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.”

Fire Continuum Conference begins at Missoula

Above: Vicki Christiansen, interim Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, addresses the participants at the Fire Continuum conference in Missoula, May 21, 2018.

A fire conference with an unusual name began Monday in Missoula. The “Fire Continuum Conference” is organized by the International Association of Wildland Fire and the Association for Fire Ecology with a theme of preparing for the future of wildland fire. It has drawn 655 participants from approximately 20 countries who are faced this week with the difficult task of choosing from 400 workshops, presentations, and field trips.fire continuum conference missoula

It kicked off Monday with a keynote address by Vicki Christiansen, the interim Chief of the U.S. Forest Service who talked about four “gnarly challenges”– drought, fuel buildup, growth in the wildland-urban interface, and fire exclusion compounded by climate change. It is not often that we hear someone from the present administration talk about climate change.

Ms. Christiansen said that since 1910 there have been more than 1,000 deaths on wildland fires and the fatality rate is rising, with almost a quarter of those, 255, having occurred in the last 15 years. According to the U.S Fire Administration, wildland firefighters, she said, “are killed at a rate six times higher than structural firefighters”.

She also refuted the “narrative that has formed for some that the Forest Service firefighting is not aggressive enough”. She said “We will commit firefighters only under conditions where they can actually have a chance of succeeding in protecting important values at risk”.

The conference wraps up Thursday. We will have a number of articles on Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation about the happenings in Missoula.

The video below is just to give you a quick look to see which organizations were exhibiting at the no host social event, the first night at the Fire Continuum Conference, May 21, 2018.

Below are photos of other speakers at the conference .

Alen Slijepcevic, President, International Association of Wildland Fire
Alen Slijepcevic, President, International Association of Wildland Fire
Chris Dicus, President, Association for Fire Ecology
Chris Dicus, President, Association for Fire Ecology
Mark Finney
Mark Finney, Research Forester, USDA Forest Service, Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory
Tom Zimmerm
Tom Zimmerman, immediate past President of the International Association of Wildland Fire
Dave Calkin
Dave Calkin, Research Forester, Human Dimensions Program, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.

fire continuum conference missoula

Forest Service Chief testifies about cutback in air tankers

In 2017 there were 20 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. This year there are 13.

(This article first appeared at Fire Aviation)

In a hearing Tuesday morning about the Forest Service budget for FY 2019 before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senators asked the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, about the reduction in the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts and the agency’s plans to rely on call when needed aircraft to fill the void.

Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief Forest Service
Ms. Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief, U.S. Forest Service, testifies April 24, 2018.

Lisa Murkowski (AK), Chair of the committee,  mentioned the issue during her opening remarks. Senators Maria Cantwell (WA) and Cory Gardner (CO) asked questions about what could be a shortage of air tankers, with most of the discussion centering around call when needed vendors. The Senators appeared to be concerned about the higher daily and hourly costs of CWN aircraft, and referred to the 48-hour time frame for them to mobilize after notification.

air tankers contract exclusive use 2000-2018

Ms. Christiansen tried two or three times to explain how activating CWN air tankers works and how the USFS makes decisions about when to bring them on board. Her descriptions were rambling as she talked about predictive services, but it was a little too ambiguous for some of the senators who asked for clarification.

Senator Gardner mentioned that this year there are 13 exclusive use large air tankers compared to 20 last year, and talked about how call when needed aircraft are more expensive than exclusive use aircraft. He said, “What is the rationale for that again?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we really look hard and do our analysis on the right balance between the exclusive use which is for an extended period of time and the call when needed. We take this very seriously and we will evaluate each year and adjust for the balance of these contracts. These next generation aircraft are more expensive than the legacy aircraft we had operated for the last two decades. So we have to be fiscally prudent and responsible in finding that right balance. We are confident that we have the aircraft we need when we need it through the combination of exclusive use, the call when needed, the military MAFFS, and then when we can call our partners down from Alaska and Canada.”

Senator Gardner continued: “Do you think you’re providing industry with enough certainty, private industry with enough certainty, to replace some of the contracts in the past that were coming out of the Forest Service in terms of the air tankers that were in use since the 2014 passage of the Defense Authorization Act?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator Gardner we are doing everything we can to be a good partner with the industry and exercise our fiscal responsibility.”

No one acknowledged the elephant in the room, the reason there are fewer air tankers. The budget that Congress approved and the President signed forced the reduction. Ms. Christiansen, a member of the administration, apparently feels that she has to be a good soldier and say, everything is fine, there’s nothing to see here: “We are confident that we have the aircraft we need”.

And the Senators don’t want to admit that they approved legislation which caused the number of EU air tankers to be cut by one-third. So they asked mild-mannered questions and didn’t follow up when the administration’s representative insisted that everything is going to be OK.

