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From the Chief's Desk: Fire, COVID updates and GMA interview

Portrait: Randy Moore in Forest Service uniform.
Chief Randy Moore, USDA Forest Service

Hello. It’s been an amazing first three weeks as your Chief. I am stepping into this role at an important time in our country’s and our agency’s history. I know it’s hard out there. We’re in another tough fire year while still fighting COVID, and people are still flocking to their public lands for respite. 

I know you’re tired. So, I want to start by sharing my gratitude for all of the hard work and dedication each of you demonstrates every day. Thank you to everyone who is doing their part to help end this pandemic by following our health and safety protocols. Thank you to everyone who is vaccinated. Thank you to everyone fighting fire. Please remember to be safe and take care of yourselves and each other.

Fire year 2021

At this time, with extreme fire conditions and COVID-19 increasing, the country is facing a national crisis in the management of wildland fire. Severe drought is affecting over 70% of the West, with above-normal fire activity predicted into October.

Recently, I sent a letter to the National Leadership Council to clarify our fire policy under these extraordinary circumstances. We are emphasizing our continued focus on firefighter and public safety and the protection of communities and infrastructure. Those are our highest priorities.

We are at Preparedness Level 5, the highest level, and we continue to face critical firefighting resource limitations. We are assigning our finite amount of firefighting resources based on our first priorities. Therefore, fires will not always get the resources that might be requested as quickly as might be desired.

At times like these, we must anchor to our core values, particularly safety. The core tenet of the Forest Service’s fire response strategy is public and firefighter safety above all else. The current situation demands that we commit our fire resources only in instances where they have a high probability of success and they can operate safely and effectively.

Our primary focus moving forward will be on fires that threaten lives, communities and infrastructure. There is a misconception out there that the Forest Service has a “let it burn” policy. We do not. Every fire has a suppression strategy.

Our primary response strategy for 2021 continues to be aggressive initial attack by hand crews, supported by available airtankers and helicopters. That includes using local resources from federal, tribal, state and local partners to extinguish wildfires quickly. Our goal is rapid containment to minimize the number of large wildfires and minimize the need to bring substantial numbers of firefighters together. We will strive to maintain our historical initial attack success rate of almost 98%.

We will rely on the tested principles of risk management to determine our strategies and tactics. We will support our agency administrators and fire managers as they make the best choices they can given the resources at hand, the immediate threats and the predicted weather.

At PL 5, the reality is that our resources are limited. Therefore, we will not manage fires for resource benefits at this time. In fact, the Forest Service has not explicitly managed fires for resource benefits this year since arriving at national PL 5.

In addition, until further notice, we will consider prescribed fire operations only in geographic areas at or below PL 2 and only with the approval of the regional forester after consulting with the Chief’s Office.

Let me be clear: we are not returning to the 10 a.m. policy. When western fire activity abates, we will resume using all the tools in our toolbox, including wildfire and prescribed fire, in the right places and at the right times.

COVID Delta variant

Secretary Vilsack sent out an e-mail recently stating the Delta variant is significantly more contagious than earlier strains of the coronavirus and accounts for most new cases in the country. And just today, we received an update about the vaccine certification process. As the virus spreads and changes, so too will the risk mitigating approaches, but know that we remain steadfast in putting our employees, contractors and visitors first. Health and safety are our highest concerns.

Those who are not fully vaccinated or who decline to provide their vaccination status must wear a mask, physically distance and comply with a weekly or twice-weekly screening testing requirement. They are also subject to government-wide restrictions on official travel as appropriate.

Please read USDA’s emails, included in Inside the Forest Service, for the most up-to-date information. More information about the vaccination certification process will come later this week.

Safety comes first in everything we do. I have known that for my whole career with the Forest Service, and I’m sure you have too. If you are not yet vaccinated and remain unsure about the vaccines, please cut through the noise of opinions around you and consult with your healthcare professionals.

Everyone must mask up, regardless of vaccination status. Even people who are vaccinated are at some degree of risk. Our employees move around in areas with different transmission rates. To keep it simple, everyone must mask up in government buildings.

Thank you again for your amazing work and contributions to solving the greatest challenges this planet has faced in recent memory. I opened by sharing my gratitude. I encourage you to share your gratitude and check in with those around you. We must encourage each other to take care of ourselves as we continue to work in these difficult circumstances.

I look forward to engaging your talents and support as we navigate the challenges ahead of us. I am confident that together we will make positive change. Thank you for your dedicated service.

On Friday, Aug. 13, Chief Moore was interviewed on the third hour of Good Morning America. That interview is embedded below for those who wish to watch it. Including the video does not imply agency endorsement of GMA, ABC, Disney or any of its subsidiaries.