By an anonymous firefighter
Editors’ note: This piece was submitted to Moonshine Ink by a firefighter who has decades of experience working in the state of California. During the fact-checking process and to confirm their statements in the below opinion piece, Ink staff contacted other firefighters across the state. Consensus ranged from “complete agreement” to 95%, while another went no further than to admit the thoughts shared are not unique.
Because of fear of physical harm and loss of livelihood, the firefighter who wrote the following asked to remain anonymous.
This has been one of the most disheartening seasons of my career. I have worked for decades as a professional firefighter for one of the largest fire departments in California. The amount of destruction I have witnessed this year and over my career is unwarranted, unethical, unnecessary, and staggering.
I have witnessed the willful destruction of public lands, private lands, private property, homes, livestock, wildlife, watersheds, and the like under the auspices of “management,” or due to malpractice, outdated policy, lack of leadership, for personal financial gain, and/or the absence of accountability.
I have participated in fires fought aggressively in one zone and gaining containment daily, while simultaneously being ignited through intentionally set flames or burn operations in another zone.
I have watched fires become contained, only to be lost hours or days later when oversight changes.
The public has been misinformed, misled, and deceived through actions, public information, and messaging. The truth has been buried by politics, policy, direction, and/or for fear of retaliation or retribution.
From the Lava to the Dixie, Beckwourth, Tamarack, Monument, and Caldor fires (only naming a few), the same hidden story plays out. The root of the problem is simple: a land management agency, the U.S. Forest Service, has oversight of wildland fire command on national forest lands, and their policy is to manage, not suppress, fires. The USFS is a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is a land management agency, not a fire department. The USDA’s primary mission is “Caring for the Land and Serving People.” Nowhere in the mission statement is there any inclusion of “fire suppression” or “protection of property or people.” Comparatively, Cal Fire’s mission “serves and safeguards the people and protects the property and resources of California.”
Fire departments are all-risk, meaning they can respond to any type of emergency 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year from fires and rescues to hazardous material calls, medical emergencies, gas leaks, and swift water rescues. The USFS’s primary objective is to manage national forests, including overall health, logging, recreation, fuels reduction, habitat, roads, and fires — to meet objectives put forth by the USDA. Many of today’s policies date to the early 1920s to 1940s, before many of the impacted lands were populated.
Driving the USFS management of fires are the fiscal benefits and financial gain. The USFS must pay for actions that fall outside the scope of the standard forestry technician. When on a fire, these forestry technicians and associated superiors and subordinates receive a 25% pay increase for working outside the scope of duties. If a minimum wage worker is paid 25% more while a fire is burning versus not, what is the motivation to put it out? In comparison, a professional firefighter is salaried, and the pay is not affected by risk, call type, or circumstance. The only time pay is increased is when firefighters are on overtime.
The costliest aspect of the management of lands for the forest service is the fire component. Beyond its own budget, it now draws on national emergency funding during big fire years. With that, the best way to ensure sufficient or increased funding is called black acres — acres burned equating to billions of tax dollars per year allocated to the USFS. These black acres are accrued by a “let burn” policy, a method for managing fire in wilderness areas and a general practice throughout the season.
This is seen year after year with fires that could be contained at one to two acres that turn into 10,000 to 300,000-plus acre fires. If one were to look at containment levels of USFS incidents, it would be noted that containment will not increase, is slow to increase, or will actually decrease. These same reasons are why the USFS will keep fires burning until the onset of winter when their (mostly) seasonal staff is laid off.
As stated in a memorandum released by the head of the USFS Randy Moore on Aug. 2, 2021, he suspended the let burn policy due to high fire danger. In doing so, he provided a permanent public record that proves the longtime policy and long-standing lack of intent to suppress wildland fires.
The USFS sells its forest management approach to the public under “returning the forest to its pre-fire suppression state” or “returning fire to the environment,” or the fire being “unsafe to engage on due to steep, inaccessible terrain.” When the forest service reintroduces natural fire into the forest, it is usually hasty or clandestine with no plan, holding resources, control, or accountability. Much of the time it will be done under the cover of night, so that individuals cannot be identified nor held accountable.
For decades, I have worked with fellow professionals responding to all types of calls. I have worked around the clock to “go direct” (suppression of the fire’s edge) and attack the lines in defense of communities and public and private lands. Year after year, we have defended said communities and lands. We have responded to assist the USFS on large-scale incidents, specifically to defend and protect private property, structures, land, and livestock.
Fire departments are called into these incidents because, by policy, the USFS does not and will not protect private property, structures, or land. Since it is not a fire department, the forest service must call in fire departments to assist. Cal Fire is routinely called upon to assist with air and ground resources. When fire departments respond to a USFS-managed incident, it detunes response capabilities to all-risk emergencies throughout the state, as well as puts additional wear and tear on the personnel and equipment.
The public message being delivered by the USFS of “aggressively fighting the fire” or “working hard to contain” is false and misleading. Professional firefighters in the crowd routinely mumble under their breaths at these briefings about how misleading, false, and unethical those statements are.