During a discussion about budget reductions on a different issue, Senator Joseph Manchin (WV) said, “Have you been able to push back on the administration, saying you can’t cut me this deep, I can’t do my job?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we have prioritized what we can do within these constraints…”

Senator Manchin: There’s a lot of us that will go out and …..”

Ms. Christiansen: “Our priority is on the National Forests, but I look forward to working with you on additional priorities.”

Meanwhile, John Hoven, the Senator from North Dakota, spent most of his allotted time presenting what was basically an infomercial about his state.

A recorded video of the hearing will be available at the committee’s website.

Vicki Christiansen selected interim Forest Service Chief

She replaces Tony Tooke who suddenly resigned March 7.

Above: Vicki Christiansen testifies before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee August 3, 2017.

(Originally published at 10:25 a.m. MST March 9, 2018)

Amid reports of widespread sexual harassment and misconduct within the Forest Service, and especially among firefighters, a woman will now lead the agency. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has selected Victoria (Vicki) Christiansen to be the interim Chief of the Forest Service. She replaces Tony Tooke who suddenly resigned March 7 after allegations of sexual misconduct were aired on the PBS program NewsHour.

Below is an excerpt from a message Mr. Perdue sent to employees Thursday afternoon:

With seven years at the Forest Service and 30 with the states of Arizona and Washington, Vicki knows what is needed to restore our forests and put them back to work for the taxpayers. As a former wildland firefighter and fire manager, she knows first-hand that failure to properly maintain forests leads to longer and more severe fire seasons. And as a former State Forester, she knows the benefits of Good Neighbor Authority and how best to partner with our state and local colleagues. Vicki’s professional experience will complement these efforts and help us achieve those objectives.

As we promote and maintain healthy, productive forests and preserve our natural resources, we will work to ensure a place where people can work with respect and dignity.

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.

In a Senate committee hearing August 3, 2017 Ms. Christiansen talked about budget issues and logging. She was also asked about water scooping air tankers by Senator Maria Cantwell. Here is the official transcript at 52:50, which was compiled from uncorrected Closed Captioning.

MISS CHRISTIANSEN, WHAT DO YOU MAKE ABOUT THE WATER USING THE SCOOPING TECHNOLOGY? WHY ARE WE CONCLUDING THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA?

>> THANK YOU, SENATOR CANTWELL. WATER SCOOPERS ARE CERTAINLY A TOOL IN OUR AVIATION STRATEGY. WE HAVE NOT CONCLUDED THEY ARE INEFFECTIVE. BUT AS YOU KNOW, IN OUR PROPOSED FY18 BUDGET WE HAD TO MAKE SOME CRITICAL CHOICES. TO BE STEWARDS OF THE TAXPAYER DOLLARS. TO THAT MAKING, WE ARE NOT PLANNING TO HOLD AN EXCLUSIVE USE CONTRACT BUT CAN ACCESS THESE THROUGH CALL [WHEN] NEEDED MECHANISMS. WE HAVE TWO UNDER EXCLUSIVE USE CONTRACT.

Victoria Christiansen
Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation Management Shawna Legarza (on the right) briefs Sonny Perdue and Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID), Steve Daines (R-MT), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Jim Risch (R-ID), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) at the Forest Service for a 2017 fire briefing, in the USDA Forest Service Headquarters, Yates Building Fire Desk, on Sept. 26, 2017. Victoria Christiansen is on Ms. Legarza’s right. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

We first wrote about Ms. Christiansen May 14, 2009:

Victoria Christiansen
A screenshot from a Wildfire Today article published May 14, 2009.

Personnel changes in the USFS Washington Office

James Hubbard, the Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry, sent out a memo on May 21 that listed quite a few personnel changes in the U.S. Forest Service’s Washington Office (WO):

I am pleased to announce a series of changes which will enhance the Fire and Aviation Management (FAM) program in the Agency.  These changes involve enhancing the focus of the Agency in our quest to become skilled risk managers in wildland fire, and filling critical vacancies in the FAM staff.

Marc Rounsaville, Deputy Director for Operations, will move to the Deputy Chief’s office as the Wildland Fire Management Specialist and provide additional capacity in our risk management journey.  Marc’s work in our “continuous improvement in decision making” quest will continue.  He will work closely with Associate Deputy Chief John Phipps.

Vicki Christiansen, State Forester for Arizona (and former Washington State Forester), will be joining the Forest Service in the Washington Office as the Deputy Director with oversight responsibilities for National Fire Plan, Partnerships, Fuels, Policy, and Budget.  Vicki’s energy, wisdom, experience, and insight will provide a significant boost to the Agency.

Patti Hirami, Regional Fire Director, R-9 [USFS Eastern Region], will be returning to the WO as the Staff Assistant to the Director.  Patti’s ability to coalesce thinking, her energy and internal relationships will bring significant experience to the FAM staff.

Finally, Rich Kvale, FAM Assistant Director for Planning, Policy, and Budget will replace Marc Rounsaville as the Deputy Director for Operations.