Letters from the West

Wildland Firefighter Foundation makes changes following financial criticism

The harsh words from some of the surviving family members of fallen firefighters about the Wildland Firefighter Foundation weren’t easy to hear for Vicki Minor, the executive director and founder of the group that is dedicated to helping them.

I reported in February that critics and former board members said the foundation has grown too fast and had too few controls in place to ensure proper spending. But it was the view of some family members that they were treated poorly or forgotten that was tough on the Boise woman who has dedicated more than 16 years to help firefighters’ families through their grief.

Minor said this week that she and the foundation are better for the scrutiny.

“Actually, I’m grateful we had this done,” Minor said. “(This has) helped us become better at what we do, and that is taking care of wildland firefighters.”

An independent review conducted by Boise consultant Karyn Wood for the foundation’s board confirmed many of the shortcomings I reported in February. There was a lack of clear policies and there was little oversight on expenses, reporting on how they gave money to firefighter survivors and clarity about how the money they raised was spent.

“While the review found no major deviations, it did make some minor recommendations for improvement,” the board wrote in the letter that accompanied the report. “It also found that the foundation had no violations of any laws.”

The report outlined a series of recommendations for the board and Minor that called for more transparency, clearer policies, tighter financial controls and more accountability. It especially urged the board to play a stronger role in the governance and oversight of the organization.

John Henshaw, a retired Forest Service manager from California and chairman of the board, said it has taken the recommendations seriously and intends to put them in place in the next six months.

Already Minor has hired an additional administrative assistant to help with the increased documentation the board has demanded. She’s in the process of hiring a chief financial officer, as recommended, and she plans to hire another person to help provide services to the survivors and injured firefighters.

That will bring staffing up to seven since Brendan McDonough, the only Granite Mountain Hotshot to survive the 2013 Yarnell Fire, has moved on, Minor said. It was the criticism of some of the survivors of the 19 Granite Hotshots who died that brought on the board’s review and got my attention late in 2014.

Prior to the review, Minor resisted the reforms previous boards had sought and the kind of management that goes with an organization that raised more than $2 million in 2013 and hands out $400,000 annually to the families of fallen firefighters. But this time the board asserted its control.

“I’ve been more willing to let them,” Minor said.

The firefighting community that the Wildland Firefighter Foundation serves responded to the controversy, but not the way you might think.

“Our donations went up,” Minor said.

Now we will see how far the board goes to address the challenges the growing group faces in the future. It will pick its own members and put in place a transition plan for when Minor retires in the next three years. But with another long, tough fire season predicted, Minor’s attention is on the people she serves.

Already this year a Forest Service helicopter pilot and engineering technician died when their craft crashed while monitoring a controlled burn in Mississippi in March. Another firefighter remains in serious condition.

Minor is helping the two widows, one with a 9-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl, and the injured firefighter.

The need for the foundation isn’t going away, especially since wildfires are getting fiercer. As Minor says, “Mother Nature is harsh and cruel.”