USFS Chief Christiansen Wildfire Priority Letter

Chief Christiansen sent this letter to top staff officers on July 14. Excerpts:

“We are seeing severe fire behavior that resists control efforts. Further, the seasonal forecast for the entire Western United States remains extremes for the next several months. We expect demand for resources to outpace resource availability, and our workforce remains fatigued and in need of recovery following last year’s record-setting fire season, active hurricane season, and strenous efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“I understand this direction requires us to make difficult trade-offs with our other high-priority mission work. This is especially challenging at present, when we are working diligently to accomplish performance goals and restoration outcomes. As the mission support workforce shifts priorities to fire, this also means trade-offs in non-fire contracts, hires, grants, payments, among others.”

8 thoughts on “USFS Chief Christiansen Wildfire Priority Letter”

      • Endless wars require that even relatively peaceful conditions be made to inspire fear and trembling in the masses. There is nothing exotic or unusual about 2021’s fire season, notwithstanding the Chief’s “sky-is-falling” message. The sky has to fall to justify the massive spending the Forest Service seeks. Needless to say, that spending doesn’t keep the sky from falling when it is and certainly not when it isn’t.

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        • Andy, it’s true we’re at 85% of the 10-year average:

          2020 to date: 2,585,492 acres
          10-year average to date: 3,032,587 acres

          But this summer fire season in the west is unusually dry and warm. I think it likely that we’ll have more high-intensity fire than most folks find acceptable.

          Also, Chief Christiansen’s message that resources for so much other work is being diverted to wildfire suppression really is a huge problem.

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        • A few thoughts…

          1) These letters are a relatively typical policy thing, in that they usually go out when suppression assignments become a priority, even for non-primary fire personnel, after a certain amount of time at PL5 nationally. FS employees even have nicknames for this, the “moses letter”, let my people go and all that. So the message is perhaps less that this year is exceptional and more that “it’s that time of year”. At least that’s one personal understanding of the situation.

          2) I agree that the catastrophe rhetoric can be exhausting and even overblown, but given the nature of media coverage on wildland fire in recent years, what can the chief say? Nah no big deal? Personally I’d think just the bolded acknowledgement that resource demand is going to get pushed beyond supply is sufficient.

          3) Steve, below, and Anthony hit on relevant bits, namely, that this entails resources for so much other work being diverted to wildfire suppression is a problem the FS has to deal with. Is that catastrophe or endless war rhetoric, or a real problem? I tend to the latter, and think many readers here would too.

          4) Re: spending, a bit of confusion. Yes, agency spending on suppression probably doesn’t have much influence on initial attack activity, but it seems hard to say that resource availability “doesn’t keep the sky from falling when it is” if this is taken to mean that suppression activities simply don’t help in extreme situations. They may not be 100% effective but I think anyone who has worked structure protection, successfully, would take some umbrage with this characterization. This is not to say there isn’t wasteful spending in fire, far from it. But a more careful distinction of what this nefarious “massive spending” is and which parts of it are unjustified may be in order.

          Finally, a nitpick. Which masses are being inspired to fear and trembling here, exactly? Is FS spending on suppression a cause or effect of this rhetoric? What about media coverage? What about when media coverage makes climate linkages to fire season severity? Where does reasonable justification turn to political maneuvering for $$$?

          You couch these messages, “needless to say” and “notwithstanding” implying that there should be something obvious here, but I’m not sure it’s so obvious.

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          • Anonymous: Yes, the “Moses memo” is an annual catechism used to repeat the basic instruction that war on fire is the Forest Service’s #1 job. Like all catechisms, its message is faith-based and not subject to acolyte questioning. The catastrophe rhetoric is fundamental to the message, for it is when we face catastrophe that people commit their complete trust (“faith”) to the righteousness of the cause. No sacrifice is too great nor burden too heavy to keep the Forest Service from the successful completion of its firefighting mission.

            Mission glorification is common in the military services (my favorite is the Army Corps of Engineers “Blessing of the Fleet” ceremony “to commemorate the Mat Sinking Unit’s deployment and the official start of revetment season”). Since its founding, the Forest Service has styled itself a military organization. As fire increasingly dominates the Forest Service’s agenda (in the last 30 years, fire spending has increased from 15% to 55% of the FS’s budget) the military trend has accelerated.

            PS: Why is “structure protection” even part of the Forest Service’s job? Talk about mission creep.

          • ok, well, mostly not answering the question(s), but fair enough. mission glorification extends well beyond military stylings, but the FS does have military-adjacent stylings in terms of organization. So what, however?

            are military-adjacent stylings themselves a problem, a symptom, or a cause? the way we diagram the causation here matters. I’d contend that they’re a symptom of the ongoing commitment of more and more resources to fire as you discuss above.

            that in term informs potential solutions – what does less FS fire spending look like? does it lead to reinvestment in other parts of the agency or simply an even-more-gutted FS? I’d be the first to agree that public safety rhetoric is unfortunately one of the easiest ways to secure funding, maybe too easy, but I would also nuance that statement by pointing out that some may fear the alternative is simply even less FS staffing and funding (i.e. reducing fire org but also continuing to reduce the rest of the FS, not “re-balancing” to earlier proportions). I’d cynically contend that to be the most likely outcome of reduced fire spending, replete with the loss of whatever help other resources can glean from fire staff and seasonals.

            w/r/t structure protection, again I see your point, but it’s fair to say that is driven in large part by the pressures associated with WUI development. I’m fairly confident you’re aware of that. Obviously that could point towards the need to restrict these roles to local departments, but it doesn’t mean that the structure protection in the wildland environment is a gratuitous need invented by an overzealous organization, it’s in response to a real need, even if it reflects potential organizational misalignment.

  1. Is “trade-off” a code word for “lowered priority”? Seems that at the end of the day, senior leadership has traditionally wanted to tell their superiors that the FS did it all – fights fires and produce goods and services up to expectations.

    A fatigued and “in need of recovery” workforce, when asked to produce an expected Program of Work, will start to lose morale, if it has not already occurred. I wonder what condition these employees are in when they return to their homes/families at the end of the day.

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