Saturday, October 28, 2017

Only the Brave: The Movie - My View

Last Saturday, Meme & I viewed the movie “Only the Brave” (Brave) about the Granite Mountain IHC (Interagency Hotshot Crew). I’m glad we did, as it was better than I expected it to be. Months before, after seeing the trailer (coming attractions) I remember saying I wouldn’t want to see it, as my experience with films about wildland firefighters ranged from disappointing to hokey. However, during the course of 2017’s very long fire season I moderated my expectations of the film. I discussed the movie’s potential with folks, including a line medic from Prescott, AZ while we were on fire assignment in western Montana. As it turned out, the trailer didn't really do Brave justice. It was an entertaining film, but don’t go thinking it is a fact-filled documentary. As the beginning disclaimer states: it is “based on actual events.” There are “fudge factors” used; I’m sure to make it more entertaining to the general public.

Tres Lagunas fire 2013 with Smokey Bear HS
Less than 48-hours after seeing Brave, I was asked by my physical therapist what I thought of “The movie” (her words). Her husband is a firefighter/paramedic with a local department and they’d gone the night before. I told her that we liked it, along with some factual observations:
·        Yours truly (“Safety Dude”) worked three fires (that I know of) with the crew that became the Granite Mountain IHC (GMIHC).

Los Padres HS at Cave Creek Complex
o   1) The Cave Creek Complex in 2005 was the first (Tonto National Forest, north of Phoenix). This might have been the incident that prompted Prescott fire leaders towards getting their crew IHC certification. I’m not sure, but it was a long 6-year effort. The film correctly portrayed the loss of some structures due to the Cave Creek Complex fire, but certainly not in what you’d think as downtown Cave Creek, AZ or even its fringes. 
      The fuels involved were also not timber as depicted, but primarily Sonoran Desert. The movie also made it seem that by this time they’d been waiting for IHC certification. Not so. Anyway, those are the types of facts that often get changed for story-line flow. No complaints or worries from me, as folks like a good tale (as an undergraduate history major and Park Ranger interpreter I learned what sheer facts could do to interest levels).     

o   2nd was the Horseshoe 2 fire, which was in the Chiricahua Mountains (southeast Arizona), in June of 2011 (about a month after my return from working in Jordan at Petra). Brave shows them being evaluated for IHC status, and it might have been the case. I spent most of my time & efforts near/around Chiricahua National Monument. What seemed could’ve ringed true was Marsh’s “’Tude” (attitude) with the evaluator. I hardly knew him, but fire personnel closer to him have told me that he could be… well, quite stubborn (and “that hits close to home”).
Doce fire from Prescott, AZ
o   3rd  the GMIHC and many others worked the Doce fire (Prescott, AZ) in mid-June 2013. I was with the Structural Protection Group on the northeast flank of the fire, while they were assigned on the other side of the incident (close to point-of-origin). I recall talking to some of the crewmembers after briefing & Division/Group breakouts re: some of the structural protection efforts. After a few days I was re-assigned to the Silver fire, on the Gila National Forest is southwest New Mexico. This was one week before Yarnell Hill.

To this day, I remember where I was, and my reaction upon hearing that 19 of 20 GMIHC had been lost that June afternoon. I immediately went into denial: “No it can’t be… we don’t lose crews” I told myself.  I knew wildland firefighting was a very dangerous business: I’d been a Safety Officer for 25-years and a Type I for 20-fire seasons. I also knew we’d lost too many people over those decades. However, what was really perplexing to me was losing an entire crew. That hadn’t happened since the early 1930’s, the Griffith Park fire next to my hometown (Burbank, CA). Hadn’t we come a long ways since then? Wasn’t our technology and safety training far superior? As it turned out the human factors hadn’t: after decades we still saw (and see to the present) that simple required principles like L-C-E-S (Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, Safety Zones) are abandoned and we sometimes leave risk assessment & management behind, allowing the holes in the Swiss cheese of disaster to align.

GMIHC was the first, and as far as I know only municipal department crew to attain IHC status from NWCG (National Wildfire Coordinating Group). Hope they won’t be the last.
If there is one thing we should take away from this incident & tragedy, it should be that risk management must be a continuous and ongoing process. We’ve learned that lesson too many times to keep repeating it. In addition, nobody’s property & possessions are worth a human life. If you choose to live in the “woods” or wildland-urban interface you live with that risk. You need to be fire-wise in materials used and create “defensible space” -  don’t be negligent and count on others to save your stuff.

