A sports injury led Kim Christensen from being a seasonal firefighter to her current Forest Service position as deputy assistant director of operations for Fire and Aviation Management at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. When she could no longer fight fires due to her seriously injured knee, she was offered an opportunity to work as a fire timekeeper and dispatcher.
After 12 years as a seasonal firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management in Vale, Oregon, and Boise, she became a full-time employee as a logistics dispatcher for the Bureau before joining the U.S. Forest Service where she served as a manager for more than nine years before taking on her current position. She has coordinated the national mobilization of resources such as helicopters, air tankers, fire engines and fire crews, communication equipment and support personnel for wildland fire and support to the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA). She’s helped provide incident management teams and personnel to support incidents such as hurricanes and floods, as well as human-caused disasters like the Oklahoma City bombing incident and 9-11 attacks.. She also handles coordination on U.S. federal agency responses to requests for international wildland fire support.
What do you find most interesting or rewarding about your work?
Because I’m in an emergency response field, I’m rewarded by the fact that I can come to work every day and see the results of work that was done that day. We provide support during fire suppression operations or help folks with clean-up efforts in flood and hurricane responses by aiding local and other federal agency response efforts. For example, for a hurricane response, we can provide experienced saw crews to clear downed trees and debris from roadways to get local infrastructure and basic services like power sources and water supplies back in working order. Nothing happens if roads are blocked and people can’t move. Our incident management teams plan the logistics such as staging areas, receiving and distribution centers to supply food, water, gas and oil to the people in these communities who need to get back on their feet after a natural disaster.
One of the interesting aspects of my job, that has been very rewarding, is taking assignments in Ethiopia and Thailand. I was part of a small cadre that taught a course in multi-agency emergency coordination procedures to help them improve their existing emergency response structures. They look to our agency as a model for best practices because of our established procedures working with multiple federal agencies. I’m also working with a small group in Morocco to help them plan a national fire operations/coordination center.
Do you have a particular memory that stands out in your career?
When I was working for the Bureau of Land Management as a second-year firefighter, I got a phone call in 1979 asking me to be part of a ground transportation unit on a big fire on the Challis National Forest in Idaho. At that time, I didn’t know that we helped people on other fires outside of our agency, that there were different levels of incident response systems and that a firefighter could go to another forest or support another agency in fire response. I said, “Where do you want me to go?” We drove to what they called the Mortar Creek Fire, the largest they’d had since 1934, where more than 3,000 firefighters ultimately contained a month-old fire. It was my first experience with a large incident or fire camp. What an eye opener, with a big, Type 1 Incident Management Team, the most robust type of wildfire incident/emergency response team with the highest level of training and expertise. We had helicopters, airtankers, and firefighters coming in droves in trucks provided by the military.
One of my assigned tasks was to drive an important Washington D.C. leader to and from fire briefings for the several days he was visiting. On the second day, he said “I appreciate your cautious driving and getting me on site on time.” Someone asked me did I know who he was? He had introduced himself as R. Max Peterson but I didn’t realize he was the Chief of the Forest Service. He was one of the nicest gentlemen I’ve ever met and it didn’t dawn on me until years later that I realized the “wow factor” of transitioning from my local level to a mega fire in Idaho and leaving home and chauffeuring this important person in a nice clean new fire shirt and pants from the base camp to the incident command post for fire briefings. It was a big step in growing my job experience.
Do you feel you’ve gone after opportunities you’ve had in the federal government?
I’ve been fortunate to be given opportunities. In some instances, I didn’t ask for the invitation, but I was given one. After a few years in my job at the National Interagency Coordination Center, a sub-unit of the Fire Center where I currently work, there was major flooding occurring in the Midwest. I was asked to serve as a Forest Service liaison to FEMA in Washington, District of Columbia to coordinate with other participating federal agencies and identify personnel, equipment or aircraft that the Forest Service could provide to support the disaster response effort. I was just short of petrified, but was a good soldier and helped to order the Forest Service response crews to support activities like debris removal and work the deployment logistics. I packed my bags and went to the District for three weeks. Talk about a learning experience. I learned so much on that assignment about FEMA and all the other support agencies.
What are your interests outside of your job?
My other life is as a third-generation working cattle rancher. That’s my day job when I’m not here and I still really enjoy that. I love to hunt and fish and always have. My dad was a very avid upland bird hunter who also took us fishing. He dragged my mother along on the trips, but as kids, we loved it.
Tell us something that few people know about you.
I don’t know that there are too many people that know I drive 106 miles a day to get to and from work. I do that every day.
I also play drums for a small band in the church that I attend. We play a kind of modern worship music. I picked up playing drums in high school and played for the drill team. I taught my son how to play drums when he was about 9 years old. Of course he went on to play much, much better than what I taught. He went on to play in high school, so he has surpassed my ability by far. So now he teaches me.
How do you want to be remembered by your colleagues? What would they say about you?
I would like to be remembered as a person who was genuinely interested in and cared every day about the job I do and how I do it. One of the things that people have often remarked about is that it seems like no matter what’s going on, I never get excited. My blood pressure never goes up.
Do you have any advice to recent college graduates just starting out in their careers?
I am an atypical Forest Service employee in that I went from being a basic firefighter to the position I’m in now without moving all over the country. In retrospect, I turned down some opportunities to do things out of state. I turned down the military and turned down an opportunity to work in Alaska in the mid-80s.
If there was one thing I would have done differently, it would have been to do exactly what I didn’t do. I would have enjoyed going into the military for a handful of years. I wish I would have gone to a college out of state. I’ve never been to Alaska to this day and wish I would’ve taken the opportunity to work there. I guess I would say I wasn’t very adventurous back then. I had a comfort zone, and it wasn’t until I was well into my career that I had supervisors that constantly pushed me out of my comfort zone. I think that’s one of the things that I really appreciate as I look back on my career. Don’t be afraid to accept a challenging assignment.