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What If?

What if?  That was the ominous theme for participants when the California Wildland Fire Coordinating Group (CWCG) held their annual IMT Workshop at the Wildland Fire Training Center in McClellan Park on the first three days of May.  Incident Commanders (ICs) from all the Federal Type 1 and Type 2 IMTs from both Northern and Southern California were in attendance, along with other team members.  The purpose of this annual gathering is to receive guidance from agency heads and set the tone for the upcoming wildland fire season. 

To learn more about the Agency Administrator Role on wildfires, use the drop-down at right.

The term Agency Administrator (AA) is kicked around a lot in this post. As a reminder, ICs receive a temporary delegation from AAs to manage a wildfire (or in some cases other “all-risk” incidents) on their behalf within the Reservation, Park or Forest, where the fire is burning. The AA could be a District Ranger or Park Superintendent on smaller fires going all the way up to a tribal leader for a sovereign First Nation, Regional Forester, or Regional Director in the case of larger fires. The AA is the principle decision maker for that patch of dirt. The buck stops with him or her.

More specifically, the opening speakers used the annual Department or Agency Letters of Direction.  A long-standing tradition in the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), their direction letter can be found here.  Possibly the first Cabinet-level annual fire direction memo from the Department of the Interior (DOI), can be found here.  During my time in fire management leadership, I found the DOI to be far more decentralized with more empowered employees having collegial exchanges at various levels in the organizational hierarchy.  The USFS, on the other hand, seemed to have more of a “wait until we receive direction” culture that preferred deference to rank over efficiency.  Employees in the USFS seemed largely unwilling to step outside their chain of command.

Perhaps the DOI Memo can be explained by the sexual harassment accusations roiling all the agencies. California, due to the sheer number of agency employees, has always been a hotbed for class action litigation and has particularly been impacted. Both agency direction letters address this issue, give a nod to the scope of the previous year, and provide the usual affirmation that firefighter and public safety be ensured at all costs.  While not quiet the clown car of ineffectiveness that is Scott Pruitt’s EPA, Interior’s Ryan Zinke has not been without controversy at home and abroad. It’s nice to see he’s looking out for his home state of Montana.  Zinke released a DOI press release last September that clearly indicate his desire to cut more big trees on Interior lands, despite the settled science, that standing mature trees represent the least threat, in terms of fuels that increase the speed and severity of wildfires. Red flags are popping when Cabinet-level appointees direct their agency heads …

“to use the full range of existing authorities, to reduce fuels.”

“I applaud Secretary Zinke’s effort to thin the threat. If we can reduce the fuel loads in our forests and rangelands we will provide our fire fighters more defensible space to do their jobs,” said Idaho Senator James Risch.

Risch, who carries a lifetime score of 7% (0% in 2017) with the League of Conservation Voters, doesn’t use the word “thin” to mean the small trees and brush.  This is what happens when you place individuals as Agency Heads that neither understand the scope, nor believe in the mission, of their respective departments and agencies.  Their ideological bent drives them merely to fulfill the words of the conservative thinker and 1% spokesperson, Grover Norquist.

“I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

Fortunately, though a majority of wildland fire professional are patriotic, flag-waving conservative men, they are a practical lot.  Otherwise, I’d have a hard time counting myself amongst these hard-working public servants. There is little room between the fire whirls of contemporary wildland fire management for ideological zealotry.  This all comes on the heels of the most destructive wildland fire season in California history.  The facts and figures speak for themselves.  Whether the reason lies in climate change, development spreading over larger landscapes, or both; believe what you will, the situation is deteriorating and cruel budget cuts don’t make it any easier. Change is upon us, and adaptation is in the air. You can smell it.

After introductions of all the ICs, the acting CWCG Chair and Regional Director of Fire and Aviation, Bob Baird, made opening comments about the challenges faced last year…

“It wasn’t a fire season, it was a fire year,”

He put forward challenges ahead, that would be repeated throughout the gathering, like succession planning and the related need to promote trainees, as well as the seemingly ever-present problem with “dishonorable and disrespectful” behavior.  I appreciated his focus on looking…

“…at ways we can not push risk or exposure down to the ground.”