I certainly enjoyed the many scenes that were filmed around Santa Fe and the Galisteo Basin. Plus, they mentioned the strong financial incentive by city managers to have the crew certified as an IHC: that was really a non-factor at Yarnell Hill though. The Wall Street Journal review I saw liked the movie too, but felt it could have done more to explain line tactics: I think that might have put afternoon & evening viewers into doze mode. As I often remind myself, and others (especially professionals), these are meant to tell a story and be entertaining for a couple of hours. I think Brave hit-that-mark for me. If you go to see it, I hope you enjoy…
Massai Point - Horseshoe 2 fire 2011

Sunday, July 30, 2017

upon reading Legacy of the YOSEMITE MAFIA

This past Spring, with great anticipation, I read the Legacy of the YOSEMITE MAFIA – The Ranger Image and Noble Cause Corruption in the National Park Service by Paul D. Berkowitz with Foreword by J.T. Reynolds  (published by Trine Day LLC, 2017).  I’ve known the author for over 30-years, and know of his capacity for research and scholarship pertaining to law enforcement issues related to the National Park Service (NPS). I also have great respect for J.T. Reynolds, who wrote the foreword.  
I remember when the FBI’s Resident Agent-in-Charge of the Santa Fe Office told me when he worked at the Flagstaff Office that Berkowitz had convinced him (and the FBI) to pursue the Robert Spangler investigation ( ) regarding a homicide at Grand Canyon. It became a semi-famous case amongst investigators ("A Grand Canyon Divorce"). After reading Paul’s The Case of the Indian Trader, which was very well documented and presented, I was expecting an in-depth & well-rounded coverage of the entire “Legacy” that came out of Yosemite. Which was, in my view, extremely positive. However, this work centers on further expounding the shortcomings of Yosemite National Park’s  (YOSE) Law Enforcement Office during and around the mid-1980’s, a decade after what I perceived to be the primary Yosemite Mafia’s tenure. However, that is just my perspective.
Stoneman Meadows riot (04 July 1970)
One of the reasons I was hoping for an all encompassing treatment of the subject: my career was spent in-the-wake of some of the NPS’ leaders and Rangers associated with that nickname: “Yosemite Mafia.” To me it meant the elite cadre of Park Rangers that came to work in Yosemite after the Stoneman Meadows riots (4th of July 1970): Jim Brady, Dan Sholly, Tim Setnicka, Roger Rudolph, Jack Morehead, Walt Dabney Mike Finley, Rick Smith & Butch Farabee being the core of the Corp. I know exactly where I was that Saturday (04 July 70): this recently discharged Vietnam Veteran was working as a Lineman for Pacific Bell Telephone and camped for the weekend nearby in a tent site, with several friends. I actually watched the “riots” begin from above, perched at Glacier Point at the beginning of the evening. The incident is sometimes referred to as the “Hippie” riots, but as an observer with a historian & anthropologist’s eye I don’t think that term captured or accurately described the diversity of young people present. I know there were many high school and college students, young professionals, and at least one musician with a gold record in his portfolio (Lee Freeman, from the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and my compadre & “roomie” at the time).
John E. Cook, self & USPP Capt. Jim Radney
Years later I recall Southwest Regional Director John E. Cook telling me that I’d never be part of that circle (Yosemite Mafia). I knew that, even before hearing it: due to time, place, experiences and worldviews. My career had included some brief  “seasonal” stints at large National Park areas (Death Valley & Denali), but mostly I’d worked at smaller and medium sized parks (Little Bighorn, Tonto, Jean Lafitte, Fort Laramie, & Santa Monica Mountains). Areas like these make up the vast majority of the 400+ NPS units. Many of us that worked at these type of NPS areas looked up to many of the “Yosemite Mafia” cadre: counting some as friends, including a mentor. However, change does not usually come easy – especially to a bureaucracy mandated and dedicated to conserving things. Talk about heritage…
Paul Berkowitz
Anyway, I digress: back to Berkowitz’ book: In the mid-80’s there was a major undercover operation investigating drug distribution and use. Paul chronicles some law enforcement and employee issues that took place during that timeframe. As noted above, when I think “Yosemite Mafia” I default to early & mid-1970’s (a decade before the investigation being chronicled in this book). There were certainly some Renaissance-like Rangers working in YOSE during both those decades (and now).  The individuals that I knew affiliated with the title group were top-notch. Some were certainly leaders in “resource protection” with a great love of parks & open spaces. Paul Berkowitz professes his love for parks as well, and I believe that is necessary to pull yourself through a 30-plus year career. From my perspective, both of us also shared our admiration for parks and the absolute need for integrity in what we did as representatives of the NPS. Paul was an outstanding investigator that put his best efforts into his work. Remembering back to when I first met him I recall thinking “he sees a lot of black & white, while I’m overwhelmed with ‘green & gray’” (the color of our uniform shirt).
Half Dome
I first met Paul in 1985, and almost immediately heard he had was a serious Ranger working to professionalize law enforcement in the NPS. He had his critics, including some that were close to me personally & professionally, but I didn’t pay much attention to the NPS grapevine about him over the next decade. I was usually trying to learn new positions and skills as a District Ranger at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (plus park’s L.E. Specialist & Fire Management Officer as collateral duties [as if I didn’t have enough to do]), the Southwest Region Ranger Activities Specialist, or Regional Special Agent with the ARPA Task Force.  
Nixon Birthplace
When Paul mentions investigator positions at YOSE being eliminated (page 185), including his, I flashed back to a time when I was the designated driver for the park superintendent (Santa Monica Mountains) and Director William Penn Mott: we were going to visit Richard M. Nixon’s birthplace & boyhood home  (Yorba Linda, CA- now the site of Nixon’s Presidential Library).  Director Mott had flown down from northern California, and he was vocal about his misgivings regarding the NPS having Criminal Investigator (CI)/Special Agent positions at YOSE; he mentioned that “spreading around” the investigative duties could potentially have positive effects. Instead of three full-time investigators, have twelve Rangers spending 25% of their time working in-depth . It made sense to me at the time, thinking it’d be good to be one of that dozen. It seems somewhat ironic that Paul & I would later both be fulltime 1811 Special Agents for the NPS. He was good, very good; excellent really using sound criminalistics practices (remember the high praise about him from the FBI RAC). I, on the other hand, often utilized the “Colombo” method: what doesn’t add up and “wait a minute, I almost forgot, one last thing…oh, that explains that then [not really]…”
In several parts of his work Paul talks about the evolution of the Ranger being generalists or “multi-specialists” and some being grand-fathered in with a law enforcement commission. I don’t know if Paul knew it, but he was talking about me (and others): I’d publically stated (in the 80’s) that Rangers needed to be “multi-specialists” with professional backgrounds in law enforcement, firefighting, emergency medical service, search-and-rescue, and education/interpretation. As far as being a “magic wand” law enforcement officer: it was the un-luck of the draw. I had applied at various levels to get to FLETC (Federal Law Enforcement Training Center) for either the Basic Academy or CI School, but was never high enough a priority. So, I stayed put and did the best I could with what I had in hand (in this case a NPS L.E. Commission). One thing that Supervisory Special Agent (Ret.) Berkowitz and I have always agreed upon is there are two forms of law enforcement for both large, small and medium size parks: professional and unprofessional. We’ve aspired for the former. My experiences showed me that the NPS does too (again note: change is usually difficult), and has made great strides the last 25-years.
As to Legacy’s allegations of improper behavior by a handful of folks in the mid-80’s: most of the principals I never worked with, and two I did. My professional and personal experiences were extremely positive with the latter two. My initial reaction after completing the book was: “I hope someone will still research and write the complete legacy of the Yosemite Mafia… they performed some great works.”

