USFS Forestry technician resigns, explains why in letter

Was a GS-5 in Washington state

Wolverine Fire
File photo, Wolverine Fire, Chelan Complex, Chelan, WA, Okanogan-Wenatchee NF, 2015. Photo by Kari Greer.

A forestry technician whose primary duties were fighting fire resigned in November after a six-year fire management career in the Pacific Northwest, most recently on the Okanogan-Wenachee National Forest.

The person asked us not to reveal their name and wants to be identified only by the initials, “BC”. The forestry tech had a permanent part-time appointment, guaranteed six months of work each year as a GS-5. They said they had good performance ratings from their supervisor who was hoping the person would come back to work the next season.

They sent us a copy what what was described as their resignation letter, saying, “I am sharing this with you in hopes to shine a brighter light on what I saw in my short time with the agency as shortfalls and areas for improvement.”

Reading the eight to ten issues that led the person to a life-changing decision can perhaps shine a light on conditions facing other federal fire personnel.

Here is the letter. Acronyms that have been replaced with text are in [brackets]:

I will be resigning from the U.S. Forest Service effective immediately due to a multitude of factors including but not limited to-

  • Lack of a living wage: leading to reliance on [hazard] and [overtime] pay and putting firefighters in dangerous situations when risks to environment is low.
  • Lack of locality pay.
  • Chronic prolonged exposure to cancer causing smoke and pollutants.
  • Lengthening fire season/expectation of pay periods worked.
  • Lack of financial compensation for being on call for over 6 months straight.
  • Lack of financial incentive or legal backing for EMT’s such as myself working for Type 2 organizations. Apparently EMT’s on type 1 crews are “worthy” while I’m not. If I’m important enough to be put on an [Incident Action Plan] as an EMT then I’m important enough to be backed by a medical director and paid for my skills.
  • Minimum wage in Washington being higher than take home pay for GS-5 wages.
  • Lack of off season support from the Agency (mental health, healthcare, employment/job placement).

I thoroughly appreciate the opportunities that this job and organization have afforded me. I have fought fire in places, and environments that I would have otherwise never seen. I have created bonds and memories that will last a lifetime. And for that I am thankful. However, this organization needs to have a serious moment of introspection; the bread and butter of our firefighting operations across this country are seasonal temporary employees — who are overworked and underpaid.

Things need to change, and I can’t risk my physical, mental, and financial well-being  waiting for those changes to occur. My four years with the U.S. Forest Service has been very eye opening to say the least. In order to do what’s best for me and my life, I feel it is time for me to hang up the line gear and move on to more stable and financially rewarding work. I appreciate everyone that I worked with, and for, on the Entiat Ranger District.

I am resigning effective immediately.

Fire, snow, and a call to serve

Former firefighter becomes a combat medic, following in the footsteps of her grandfather

Tessa Morris was a ski patrol director when she enlisted to be a combat medic in the U.S. Army. Her grandfather, Robert Harris, was a combat medic for the Army’s 10th Mountain Division during World War II. (Courtesy photo)

This article published by the U.S. Army tells the story of Tessa Morris who served on Wenatchee helitack and Entiat Hotshots. She was the first woman to serve as Ski Patrol director at Mission Ridge Ski Area near Wenatchee, Washington and became Director of the Ski Patrol at age 23.

By Jason Schaap
USAREC Public Affairs

FORT KNOX, Ky., Jan. 29, 2021 —Foxholes, chocolate and cigarettes. That is what Tessa Morris remembers about her first Army conversation with her grandpa.

She was in the sixth grade, and her homework assignment was to interview a veteran. Her mother’s father, Robert Harris, was a medic with the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, nearly a half-century before Morris was born.

Harris told his granddaughter about being a ski trooper in Italy. All the training he did before he got there, and how the foxhole rations of his generation included a bar of chocolate and a pack of cigarettes. What he didn’t mention was his Purple Heart, or getting shot.

“He didn’t really talk about what happened to him over there,” Morris said in mid-January, less than a week before she left for Army basic training.

Harris went to war on skis when it was still a “wild idea,” and he was in the Italian campaign that made the 10th Mountain Division famous for getting the job done. He played a big part in why his generation came to be known as the greatest.

There’s so much more to why he was the greatest to Morris.

Ski Boot Baby

Harris was the grandfather that returned from the war and only wanted something better for his children and his children’s children.

