Thursday, October 20, 2011

Retirement Letter

I worked as a Forest Ranger for the US Forest Service from 1974 until 2003.  The Forest Service oversees millions of square miles of land in the US.  I mostly worked as a fireman and in law enforcement.  These are a few thoughts I shared with my fellow Forest Service employees upon my retirement.  I've edited it a tiny bit to make some things clear to non-Forest Service folk and due to some things not having happened recently:


I started with the Forest Service April 13, 1974. Today, September 3, 2003, is my last day and I wanted to thank you for all the wonderful memories.  The Forest Service was great to me.  I had the opportunity to do many things that most people never experience.  I traveled to at least 15 different states on official business.  I drove fire engines, flew in innumerable aircraft (my first ever helicopter ride was just a few days after I started work), and inked in quite a few few flight hours in my own pilot's log.  I’ve hiked (in pay-status) over country people spend years planning and saving to visit.  I’ve lived in towns many think of as paradise.  And, of course, the best part was the wonderful friends I made.  I always had great crews and co-workers and I never had a bad boss.  It has been a terrific experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I would like to take a serious moment.  I’ve made it to retirement. Many, far too many, didn’t.  I will get the opportunity to spend lots of time with my wife and sons, to see and do things I’ve often thought about.  I wish that were true for all of us.

Only one real close friend of mine died in the line of duty, but our firefighter community is small and we oldtimers have many friends and an immense number of acquaintances.  When fatality situations happen or are discussed, there is always a closeness we feel for the stricken – we’d met them briefly at another fire or at training or some other meeting, we worked at, or covered, the station they were from, we worked a fire near that one some years before, one of the lost was a close friend of our friend, etc.  Invariably there is some connection.
It affects us deeply.  Two close friends of mine worked on the Inyo National Forest in 1970, and lost friends that year on the Romero Fire near Santa Barbara on the Los Padres National Forest.  More than 30 years later it still troubles them.

So I ask each of you to take a few minutes now to remember our fallen friends, to pray for them and for their families and friends.

And I also ask you renew your commitment to safety.  Firefighting is an inherently risky job, but we can, and should, do better.  I hope and pray that you will.

A few weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks on America, I was in Sacramento.  Everywhere I went in my Command vehicle people would honk, wave and give me the “thumbs up” sign.  Many of you probably experienced something similar.

I understood why they were doing it, and I appreciated it.  But it made me pretty uncomfortable, even a little embarrassed.  I was a wildland firefighter, I wasn’t one of the firefighters who rushed into buildings.  I was in Sacramento for a typical bureaucratic budget meeting, which is pretty far away from entering burning skyscrapers.

But the waves and honks continued, and I thought more about it.

I remembered the many young Forest Service firefighters I’ve worked with who eventually went to structure departments.  They weren’t really any different than the ones who stayed with the FS.  I thought of my co-workers and the structure department firefighters I knew. I realized that both groups were basically the same sort of people.  They willingly go into situations most others are trying to get away from.

I knew that some of our Incident Management teams were back east at that very moment helping with the aftermath of that terrible day.

Then I thought about my cousin, a FDNY fireman (off-duty that fateful day), he and I aren’t all that different in many ways.  It occurred to me that if our families had taken different paths, he might have ended up out west fighting forest fires and I could have been with an eastern metro FD.

Lastly, I thought about wildland fire fatality situations.

When you look at these situations you see a lot of things which disturb you -- inattention, lack of leadership, misjudgment, disregard for safety rules, impatience, lack of overall situational awareness, sometimes even panic.

But, one thing you never see is cowardice.  In fact, you see the opposite, wildland firefighters risking their own lives, and sometimes losing them, to help their fellow firefighters.

In short, firefighters, structure or wildland, go where duty leads.

So, in thinking back over my nearly 30 years, I’m reminded of a story a World War Two combat veteran, a member of the famed 101st Airborne Division, once told.

Asked by his grandson if he had been a hero during the war, he replied, “No, but I served in the company of heroes.”

I wish good fortune and God’s blessing to all who read this.  Whether or not we ever met, I hope our paths will cross in the future.

Be careful out there, and stay in touch.

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