When You Relax Accountability, Bad Things Happen

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 -- it can spread to other behaviors.

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."


  1. don:

    Why this is foreign to me is that i have so many options. By options I mean paths to achieve the same goals in your career choice. But if you are set on being a wildfire fire fighter, or Hollywood star, then you have very little options. A predator stands in your way, you can't go work for the competitor. There is none, or they are in league together.

    I tend to think that it's a two ingredient recipe. low accountability and high barriers to entry or competition. when only a few people control the industry, you have to play by their rules. You add in low accountability, and that's when things can really get out of hand.

    Of course this has made me think of teachers. If the union is with you, then your going to keep your job no matter what. But if the district (or one of its leaders) wants your head and you don't have the union behind you, they can take your job, and your teaching license. no more work ever again in your profession. you put the power to take away the ability to earn a living in your chosen profession into the hands of one person, and I guarantee it's going to be abused.

  2. OneGuy:

    I cannot really understand this. If it were me, as a man, I would have stopped it in a heartbeat, period. Screw the job or the other pserson's feelings.

    So I guess the gist of the story is many/most women don't want to say no or make a scene or actually stand up for themselves. I get that because... wait for it... They are women not men. Which brings us to why are they in woodland firefighting??? Don't misunderstand I get it that they "want" to do it what I don't get is why they get hired to do it.

    Let me give you an example: A firefighter friend told me that the 14 firefighters who died on Storm King Mountain could have and should have been able to double time up to and over the ridge before the fire hit them. BUT because there were women in the mix they all wouldn't have made it so the men choose to stay with the women. What is wrong with that picture???

    On the other hand, let's assume that women are here to stay in firefighting and the official position is that they are equal to men. So in the future create all female and all male fire fighting teams. Problem solved!

  3. Not Sure:

    "Problem solved!"

    Or not, upon evaluating the performance of the teams.

  4. wreckinball:

    You are missing an option that all consenting adults have. QUIT!

    You can even first report it and if nothing is done then quit. I mean this is real life and folks in authority can and do abuse power. You either get them out of power by reporting or you get yourself out of the situation by quitting.

    Or you can just whine and #metoo.

  5. SamWah:

    One thing not mentioned is thinning the forest and not (OK, TWO things) clearing the underbrush from time to time.

  6. Mercury:

    I well understand the impulse to not want to get involved, especially within the context of a government organization, but we need to have a "test case" or two where bystanders get a pass for breaking the nose or whatever of an active harasser/molester. Raise your hands ladies if you think sexual harassment in the workplace is a bigger issue for you than American Nazis (which apparently we are all welcome to punch).

    In any case, learn to channel your inner Athena. Nobody sticks it in Athena:

  7. cc:

    There are no competing businesses for fighting fires. You are exactly right. AND it is always an emergency. A recipe for waste.

  8. Rick C:

    "You are missing an option that all consenting adults have. QUIT!"

    And get off the government gravy train?

  9. Jeffrey Deutsch:

    One caveat: For purposes of this discussion, we are assuming Michaela Myers is telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Often but not always the case!

    I cannot really understand this. If it were me, as a man, I would have stopped it in a heartbeat, period. Screw the job or the other person's feelings.

    "If it were me I would've..."

    Generally an exercise in free fantasy.

    Did you read the part where Michaela Myers was warned -- including in advance -- that Drew DeLozier could hurt her in various ways?

    Newsflash: Your boss' feelings have a lot to do with how well things go on your present job -- and even your future job searches.