Harris was the one who, with his wife, Madeline, while in their 70s, took Morris on a hike near a waterfall when she was 4. It’s her earliest memory of him. She remembers asking for a treat. She remembers “he always had these pretty funny remarks” for such an occasion.

“Oh,” her grandfather said to her, “here’s a nut, for a little nut.”

Harris was there when Morris was 6 and the family went skiing in Idaho. There was a brand new ski lift there named Stella.

“I just wanted to go on Stella all day,” Morris said. “So that is what my grandfather and I did.”

Harris died in 2009. He won’t be there in April when Morris graduates basic combat training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and begins following in his bootsteps as a combat medic. Harris’ 97-year-old widow, however, knows her granddaughter will be caring for Soldiers and carrying her late husband’s torch.

Morris also told Madeline that she will start her medic tour at Fort Polk, Louisiana, home of a 10th Mountain Division combat team.

“She actually lit up pretty big,” Morris said, the mention of 10th Mountain reversing Madeline’s visible gloom at the thoughts of swamps and alligators in Louisiana.

Morris will report to Polk with an advanced promotion to the rank of specialist because she enlisted under a program that rewards Future Soldiers for bringing needed skills into the Army. She qualified for it because of the emergency care credentials she carried as a ski patrol director when she enlisted.

In fact, she said the Army Civilian Acquired Skills Program is a big reason she chose the Army over the other services, because “it’s pretty cool” that she could be guaranteed to be a medic like her grandfather. “Even better if (it) gets (her) on with the 10th Mountain Division,” she added with careful optimism.

Morris’ ski patrol adventure started in high school. She was 16 when she heard her sister’s friend talk about volunteering to patrol on weekends just outside of Wenatchee, Washington.

“I want to do that,” she emphatically said to herself.

Morris wasn’t just born to ski. She practically arrived in the world with ski boots fastened and ready. Skiing is so in the Morris blood that her mother and older sister wanted in when she readied for patrol training after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“Well, if you do that, I want to do it,” Morris’ sister insisted to her and her mother.

So the seed that was planted on an Italian mountain range, and nurtured on Stella’s mechanical arms in Idaho, began to bloom as Morris was finishing high school. She continued patrolling after graduation.

Fire in the Snow

By 21, Morris was carrying dynamite up a mountain and blowing up the snow, a little-known patroller responsibility referred to as “avalanche mitigation.”

Continue reading “Fire, snow, and a call to serve”

Two Incident Management Teams were activated recently by FEMA for non-fire incidents

Covid-19 planning and Inauguration

Coronavirus Response wildfire

Two Incident Management Teams were mobilized for non-fire incidents through FEMA’s Emergency Support Function 4.

A “short” Type 2 team managed a Disaster Medical Shelter in Washington D.C. during the Presidential inauguration, but has since been demobilized. Assigned were eight people, seven in D.C. and one who worked virtually. Four of the team members were Forest Service personnel and six were from state or local governments.

Earlier we reported on a Type 1 IMT led by Incident Commander Randy Johnson that was mobilized January 15 to assist in Washington state, assessing and modifying existing COVID plans to enable a broader distribution of vaccinations. They are handling three counties for the Southwest Washington Health Services — Clark, Cowlitz, and Skamania Counties. At least 30 personnel were dispatched, 20 from the USFS, 3 DOI, and 9 from state and local governments. All of them worked at the scene except four who were virtual, two of which were US Forest Service Emergency Support Function #4 liaisons supporting the team and coordinating with the State and FEMA. This is scheduled to be 14-day assignment.

More information at the Columbian.

Incident Management Team dispatched to a COVID incident

A Type 1 Incident Management Team is being mobilized on a COVID-19 assignment.

COVID response incident management team
Incident Management Team member gets vaccinated as she is being mobilized.

Pacific Northwest Type 1 Incident Management Team 3 led by Incident Commander Randy Johnson has been mobilized through FEMA Emergency Support Function 4 to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts for the Southwest Washington Health Services.

Katy O’Hara, Information Officer for the team, said, “The team will be providing command, logistics, operational, and public information support as mass vaccination efforts begin in the communities.”

The incident in the state of Washington is named “SW WA – COVID 19 Pandemic Vaccination 2020030901”. (I’m not sure how that’s going to look on the T-shirt.)

At least one of the IMT members received their first dose of the vaccine after being notified about the assignment. They will be eligible for the required second dose in four weeks. About two weeks after that, they will begin to get strong immunity.