Monday, June 5, 2017

Trials, trails & tribulations: remembering Ada Miller

My first sojourn across the southwestern U.S. was with paternal grandmother and step-grandfather, that lived next door, when I was about eight or nine. A decade later, as a young Navy Airman, I made the drive from Los Angeles to Corpus Christi, Texas. It took me through the Sonoran & Chihuahuan deserts & El Paso del Norte. I’ve had a great affection for their landscapes ever since. Many travelers, over centuries and millennia, have made their journeys north-south and east-west as I did through these regions. Meme’s family were part of the 20th Century migrations.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a copy of RENOIR TO REMINGTON IMPRESSIONISM TO THE AMERICAN WEST, Edited by Patrick Shaw Cable, El Paso Museum of Art (2014).

On page 131 you’ll see  a brief-bio of Ada Miller, which reads:

“ADA MILLER (American 1874-1956)
Organ Mountains, 1920
El Paso Museum of Art. Gift of Hal Marcus and Patricia Medici. 2009. 7.1 (pl. 90)

Ada Miller was born in 1874 in Sweetwater, Texas, and is considered an early California Impressionist painter. After her first husband disappeared and her second husband died from consumption, Miller struggled financially while raising her children. Eventually, in 1910, she and her three children moved to El Paso in order to have an easier time finding work. Miller had always enjoyed drawing and she wished to devote more time to art, which she was able to do after her first son was drafted into the army and her daughter married.  Following a third marriage, Miller began lessons in oil painting and later studied with Lewis Teel in El Paso and other artists in California. While in El Paso she focused on the depiction of the Texas high desert and its foliage and flowers. In 1932 Ada and her third husband, Frank Miller, moved to Venice Beach, California. Miller remained the rest of her life in California, where she spent her days gardening and painting.”

