For years I have been critical of US Forest Service (USFS) fire suppression operations. For those who are not familiar, because they own so much land in the very dry west, the US Forest Service is -- by far -- the largest firefighting agency in the country. It spends billions of dollars a year on firefighting and employs tens of thousands for workers in doing so -- some specifically hired for fire, many others detailed from regular jobs to specific fires. Basically, in the late summer, Forest Service offices are practically cleared out as everyone is off on fire detail, and those who are still around have no money to spend because it all has been swept into fire.
It is hard to publicly criticize firefighting operations for many of the same reasons that it is hard to criticize the police -- people will say that they are so brave and perform an indispensible service. Granted. But the USFS process for managing and funding firefighting is totally broken. This is not solely the agency's fault -- Congress shares a lot of the blame. But whatever the cause, firefighting has become (in my observation of the agency) a financial accountability-free zone. There are no budgets for fire. No competitive bidding for services and products. All the rules are lifted, and the agency simply spends like crazy. People have made small fortunes inventing things fire crews might need (e.g. portable shower buildings) and selling or renting them to the USFS for huge sums of money. And USFS employees don't care because they understand it to be an environment where the normal rules do not apply.
And the USFS employees love it. The structure and schedules and requirements of their day jobs are lifted, with little danger except for a very few in the front line crews. I have always described what I have seen as a cross between a summer camp and a fraternity outing.
And perhaps I was more correct than I knew. Apparently, once the tone is set for a low-accountability environment -- even if the relaxed rules were really only supposed to apply narrowly to financial issues -- .
Michaela Myers said she was first groped by her supervisor after a crew pizza party last summer, shortly after starting a new job as a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service. She was 22 and excited about the job. She had worked out diligently to prepare for the season, running and hiking with a heavy pack. She is from the Pacific Northwest, and had always loved the outdoors and a challenge.
She remembers her supervisor, a Forest Service veteran, offering her beers at a crew member’s house after dinner. He told her he was glad she was on the crew because she was “sexy” and had “a nice ass,” she said. According to her account, he led her to a couch, rubbed her butt as she sat down, and slid his hand between her legs. Myers was shocked and upset, but didn’t stop him. She had heard from other crew members that this manager could fly off the handle, and didn’t want to make a scene.
“You don’t feel like you can say ‘no’ loudly to your supervisor,” she said. “I keep looking back on it and wishing I could have just punched him or something.”
According to Myers, the harassment and groping continued for the rest of the summer. When she confided in a fellow crew member, he told her this was an unfortunate reality for a female firefighter. She had a choice, she recalls him saying: report it and face retaliation, or do nothing and stay in fire.
Updated: The PBS report was changed after I first posted it, and I have edited the quote to match the current text. PBS wrote below their article this update: "This story has been updated. The name of the Forest Service supervisor in Oregon has been removed. We stand by our reporting and thank the multiple women who went public for this story."