This, particularly in light of his closing comments on reducing “future threats.”  Mike Minton, Deputy FMO Pacific West Region and a close professional colleague, was up next, bringing key messages from DOI agencies within California.  Mike is a well-spoken and well-rounded leader in fire management with extensive experience in both the USFS and Interior.  Mike said that the DOI agency heads, within their respective 2018 direction to their fire management staffs, recognized issues like inclusivity, fatigue due to length and breadth of fire season, and the AA workload had, which has increased regarding oversight of preseason preparedness and risk management.  Regarding risk management, I was surprised to hear Mike add that, in looking for opportunities to reintroduce fire,…

“…a reminder: life and property come first.”

I had always thought the 1995 WIldland Fire Policy Review had put ecosystem health and resilience on equal footing with property protection.

“Standard criteria have been established to guide fire suppression priorities.  These have been based on the potential for the fire to destroy: (1) human life,(2) property, and (3) resource values. Human life remains the first priority; however, the second priority of property over natural or cultural resource values is being questioned by fire managers and others. It limits managers’ flexibility to consider low-value properties relative to higher-valued natural or cultural resources. Property protection is a significant contributor to inflated suppression costs as well as increased sire of wildfires when limited suppression resources are concentrated to protect property.”

This was confirmed in the 2009 Guidance for Implementation of Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy.

“The protection of human life is the single, overriding priority. Setting priorities among protecting human communities and community infrastructure, other property and improvements, and natural and cultural resources will be done based on the values to be protected, human health and safety, and the costs of protection.”

Elevating ecosystem health, as a wildfire management priority, stands as an important milestone, forged in the tragedy of Storm King Mountain. A few short weeks after the IMT workshop, I would soon articulate this in a short video for Wildfire Today at the Fire Continuum Conference in Missoula, Montana (my bit starts at 7:21 but I’m in great company, and the entire video is well worth watching).  Continuing to place property above the potentially priceless ecosystem services provided by an intact, relisient ecosystem is a very California thing, especially in Southern California, and it contributes to the false understanding on the part of the public, that a wildland firefighter’s duty is to die protecting stuff – replaceable homes and infrastructure. In fact, that’s patently false, as demonstrated by countless pieces of leadership direction, despite that very allusion in the finale of the recent blockbuster movie, Only the Brave, chronicling the final moments of the Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2013.  In an excellent 2016 article regarding the need to focus on resilience, by Dr. Scott Stephens, et. al., the authors write…

There is tremendous public, media, and political pressure on U.S. federal agencies to ensure that fires do not harm private property, endanger lives, or threaten socially valued resources. The public generally perceives fire as both bad and preventable and expects quick results in controlling fires. Failure by the agency to control fires might result in legal liability for harm to private property, primarily in the urban–wildland interface. Although managers may aim toward the goals of resilience and suppression simultaneously as presented in the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, the pressures related to suppression far exceed those calling for improved forest resilience. Thus, it is no surprise that the USFS operates in a risk‐averse manner and emphasizes fire suppression, such that the vast majority of fires are suppressed, even in wilderness where the potential harm to private property or lives are minimal.

Back at the workshop, Tim Garcia, acting Deputy Regional Forester on loan from the Lolo National Forest in Montana, represented the California USFS AA perspective. Randy Moore, the Regional Forester, was not present, and that’s a pity.  Tim brought a fresh dose of Region 1 (Northern Rockies) perspective, and I found some of his comments to be spot on.

“We can’t control those landscapes that aren’t resilient. When we have an opportunity to do some good, if it’s within a strategy that makes sense, to use fire to our advantage, to advance that resilient landscape, by all means let’s have a look at that, again, commensurate with values at risk.”

“Understand the legacy your team leaves after 14 days.  If there’s collateral damage associated with tactics or strategies that you take, and the community remembers that – and they don’t forget it for years – and it will outlive Rangers, and it will outlive Forest Supervisors, and you’ll come back and that community will remember your name and what you did four years ago.”

Tim also addressed the hostile workplace situation that many women were experiencing, spoke to the need to engage Agency Administrators in a robust discussion on risk decisions, and gave a little love to the Cohesive Strategy.  He spoke about the need to listen closely to local stakeholders who may have differing views on values at risk, as well as strategies and tactics, that is to say from timber industry to Tribes to environmental groups – take the time to consider differing perspectives, before formulating you plan to manage the incident, was his message.  Overall, I was impressed, but he was a pinch hitter.

