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From the Chief's Desk: Operation Care and Recovery, a response to the hazard events of 2020

Portrait of Chief Christiansen in uniform.
Chief Vicki Christiansen

The year 2020 will be etched in our memories for the sheer amount of volatility in all areas of our lives. It started in Australia, during the epic fires of “Black Summer.” Next came record spring rains and heavy flooding affecting millions of people from the Upper Midwest to the Southeast. March brought us the declaration of the global coronavirus pandemic. May saw the start of the second most active hurricane season on record.

And now California and the Pacific Northwest are experiencing a level of wildfire unmatched in modern times. Extreme fire weather across much of the West—record-shattering heat, tinder-dry fuels, hot and dry winds and dry lightning storms—have combined to start hundreds of fires with phenomenal rates of spread. Wildfires in California and Colorado have already broken state records, as has the area burned in some regions, with more than 2.3 million acres burned in California and more than 3.6 million acres burned across the entire West Coast. Unprecedented rates of fire spread have damaged large parts California, Oregon and Washington. Large parts of the West are suffering from smoke effects that compound the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The nation has faced hurricanes along the Gulf Coast that have devastated much of the South. Hurricanes Laura and Sally brought high winds and incredible rainfall. Towns are flooded and residents from Florida to Texas are struggling with the after-effects. And it’s not over—Hurricane Teddy is in the Gulf of Mexico right now.

Our wildland firefighters and response personnel have done a fantastic job protecting hundreds of thousands of lives and homes and countless communities. In many areas, however, evacuation has been our only recourse. Extreme fire behavior overwhelmed entire neighborhoods, destroying homes and workplaces and taking dozens of lives. We don’t know yet how much was lost, but many of you have suffered losses directly. You have lost homes and all you owned; your offices and work centers, and—worse by far—you have lost neighbors, friends and family.

Operation Care and Recovery

Our job now is to care—to care for our own, for the people we serve, and for the lands we manage. As a caring and responsive organization committed to core values of service and interdependence, the Forest Service is launching Operation Care and Recovery: a system-wide approach to supporting the Washington Office, regions, stations, Job Corp Centers, and communities in care and recovery from the all-hazard events of 2020, including fires, hurricanes and the pandemic.

The Forest Service has a legacy of emergency response second to none. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, we sprang into action, helping people meet their most basic needs for food, water, and shelter. They called us the Green Pants, and they valued us for our can-do spirit, knowing that when the Green Pants arrived, help was at hand.

Now is our time again, with so many needs unmet—the immediate needs of our employees, of our organizational structure and facilities, and of the communities we serve; our shorter term stewardship needs as well as our longer term ability to manage the lands entrusted to our care. All this will require a systemwide approach to collective care and recovery. We intend to create an efficient, centralized “one-stop shop” where people can go for assistance and find the care and recovery support they need.

I have asked Allen Rowley, Associate Deputy Chief in the National Forest System, to step in as the interim lead executive for Operation Care and Recovery. We will use a multidisciplinary approach that draws expertise from across the agency. Allen is assessing these needs and developing a team that will include a Natural Disaster Recovery Branch and a Pandemic Response Branch. While the initiative  gets underway, we have created an employee resource page to provide information for employees directly impacted by the events of 2020.

The Natural Disaster Recovery Branch will focus on five lines of work:

  • Helping our employees recover, for example by delivering food and shelter and by assisting with personal stress, crisis management, and recovery from property loss. 
  • Helping our administrative units recover, for example by restoring a safe work environment, by recovering lost facilities, and by giving advice on a changed program of work. 
  • Helping the communities we serve to recover, for example by offering the national forests as a place of refuge or escape from social or personal pressures. 
  • Coping with shorter term natural resource impacts, for example through Burned Area Emergency Response. 
  • Meeting needs for longer term recovery, through reforestation efforts, changes to forest plans and programs of work, and by laying out a new future for facility locations, management area descriptions, and so forth.

The Pandemic Response Branch will continue to:

  • Assist the agency in managing a unified and consistent response to the COVID-19 pandemic, identifying and responding to novel issues as the pandemic evolves.
  • Provide a high level of communication and coordination with the department, the Washington Office, and with regions and stations to ensure timely response to requests for information.
  • Track status of COVID response in the agency, including employee COVID cases and facilities status and trends across the nation, advising agency leadership based on those trends and data.
  • Leverage a focused and deliberate use of agency resources to help maintain operations and mission delivery throughout the course of the pandemic.

As always, our core values will guide our work. Recognizing our interdependence with each other and with the people we serve, we will show up as trustworthy, caring, respectful and responsive through consistent and coordinated communication and information sharing. We will share leadership and build community by using the authorities and procedures we have, as appropriate; by breaking down barriers and streamlining authorities and procedures, as needed; and by exploring new possibilities and developing new authorities and procedures in response to new situations. In situations where the Forest Service has no authority or capacity, we will point out where people can find help or develop new approaches for helping them ourselves.

Through Operation Care and Recovery, the Forest Service has an opportunity to showcase who we are, both as individuals and as an organization. We have opportunities to show up as respectful, curious, and inclusive by stressing our interdependence, by engaging everyone affected by the pandemic and the natural disasters in our deliberations, and by communicating the “Big Why” behind our decisions and actions. We have opportunities to work in ways that steward the whole place and the whole organization—to share leadership and build space for others to help shape and own our decisions and actions. We will learn together and adjust our organization and approach as we move into this next stage together. I ask you to join us: help us make it happen.

We have opportunities to show up as respectful, curious and inclusive by stressing our interdependence, by engaging everyone affected by wildfires in our deliberations and by communicating the “Big Why” behind our decisions and actions. We have opportunities to work in ways that steward the whole place and the whole organization—to share leadership and build space for others to help shape and own our decisions and actions. I ask you to join us: help make it happen.

I know working through all of this is hard, especially in light of everything else we have already faced this year. Our agency is made up of the most amazing people who are committed to service, people who shine especially bright in times of extreme adversity. I want to personally thank you for everything you do and thank you for taking care of yourselves and taking care of each other. I want to reassure you all, we are here for you just as you are here for the country in this time of need.

Editor’s Note: To submit potential topics for the Chief's consideration, email your suggestions to FS-Employee Feedback or over at the Leadership Corner Forum (internal link), where you can submit suggestions and share what you're doing to stay healthy and how you're working during the coronavirus. Keep up with the latest status updates about the coronavirus here on Inside the Forest Service or on our intranet site (internal link).