Shawna Legarza speaks about leading Forest Service firefighters

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Shawna  Legarza  speaking at the 2015 Cal Fire awareness event at Hemet Ryan Air base. File photo

Shawna
Legarza
speaking at the 2015 Cal Fire awareness event at Hemet Ryan Air base.
File photo

Shawna Legarza, former fire chief for the San Bernardino National Forest, will be the next national director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, Chief Tom Tidwell announced Friday, June 17.

During an interview with the Town Crier, Legarza said she will begin her new position on July 24. While she has had assignments for several months at the Forest Service Headquarters, residing in the Washington, D. C., area will be new adventure, too.

“I’ve had an amazing career and it’s an honor to serve now in the next position,” she said.

Legarza grew up on a cattle ranch near Elko, Nevada, which is where she developed her affinity for the outdoors, her acceptance of the unexpected and the importance of weather and hard work.

“My dad would be proud. I learned a lot from my parents and am very proud and appreciative of them and how I grew up,” she said with affection and emotion. Her father died last year.

She has been a firefighter since 1989, when she started with the Bureau of Land Management in Elko. But she quickly joined the Forest Service’s Hotshot crew in Carson City, Nevada.

In those early days, she was not aspiring to Washington leadership positions. She was finishing her education at the same time. This focus on the present and awareness of others has been a long-standing trait of Legarza’s. Then she earned her master’s degree while a GS-5 firefighter.

The Hotshot time offered her an opportunity to travel around the country fighting many fires.

Being a woman has never seemed to be an impediment doing her job or in her career, Legarza said. “I’ve had that question before, but it never mattered on the ranch and hasn’t in my career. I just did the job and was never aware of any differences.”

Becoming the Hotshot supervisor of the Durango, Colorado, crew is evidence that she fought fires and could lead in the field.

After getting comfortable at a Washington desk, Legarza said her goal would be to continue to reinforce the culture where people can speak out and embrace the agency.

“The Forest Service is the best firefighters in the world. I’m part of that culture and want to make it better,” which is why the work on the ground fighting fires to protect communities and landscape will be her focus.

She understands that life and career is not a steady upward line. It is the ability to accept those fluctuating patterns that helps. Some days it’s an amazing job and other days, it’s stress and fatigue.

“I think there’s always days when you’re the windshield and some days you’re the bug,” she emphasized. “You have to stay present in the job and learn for the ups and downs.

“I want people to take care of themselves so that they can care of others,” she stressed.

The current efforts to change the funding pattern for wildfire fighting will continue to rest with the departmental leaders and Chief Tidwell. “I’ll be in a supporting role,” she said.

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