Next up was the top brass.  Shawna Legarza literally wrote the book on being one of the first California Department of Forestry (CalFire) firefighters. Mike “Whacko” Wakoski, the IC for SoCal Team 3 and Master of Ceremonies, made the blunder of introducing Legarza as the Regional Fire Director, the post she previously held before being promoted as the first woman to lead the nation as USFS Director of Fire and Aviation.  She replaced Tom Harbour, who also came from Region 5 (all of California). Since California drains a significant part of the USFS fire budget, having that perspective close at hand is helpful for lawmakers on Capitol Hill.  After further sticking his foot in his mouth by accusing Legarza of being a “cat lady” with “40 cats,” and saying “You just moved right up, didn’t you?” Wakoski was replaced by Chief Legarza, to everyone’s relief.

Shawna Legarza is a genuine human being thrust into the pit of technocratic power madness, and more recently a den of unethical conduct with unabashed, obscene conflicts of interest.  Her rigorous routine, she described, of splitting workouts between conference calls to combat the stress, was illustrative of her commitment to the notion of self-leadership in a profession faced with increasing suicides.  Despite shrinking budgets and growing needs, my brief professional time with her convinced me of her sincerity in promoting aggressive stress management, that is in alignment with the Everyone Gomes Home initiative.  She also promotes giving back to the organization that has given her so much, including the strength to overcome her own husband’s suicide.  Legarza mentioned the myriad of recent emerging issues in the business of wildland fire, associated with stress, like Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) , Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) , Stress First Aid , Suicide Prevention , and Emotional Intelligence. She spoke passionately about the work/life balance issue.

“These are things we’ve been dealing with for thirty to forty years, right? And now, just now, here in last five, six, eight years, we’ve been starting to put an emphasis on that.  The things we see and do, and the jobs we have, are really tough…they’re really tough.  And how do you balance all that in your mind, so you can still be healthy and live a good, rewarding life?”

How, indeed?  Shawna mentioned briefly the so-called “fire funding fix”, otherwise known as the FY 2018 omnibus measure (H.R. 1625). Legarza mentioned that the USFS had already spent more on fire in 2018 than they had by this time last year, citing the now year-round California fire season.

“I’m not robbing Peter to pay Paul. We’re getting our programs organized, so that we know where the money’s going, where the money’s spent, and who’s spending it.”

These are all questions FUSEE hopes to answer in it’s educational and watchdog roles on wildland fire spending under the new spending authorities.  Chief Legarza says she wants to get to the bottom of the “true cost” of willand firefighting efforts that totalled $2.9 billion for all Federal agencies in 2018 and $1.4 billion for State and local government.  Rather than a continuing blank check that encourages the most heavy-handed and expensive responses, FUSEE wants to ensure everyone has access to wildland fire cost information for public accountability.  That initiative is being kicked off with the soon-to-be-released Firewatch: A Citizens Guide to Fire Suppression Monitoring.

Regarding increased fiscal oversight, Chief Legarza said,

“It’s a good thing.  Don’t take it as bad.  It’s a good thing.”

That’s how we feel here at FUSEE, as well.  Stay tuned for the latest on FUSEE’s website.

Want to learn more about the Omnibus Bill? Click on the down arrow!

The National Association of State Foresters was “thrilled” about the shutdown-avoiding legislation in their press release.  We turn to Trump appointee, USFS Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen, who spoke directly to the spending bill in her official USFS blog post, saying “The omnibus bill authorizes the fire funding fix that we requested, with strong support from Secretary Perdue. Under the bill, USDA and the Department of the Interior will have a new joint budget authority of $2.25 billion to cover firefighting costs that exceed regular appropriations. The new authority will begin in fiscal year 2020 and increase by $100 million per year through fiscal year 2027.

To be sure, the fire funding fix will not kick in right away. For the 2018–2019 fire years, we will continue to rely on regular appropriations based on the 10-year rolling average of firefighting costs. However, the omnibus bill contains $500 million in emergency suppression funds for 2018, in addition to our regular appropriation of $1.057 billion for suppression.

