Q & A: Why a whistleblower went AWOL from the Fire Service

In 2068, the U.S. faces year-round wildfires across the West with drafting wildland firefighters.

 

This fictional short story is part of our Speculative Journalism Issue, where we imagine stories from a West under climate stress in 2068.

In January, the U.S. Fire Service, formerly known as the U.S. Forest Service, initiated its controversial fire draft in hopes of raising the number of wildland firefighters available to fight the West’s year-round wildfires. While some fire-vulnerable rural communities supported the draft, critics warned that the severely underfunded program would put inexperienced recruits at risk, and that the federal agency’s lack of transparency encouraged minimal oversight and accountability. Cash Armstrong, who served just six months before going absent without leave from the fireline this summer, has become a central figure in the ongoing debate over the program. He recently spoke with High Country News from rural Oregon, where he remains in hiding, fearful of federal prosecution and incarceration. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: A lot of people have refused to abide by the fire draft, preferring to face jail time rather than wildfires. How did you end up in the Fire Service in the first place?

Cash Armstrong: My sister, Alpine, actually went into the Fire Service first; she volunteered five years ago, worked her way up to a Hotshot. I know a lot of people who were drafted unwillingly, maybe most. I was actually OK with it. I wanted to do what Alpine was doing; it sounded exciting, and important. So I got my draft notice and was deployed to New Mexico Southwest, Region 3 on an initial attack dronecrew. But we got bounced all over. A couple months into my deployment, Alpine died in a blowup in Arizona — the Borrego Fire. Alpine and three others were protecting a new development out there — one of those new biodomes. No investigation. Just ash and bone, a form-letter apology and me out there in California, working and sleeping in the dirt.

HCN: Is that when you decided to leave?

Armstrong: No. I think after Alpine died, I just went on autopilot for a while. But in June, we were deployed to southwest Oregon. It was quiet out there. No more real timber, just weeds and wind. But there’s still some big properties, including (Interior Secretary Michael) Turrett’s vacation place. Anyway, we were out there, basically helping Turrett’s (firefighter) mercenary crew, and all those fires started coming together. Bigger than a complex fire — it was a Dragon King event. Confused the drones, and the mercs — they don’t always have the data we have; they got twisted up in there. So we ended up fighting our way to them to help them evacuate and save the place. And that really felt like some shit.

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Shannon Freshwater for High Country News

HCN: How did that lead to you deserting?

Armstrong: I mean, rescuing a bunch of hired guns for the sake of some rich white guy ain’t my idea of a good time. But after we got the mercs out, the fire shifted toward Valley of the Giants. And that place has trees there still, 700-year-old trees. And, you know, I’m a lineman. I’m not a scientist. But I know how special that place is. Used to love going there for the birds — the owls and deer and the clean air and those towering trees standing guard over everything. And some asshole decides we need to let the fire burn that way — away from Turrett’s mansion — and it just … burned through the giants. Just a swath of death through this last, great place. And something kinda snapped.

HCN: Fire Service officials are facing lawsuits as a result of that burn, but the redacted documents released so far are inconclusive. You’re alleging it was on purpose, to protect a government official’s home?

Armstrong: Yeah.

HCN: Can you describe the day you left?

Armstrong: It was night. I don’t know where my head was at. We’d been going for days on end, hardly any rest. Coyote tactics, night after night. The burn boss had called in reinforcements and we were getting help from all over. But they weren’t filled in on us helping the merc crew first, didn’t know how it had gotten so big, how much time we’d wasted. Once things were somewhat manageable, I was able to think again about something other than fire — and my first thought was how someone needed to know. I tried telling someone on the backup crew. All he said was, “Ain’t that some shit.” So once there was a lull, everyone was tired or busy, I just walked off like I was going to the bathroom. The nearest town was 15 miles away, so I walked all night. I called my burn boss when I got there, told him I wasn’t coming back.

HCN: You’ve put yourself at risk — 5 years in prison or 3 years of reclamation labor are the maximum sentences. What do you want to see come out of this?

Armstrong: I don’t know. What does anyone want? Sometimes you’re asked to take one hit too many. I want more transparency — this was not an isolated incident. The service is not doing what it was supposed to do. My sister, that forest. That didn’t need to happen. We’re all out there, under penalty of law, watching it all burn all year long and told to keep quiet. I can’t do it anymore. How can anything change if all we do is keep our heads down and sweat in silence?

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor with High Country News’ tribal affairs desk. She writes and edits from the Pacific Northwest, where she is still waiting for the “Big One” to hit and planning to stock up her survivalist stash. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

SOURCES: Kemp, K. B., Higuera, P. E., Morgan, P., & Abatzoglou, J. T. (2019). Climate will increasingly determine post-fire tree regeneration success in low-elevation forests, Northern Rockies, USA. Ecosphere, 10(1).

Mckenzie, D., & Littell, J. S. (2016). Climate change and the eco-hydrology of fire: Will area burned increase in a warming western USA? Ecological Applications, 27(1), 26-36.

Sexton, T., J. Perkins, G. Rogers, D. Kerr, D. Engleman, D. Wall, T. Swedberg, M. Pence, J. Peterson, R. Graw, K. Murphy, and K. Strawn, 2016: Narrative Timeline of the Pacific Northwest 2015 Fire Season. USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region, Portland, OR, 281 pp.

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