Many times, these fires are managed by the USFS for weeks or even months and burned into communities requiring fire departments to respond and defend homes, people, and property from a fire that never should have made it into the communities to begin with. And when structures are lost (Dixie, Greenville, Caldor, Beckwourth) as a direct consequence of USFS policy and actions, it is the professional fire departments that are left to comfort the public, assist with clean up, or rescue those trapped.
Fire departments will work on and suppress fires on national forest lands (as has been seen too many times this year) around the clock, including after hours, when the USFS is sometimes unstaffed because a fire is ramping down or in a previously burned forest area. Fires will then be transitioned back to the USFS in the morning only to have the fire be “lost” hours, days, or weeks later. I have personally experienced this on multiple fires this year (Tamarack, Beckwourth, Dixie, Monument, Lava).
This occurs due to the actions or inactions of the USFS, whether it is purposeful “defensive firing,” or “big box” fire management objectives (intentionally setting lands on fire tens of miles away using drip torches, incendiary firing devices, and fusees — special road flares for wildland fire use), or negligence through leaving the fire unstaffed during off hours.
The forest service’s defensive firing is fraudulent, and in fact often leads to structures being threatened or destroyed because of the “light and leave it” tactics. Staff will intentionally ignite fires on the line, then leave them unchecked when their shift ends, driving away with no accountability and leaving the 24-hour resources to hold, catch, or suppress what is left. These USFS crews carry more firing devices and drip torch fuel than firefighting equipment. The hot shot supervisor vehicle has a split gas and diesel tank to refill said drip torches so they can continue intentional ignitions without leaving the line! Just Google “USFS hot shot images” and look at how many pictures involve them lighting fire compared to fighting it.
This rogue firing is what burns into and destroys towns like Greenville, Doyle, and Janesville (just to name a few). When the fires hit these towns, private lands, and properties, the USFS is nowhere to be found! Because it cannot protect structures or private property policy-wise, the USFS does not want to be connected as a cause or held responsible for these tragic losses.
In contrast, fire departments take action on all fires to protect people, property, natural and cultural resources, and watersheds. By suppressing fires instead of managing them, life threat and loss decreases, property loss decreases, destruction of natural resources decreases, costs are limited, and the availability of resources to respond to new incidents statewide increases — all of which is a direct benefit to the taxpaying public. Fire suppression does not make for unhealthy forests; mismanagement does.
When fire departments use firing, it is as a tool; it is for containment and control, not for pay, budget, or personal gain. There is always a written firing plan, holding forces (engines, crews, and dozers to keep the fire contained and to pick up spot fires), common communications, and personnel that work 24/7 so the line is never left unattended.
I will now provide firsthand accounts, not stories I have heard, but things I have witnessed:
From watching the Tamarack Fire explode while having been unstaffed for weeks; to trying to defend the town of Doyle from a fire front originating from a rogue USFS firing operation; to running out of water and asking for some from the multiple USFS engines parked nearby watching the town burn, only to have them turn me down, stating, “We don’t defend structures;” to witnessing a USFS hot shot supervisor order the edge firing of a road well ahead of the main fire within eyeshot of 15 structures only to burn 13 of them to the ground while we professional firefighters tried unsuccessfully to make it through the intentionally set firing operation to defend the structures; to hot shot crews intentionally lighting fire on the wrong (green, unburned) side of a dozer line that had been put in directly on the fire’s edge only to have the fire then envelope the dozer and operator and continue to burn for days later for more than 63,000 acres; to working around the clock to gain containment with dozer lines, hose lines, hand lines, and retardant only to have the USFS “lose” it all hours later and run the fire back into a municipality requiring new mandatory evacuations for a town that had just been repopulated; to a hot shot crew intentionally setting old fuels reduction piles of slash on fire well ahead of the main fire only to have them spot, spread, and threaten multiple structures that would not have been threatened by the main fire front; to having air tankers overhead ready to drop on a small initial attack fire, but being canceled due to cost versus values at risk, and returned, then having the fire blow up into a major incident; to having spot fires that develop well outside containment lines and called “holdover lightning strikes” and “plume-driven embers” by the USFS only to disprove both through the use of technology, and find fusee caps, drip torch fuel, boot prints, and sulfur slag (from backfire fusees) at the locations.
These are just a sampling of the events I have witnessed; many more could be told.
The “cooperative efforts” and “partnership” that is portrayed to the public is completely false. It is adversarial on the fire line, with professional fire departments doing what they do each day, year-round — all-risk public service — while the USFS tries to counter every action for management objectives and fiscal incentives.
In addition, and in support of these rogue actions, the USFS also excludes and prohibits media coverage of its actions on wildland fires to prevent any of this from being documented. As firefighting personnel increasingly record and document their fire line experiences and more of these actions are documented, it is immediately apparent that those involved are not comfortable being recorded by non-USFS personnel.
All of this has gone on for decades. It has to stop!
The USFS needs to be restructured, reorganized, and held accountable, with policies updated to be in line with the current conditions of fuels, habitation, infrastructure, and private property. Management plans and policies from the early 1900s cannot apply in today’s forests and wildland urban interface areas. With unprecedented drought, climate change, and public expansion into the wildland, policies from over a century ago no longer apply, nor are they valid. The USFS should refocus on the mission of forest health now and into the future and leave firefighting to the professionals.
Do not just take my word. Ask the hard questions; demand answers.