When the fire funding fix does kick in, the Forest Service—and the American people—will benefit in two key ways. First, it will end the need for us to borrow from non-fire programs to cover firefighting costs when regular appropriations run out during severe fire years. Since 2000, fire borrowing has disrupted other critical resource management work in most years. Second, the fire funding fix will stop the erosion of our non-fire programs. As our suppression costs have continued to rise, they have eaten up a growing proportion of the overall Forest Service budget. The fire funding fix will help us finally restore balance to our program delivery on behalf of the people we serve.

Moreover, the omnibus bill also resolves other issues facing the Forest Service and our partners. For example, it expands our ability to expedite fuels and forest health treatments through the use of categorical exclusions in project areas up to 3,000 acres in size and it includes a two-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, providing critically needed funding for rural communities.”

Shawna briefly mentioned the 25-30 airtankers funded for the season (a topic well documented on the Wildland Fire Today blog, though some of their early doom and gloom reporting on this seems not to have come to pass), improvements to cost sharing and cost recovery, and the new and updated Inciweb website, before laying out her top three points of intent and priorities.

Intent

  1. Engaged Leadership – “Challenge yourself to be as present as possible, in whatever position you’re doing.”
  2. Alignment of Communications – A heads up to IMT Public Information Officers.
  3. Self-Leadership – covered earlier in her comments on stress management.

Priorities

  1. Workplace Environment – the ongoing crisis addressed by the standard fire leadership guidance of “Duty, Respect and Integrity” along with “soft skills.”
  2. Fiscal Integrity – “Even with the funding fix, the Hill, Congress, and the Departments, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)…they’re watching us. As they’re watching me, I’ll be watching you.”
  3. Information Technology – Drones “moving Jerry cans and cubitainers,” as well as providing a Common Operating Picture (COP).

Following Legarza’s National update, Bob Baird returned with comments from the Regional perspective. He waxed poetically about his time during 9/11 and in Afghanistan while in the Marine Corps. He tied that in with the interagency wildland fire leadership curriculum, developed jointly with the Marines, and the workshop’s Keynote Speaker – a retired Marine.  Bob did deliver a nugget with this…

“This is an unsustainable problem.  The natural resources challenges with the wildland urban interface – the encroachment and the buildup of the fuels. We can’t build a system big enough to push it back. Right? Because we’re not going to get any more.  And we’re in an era of declining resources.”

Returning to the What If? theme and the North Bay fires in Wine Country…

“Five teams [mobilized] in one day. Can we do that? I hope so. I think so. Is that the test of success that we’re going to have to be capable of doing? Then you’ve got the Thomas [Fire] – a thousand homes in six hours.  So what if we have a North Bay and a Thomas going at the same time?  We could have that…

Are we looking at the land management piece of this?  If a fire can leave the ecosystem better and remove the fuel – reduce the future threat – are we able to have that discussion with the public about why that makes sense? …We have learn to live with fire, which is what the Cohesive Strategy talks about.”

For me, hearing these Regional and National wildland fire leaders hash out the problems of the day was the peak of the workshop.  The first day concluded with the Key Note address by Retired U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Eric Carlson of OMNA International, that specializes in helping organizations with leadership development.  From their website…

“We are retired U.S. Marines and Firefighters with a good deal of pragmatic experience in developing organizations with a bias for action.  OMNA International accompanies high-tempo organizations and guides their senior leaders in better preparing for the future — grounded in ancient and enduring principles and practices.

Hopefully, some of those “ancient” principles include the wisdom of our First Nations brothers and sisters, rather than a march to America’s favorite organizational model and metaphor gold mine – the military.  Since The U.S. has been at war constantly since 9/11 in the open ended War on Terror, camouflage is very much back in style.  Congress hasn’t made a formal declaration of war, since WW2 – not even during the Vietnam War. Despite the tens of thousands of dead U.S. servicemen and women dead and the millions dead in Southeast Asia, Congress preferred to abrogate their responsibilities.  The problem with a “bias for action” is that it gets folks killed, mostly brown-skinned humans overseas, but firefighters aren’t immune.  Most of the time, in this business “a bias for action” translates into an unnecessary snag cut, a line scraped when the nearby natural barrier will do, or when we decide to “fight” the fire in wilderness. That bias also leads to the six blade width contingency line, replete with a feller-buncher logging show miles from the fire through critical habitat.  Lives are lost when we go too far down the expendable warrior rabbit hole.   Frankly, I like OMNA’s Staff Ride development, but organizational change has to go far deeper and not embrace the anti-intellectualism, so inherent in insular, hierarchical organizations.

