Leadership Corner

From the Chief’s Desk: Remembering Charlie Morton, wildland fire update, Operation Care and Recovery

September 23rd, 2020 at 5:23PM


Chief Vicki Christiansen will showcase the achievements of the United States in the Bonn Challenge on September 2nd, 2020.
Chief Vicki Christiansen

Hi everyone it's Chief Vicki Christiansen, it's Wednesday September 23rd. You know, one of the hardest things we deal with at the Forest Service is a loss of one of our own in the line of duty and I’m deeply sorry to say that that happened last week on a fire in California. On Thursday, September 17th, Charlie Morton, a squad boss on the Big Bear Interagency Hot Shot Crew, lost his life in the line of duty.

He was helping to suppress the El Dorado fire on the San Bernardino National Forest. The Big Bear Hot Shots are a part of the San Bernardino National Forest, so they were a local unit. Our hearts go out to Charlie's family, to his loved ones and to his colleagues. And certainly, we extend our thoughts and our prayers to the San Bernardino National Forest employees and to the Big Bear Interagency Hot Shot Crew. I’m told that Charlie was always there supporting his crew members and others. The loss of Charlie is a reminder of our core value of interdependence and to care for one another. So, let's wrap our arms around the Big Bear Hot Shots, the entire fire community, Charlie's family, his loved ones and the San Bernardino employees, and just remember how important a life is and the sacrifices that are made. Now more than ever, we're reminded of the heroic commitment that our wildland firefighters make to this nation: they go out for weeks and months-on-end to help protect other people's lives, to protect communities on our natural resources and the lands that we steward together.

You know, all of us at the Forest Service and the American people owe our wildland firefighters a great debt of gratitude. So, I'm sorry to say we are still in active fire season and still at preparedness level five for the nation. Some of that fire activity in the Pacific Northwest has moderated with some moisture. More active certainly in California, with a heat surge coming in over the weekend. California has had two million acres burned this year. That's the most ever in recorded history for California. As a nation, we've had 7 million acres burn; that is a million acres more than the 10-year average at the same time in past years. There’s a lot going on out there and we really need to be looking out for each other. We know there's fatigue in the system and we need to be watching out for each other and getting the rest as we can, even if they're in short intervals. I also want to acknowledge the significant amount of work that is happening at a high level and it's just been sustained that way in the public using the national forests. We do worry about fatigue in many of our employees, as you are managing through a pandemic with one of the most severe fire seasons in recent history, certainly and the second most severe hurricane season ever recorded. We've also had tornadoes, we've had a series of thunderstorms in the Midwest, Puerto Rico has dealt with earthquake activity in and around dodging some of the hurricanes, our folks are impacted and you continue to serve the American people. I really thank you for that for that reason. We took a hard look on how we as an agency – as a whole agency, as an enterprise – can really support the recovery and the care of employees, of communities and landscapes. As we think about all the effects from fire, from hurricanes and other natural disasters, in addition to the pandemic, we challenge some of our paradigms of how we deliver those services. We want to be as efficient and as effective at helping all of you do the recovery and the care for each other and the care for the American people as possible.

We have set up Operation Care and Recovery. We pulled one of our most senior leaders from his regular duties, Allen Rowley, who is Associate Deputy Chief for the National Forest Systems, is the executive that's leading this Operation Care and Recovery and standing up the resources that will work across all of our deputy areas, whether it's the Chief Financial Office, whether it's Business Operations, CIO, HR, Acquisitions or Procurement, Grants and Agreements; wherever it is that we need to bring resources to bear to resolve a problem or get folks back on their feet or to help in in what we can do with restoring communities, we want it to be a very efficient and effective way that you can draw on the agency resources.

So, that structure is now stood up and we're having routine calls with the most affected regions. Of course, we continue to have calls with the regions, stations and Job Corps centers regarding the pandemic. And I want to note that it's not just our region folks that are affected by particularly these fires: our Job Corps employees are affected, our research employees have been affected, there are hundreds of our employees that have been displaced from either their personal home or their Forest Service quarters that they were living in. We are going to work together to give the care and the support that we need.

Related to Operation Care and Recovery, we see five major buckets of work. First, it’s the care of employees, including the kind of support you may need for critical incident stress and just other support of all that you've been working through. The second bucket is how to help our administrative units get back on their feet. As you know, Job Corps centers, research stations, research forests and several of our districts have had damages, particularly from these fires, so that would be the second bucket of work. The third is how we can stand ready to help support communities in their recovery. The fourth would be the near-term natural resource recovery issues to deal with: restoration, burned area rehabilitation, those kinds of things that we need to really look at immediately. And then the fifth bucket of work would be the long-term natural resource program of work. Many of our landscapes are changed and the needs of those landscapes will need to be assessed more than just in the short-term rehabilitation, and what those programs of work and needs are going forward. Allen is working with coordinators in the affected stations, regions, Job Corps centers, and we are going to fold the pandemic efforts and coordination under that arc of Operation Care and Recovery. We'll learn as we go, we'll make adjustments as needed, but we'd love your feedback on how we can be most responsive in navigating multiple layers of needs. I would hope we'll see some opportunities through this as well folks. We'll only get stronger, we'll learn how to really depend on each other, to be interdependent and show the care and the service to each other and to the communities we serve because that's what we do stand for at the Forest Service.

So, we'll be in touch. Please stay strong! Thank you for everything that you do!

Take care of yourselves.

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).