explosives. Thirteen years after graduating she was the Washington State Forester. Between 2006 and 2012 she served in five different positions with the Washington DNR, Arizona Division of Forestry, and the U.S. Forest Service. Her last job before becoming interim USFS Chief was Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry with the USFS.


(UPDATE October 12, 2018)

How will the Forest Service change to deal with the “fire year”?

The USFS says we no longer have “fire seasons”. They are now “fire years”.

Victoria Christiansen forest service
Victoria Christiansen

In addition to asking the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, why the agency cut the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts by 35 percent, we also asked her what changes the agency is making now that they say longer “fire seasons” have become “fire years” due to climate change.

Question: Since the Forest Service is now using the term “Fire Year” rather than “Fire Season”, will a large number of seasonal firefighters be converted to work year round?

“An effective response to the more severe fire seasons we have experienced for the past few years requires strong cooperation between federal agencies, states and tribal organizations. No one organization can do it alone. With these strong partnerships, we are prepared for what we expect to be another active fire season.  The Forest Service, along with assistance and cooperation with our federal, tribal, state, and local partners and volunteers, is well prepared to respond to wildfires in 2018. This year, the agency has more than 10,000 firefighters, 900 engines, and hundreds of aircraft available to manage wildfires in cooperation with federal, tribal, state, local, and volunteer partners. At this time, there is no national direction to change seasonal tours.”

Question: How will the Forest Service change to deal with the “Fire Year” — the longer fire season?

“Early indicators are predicting that 2018 will be another active fire year. The USDA Forest Service is committed to ensuring adequate assets are available for a safe and effective wildfire response. In preparation for the existing and potential wildfire activity, preparations continue to ensure a robust workforce of firefighters, engines and aviators will be available for nationwide wildfire response throughout the fire year. Assets will continue to be moved around the nation as activity shifts from one geographical area to another throughout the fire year. We continue to do what we have for each and every season, and that is to prepare, plan for, and respond to wildfires throughout the fire year, while supporting our federal, state, local and tribal partners and cooperators.”

Question: On another topic, what are your thoughts about salvage logging after a fire vs. allowing nature to take its course in a burned area? Will we be seeing more salvage logging?

“Salvage logging of dead and dying timber after a fire or other disaster is one way to capture the value of the damaged timber. This timber provides much needed products to the American public. Salvaging the timber can also reduce the fuel loading after harvest creates “slash.”  Otherwise, over time, these trees could potentially fuel future fires.  The value of the trees harvested can be used to treat the burned area. This treatment may include various restoration projects, including planting trees, shrubs and grasses for wildlife and domestic grazing, and watershed restoration projects such as brush dams to reduce sediment flow.  In many instances, there is not a seed source left after an intensive burn to allow an area to return to desired vegetation state naturally. Planting allows an area to return to this desired vegetation state in a much shorter time.  Typically only about 20-30 % of the burned area is salvage logged, depending on the intensity of the burn.  The rest of the area may not be logged because of nearness to perennial streams, soil stability concerns, or that very few of the trees were damaged in the fire.  When evaluating the total burn area, the concern over a lack of snags becomes less problematic.  Unless forests are treated to reduce the number of stems and the resultant fuels, future fires will continue to create problems.

“In many of our market areas there is a need to maintain at least a portion of the green timber sale program as the mills are designed for certain tree species or certain products.  These mills cannot afford to reconfigure the mill for some of the products that come from salvage material. In addition some defects like blue stain in pines does effect the structural integrity of the product. However, many Americans do not like the looks of this defect. Fortunately, some of this lumber can be used in Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) where this feature is covered up.”