The day wrapped up with Tom Rolinski, Supervisory Meteorologist with the Predictive Service branch of the Southern California Geographic Coordination Center (GACC).  He introduced the most current assessment of the upcoming fire season.  MC Whacko struck again by cracking this humor attempt at the end of Rolinski’s session.

An old fireman once told me, “You know who can predict the fire season? A Fool.”

Insulting yet another guest speaker, Mike closed the day’s session.  The second day opened with the whole group for an hour, effectively talking about care of the wounded and honoring the dead.  Chief Legarza’s focus on stress management, and now this from Pheonix National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Team IC, Bob Houseman.  His presentation wove the What If? theme somewhere between an advanced You Shall Not Stand Alone refresher and a reminder to have a plan for managing an incident within an incident. All this focus on the way wildland firefighters either die in the line-of-duty, or are emotionally and physically scarred by the occupation, seems well encapsulated in this hot-off-the-press Purple Ribbon Campaign for the upcoming fire season. If recruitment is the goal, this may not be the first document shared with a new prospective firefighter, or his/her family.

Sectional breakouts finished the remainder of that day.  I attended the Plans Section track where we heard lively presentations on the integration of newer technologies into large fire management and the venerable ICS-209 form, specifically the daily percent completion section, and how confounding it is to count completion in any metric other than percent line completed.  That conversation may be valuable for another blog post in the future, as it points out the difficulty in real organizational change, and it dovetails into FUSEE’s initiative in suppression cost tracking.  The last half day was spent with individual teams and their ICs together.  For me, it was the nuts and bolts of being a new team member on NorCal Team 1 a Type 2 IMT.  I met the trainee assigned to me for the season, and we all had a pleasant team dinner in Roseville.  It was all pretty standard fare, but is was the good stuff – a small group of people communicating with respectful passion, establishing rapport, all in preparation to take on the unknown and sometimes unpredictable.  That’s my public service niche – shedding some light on the fire’s predicted behavior.  It’s a role I take very seriously, and apparently, it’s something I’m not quite willing to give up, yet, in so-called “retirement.”

Overall, the whole affair left me a little depressed. From Legarza’s celebration of the “fire industrial complex,” to the deeply ingrained military jingoism and insularity, and especially the amount of time spent discussing the “not if, but when” inevitability of future firefighter injury and death vs. the minimal time spent on cost containment and attaining ecosystem resilience; I could only walk away with a sense of foreboding for the upcoming season.  Our team won’t just be on restorative fires deep in wilderness, we’ll be on fires with homes burning and a expectant public, eager to clear the smoke.  Here, the adrenaline junkies thrive, but ecological values and objectives to “reduce the future threat,” as Chief Baird promoted, take a back seat.

I needed to relax and unwind…get back to nature, away from North Highlands and Roseville, away from California and into the deep, quiet canyons of Utah.  Like Gonzo journalists before me, the jackals and bats of urban corporate for-profit firefighting were circling my head.  I had my coveted team name badge, and now I had to get out…quickly!

The Green River at Mineral Bottom just outside Canyonlands National Park

After two weeks in canyon country and nearly a hundred miles on the Green and Colorado Rivers near Canyonlands NP and Dinosaur NM, I was renewed and ready to meet my nemesis again in the Exhibition Hall of the Missoula Fire Continuum Conference.  Hell, they might even have some nice swag.  At least this time, I would joined by the real idealists, the scientists and their students engaged around the world in fire ecology and science-based risk management.  Oh yes, a few big iron, “put the wet stuff on the red stuff” advocates would be there, too.  This was a joint conference between the Association for Fire Ecology (AFE) and the more pro-suppression folks of the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF).

Stay tuned to the FUSEE blog site for more!                         Until we meet again on the line, HunterX