Our take

All wildland firefighters, especially Incident Management Teams, crews, and individuals that could be mobilized this year, need to get vaccinated now. The government should put in them in the 1b category along with first responders and frontline essential workers. It takes about six weeks after the first dose of the Moderna vaccine before immunity approaches the 95 percent effectiveness seen in the phase three trials if the second dose is received at 28 days. (Edit: contractors also need access to the vaccine.)

Washington state DNR requests funds for 100 additional firefighters

Wildfires in Washington, 2020
Map showing locations of wildfires in Washington that were reported to the National Interagency Fire Center in 2020.

Legislation being introduced in the state of Washington requests additional funding to beef up their fire suppression capability on the ground and in the air.

The number of acres burned in wildfires last year in the state, 812,000, was more than four times the average in the 2000s. In eastern Washington, 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed by the Babb-Malden Fire in September, 2020. The number of acres blackened in  Oregon last year, just across the border, was the second highest ever recorded.

Babb-Malden Fire
Babb-Malden Fire in eastern Washington, September, 2020. Whitman County Sheriff photo.

The bill introduced earlier this week in Washington, HB 1168, would appropriate $125 million for the Department of Natural Resources to create for the first time a dedicated fund to suppress and mitigate wildfires over the next two-year budget period.

A similar bill was introduced last year but failed to pass, possibly because it also stipulated that a portion of the funds would be raised by establishing a surtax on home insurance premiums. This latest version leaves it up to the legislators to come up with a source for the money.

For two of the last three years, Washington had the worst air quality in the world due to smoke from wildfires.

The requested funds can be sorted into four categories:

Wildfire Response — $75.2 million

The bill would create positions for 100 more firefighters, adding three 20-person hand crews, 20 dozer operators, and two 10-person “post-release” crews comprised of formerly incarcerated persons who served on state fire response crews.

The bill would also allow the purchase of two intelligence gathering fixed wing aircraft to be used on fires. Their ten very old UH-1H Huey helicopters would receive upgrades of some systems and night-flying capabilities. Washington does not own any air tankers, but in 2020 they had approximately six privately owned single engine air tankers (SEATS) on contract.

Forest Restoration — $31.4 million

This would fully fund and accelerate the DNR’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan, which calls for restoring natural wildfire resistance to 1.25 million acres of forest.

Workforce Development — $5.9 million

Provide career pathways for foresters, firefighters and mill workers

Community Resilience — $12.6 million

Make investments at the home, neighborhood, and community levels to reduce wildfire risk and protect communities. Including investments in defensive strategies at the community level such as fuel breaks, prescribed fire, and creating defensible green space, plus  direct assistance to home owners to secure their property and neighborhood with programs like FireWise.

In the video below Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland) joined experts and advocacy leaders from across the state to unveil the just-introduced bill. The discussion about fire begins at 6:00.

map fires Washington
Map showing heat detected by satellites on wildfires in Washington at 4:18 p.m. PDT September 8, 2020.

To see all articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Washington”, click here.

Air quality and smoke forecasts for September, 13, 2020

Smoke Forecast fire September 13, 2020
Smoke forecast for 6 a.m. PDT Sept 13, 2020.

The map above shows the forecast for the distribution of near-surface smoke at 6 a.m. PDT September, 13, 2020.

It appears that severe impacts will occur in areas of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.

(UPDATED smoke and air quality maps for September 13 can be found HERE)

Air quality from AirNow at 3 p.m. PDT September 12, 2020 is below. Most of Oregon, Washington, and northern California are in the categories of Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy, or Hazardous. If you’re in those areas and are lucky enough to have an N95 mask, this is a good time to use it. Being indoors does not help much unless you are aggressively filtering the air with a HEPA category filter. (Information about how to reduce your exposure to smoke.)

Air quality at 3 p.m. PDT Sept. 12, 2020
Air quality at 3 p.m. PDT Sept. 12, 2020. AirNow.

Below is the air quality forecast for Sunday September 13, 2020.

Air Quality forecast for September 13, 2020
Air Quality forecast for September 13, 2020. AirNow.

The photos below compare visibility in Eugene, Oregon on a clear day and today, September 12, 2020.

Visibility Eugene, Oregon clear day
Visibility in Eugene, Oregon on a clear day.
Visibility Eugene, Oregon today September 12, 2020 smoke fires
Visibility in Eugene, Oregon today, September 12, 2020.