While thumbing through this book I noted that on page 103 they used one of Ada’s works for the section-page of “PURE PANORAMAS.” Of the artwork I am surrounded with at home, Ada’s is the most prevalent. I came by that honestly, in that she was the maternal great-grandmother of Pat, Mark & Mary/Meme (and Pete Erickson too). I’ve been around the three Medici kids of Ruth (O’Hara) & Charles Medici for a few decades (our parents were good friends) now. Of course, being married to Meme has undoubtedly been the primary cause for that.

One of the many benefits has been the ability to drink-in the landscapes that Ada Miller painted. As a National Park Ranger I worked at some desert parks, and visited many others. There is something special about arid places, and I am a fan of her work. I often find myself staring at her interpretations, wondering about the effort and experience of “being there then.” For now, let’s just enjoy some (with apologies for my humble photographic efforts)

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

“Tennis Everyone”

St. Michael's Boys team

03 May 2017 – The New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA) high school tennis tournament is beginning today. I’ll miss chairing individual and doubles finals tomorrow night, and being a site referee for first day of team competitions on Friday. This is due to “retiring” from U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) and Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) officiating at the end of last year. I still love the game: hit-the-ball, hit-the-ball, hit-the-ball (hopefully over the net and inside the court). I consider myself very fortunate to have been an official for the USTA & ITA the previous decade. 
During those years, the majority of my trips down & up I-25 between Santa Fe and Albuquerque were to the University of New Mexico for college assignments. Most had been college chair-umpire work when the two organizations worked closely together. In fact, to get ITA certification you had to be USTA qualified, and the ITA rules were part of USTA’s “Friend At Court” rule book. That changed last year. However, for me, the highlight of the tennis year in New Mexico was the annual NMAA high school tournament, or “State” as its called here. The adrenalin and excitement pumped you through three and a half action packed days. To see the players & fans so “pumped” was a joy that often stayed with you for days (if not weeks).

I will greatly miss working with the other ITA & USTA officials, the players (from Juniors on up), and the event organizers & tournament directors (plus their staff). The USTA has evolved significantly during the 10-years I represented them. They’re making major improvements: great outreach work introducing younger players, and a broader cultural diversity, to the entire spectrum of the sport. Many folks don’t realize that the PGA (Professional Golf Association) and USTA are the sports organizations that generate more revenue than the National Football League (until recently a non-profit) in this country. When you think of the hundreds of tournaments (Juniors-to-Seniors), it is easy to see how that has been done; and don’t forget the merchandizing = big buck$ too...

I was occasionally asked: “why did you leave (the officiating)?”
My reply: “It used to be more fun.”
Much like “working for the government” the bureaucracy of a large organization can eventually wear you down. I’ve had over forty years of government service (between being an employee & contractor) and thought it time to step-back from this mega-organization. Now, they are by no means FIFA or the IOC (thank goodness), but over-the-years I’ve observed little changes and cues from USTA. I guess the earliest was when we were told that USTA wanted to get younger and have a more diverse cadre of officials. 

This was followed shortly thereafter by officials having to print out their own annual refresher pages for use at the mandatory certification training and meeting. A year or two later a national USTA instructor introduced a new proposed paradigm to us: forego payment (about $15 per hour at the time) and do it for “the love of the game.” That hasn’t happened, but we do still love the sport. Then there were National HQ instructors pointing out the facts-of-life: some players were untouchables, they generated so much fan interest (and revenue) that they could assault an official on court and get away with it (or be re-instated post-performance enhancing drug suspension and be waved into a tournament without earning their way back via points. I recall when Andre Agassi had to play a tournament in Burbank to earn points on his way back: good thing for him and the game that he did).
player at NMAA 
As noted, over the past 10-years USTA has made additional positive changes: only allow the wearing of their officials shirts at their sanctioned events (ITA, conferences and other events have their own); the separation of ITA rules from the USTA rule book (well, I’m still not “sold” on that one); required completion of the “Safe Play” course on-line on how to identify and report potential child/sexual abuse cases (post-Penn State/Sandusky).
Many of the above changes and additions were good.
One that wasn’t as positive (from my perspective) was taking away the part of the mandatory annual training in a classroom, to individuals completing everything on-line. I believe a mix of remote learning and face-to-face works best. They limited the opportunity to talk with other officials as a group about common concerns & issues. Instead when six of us worked a college match we talked then, but we were usually too busy to consult  about the craft. Another “suggestion” was that each of us, as contractors, should acquire $1-2 million of liability insurance: in case we made a bad decision/call. ITA & USTA didn’t employ us, just contracted us leaving us with the liability exposure in case of a bad call. Adding this liability factor, to state gross receipts taxes, invoicing errors (by referees), and ITA & USTA membership fees it no longer was as fun as it used-to-be (except for “State”: what athletic events should be like).

So, despite some conditions-of-maturity and limitations, I’ve decided I’m going back to play (& have fun).

Coming Next Time: Who is Ada Miller?