Jerri Marr awoke on June 23, 2012, expecting a normal day as forest supervisor tending to issues arising on the Pike and San Isabel national forests west of Colorado Springs, Colo., on the Comanche National Grassland, some 250 miles away, and on the Cimarron National Grassland in southwest Kansas.
Little did she realize that in the ensuing days, a fire presumed to be human caused set that day in Waldo Canyon would leave in its path a scar of more than 18,000 acres, cost more than $18 million to fight, prompt the evacuation of 32,000 people, destroy 346 homes and kill two people. The Waldo Canyon fire has since been labeled the largest, most expensive and destructive fire in Colorado’s history.
Marr also didn’t expect to emerge a hero who would receive awards, commendations and praise from the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force Academy, National Association of Black Journalists and the City of Colorado Springs, among others. The U.S. Olympic Committee selected her as a 2012 Torch Bearer, two Colorado Springs restaurants named sandwiches in her honor, and more than 3,200 people “liked” a Facebook fan page created about her.
“Now I see what making a difference looks like, so it just inspires me to continue to work even harder,” Marr said. “When our community needed us, we were able to rise up and serve them in a positive way, and I’m honored and humbled and challenged by that as well.”
In the days when nearly every Colorado Springs resident stayed riveted to their televisions, Marr stood out as the voice of calm understanding. As one of them.
“Absolutely LOVE Her!” one person wrote in response to a story about Marr in the Colorado Springs Gazette. “I appreciated her honesty, the way she wouldn’t let the crowd railroad her. The day the fire exploded, you could see the pain in her eyes, but she kept it together, therefore we kept it together. Just truly AMAZING!”
Of course, Marr does not see herself as a hero. She simply did her job and continues to do so. Marr’s ascension as an authoritative yet calming representative of the Forest Service started when she was a young person. She participated in a 4-H Club and was part of the forestry and wildlife judging team.
Marr joined the Forest Service after earning a degree in forestry and natural resource management from the University of Tennessee. While Waldo Canyon could be seen as a professional milestone in her career, 27 years of training and experience helped prepare her for that moment.
“Milestones for me are having successfully achieved every one of my short- and long-range goals, from wanting to have the ability to work in multiple regions and gather different experiences to being a district ranger to forest supervisor,” said Marr. “I also wanted to have the opportunity to do more than just be a forester. I wanted to understand the different departments, like working in public affairs and branching out of that and coming back into a leadership position.
“I believe that I’ve been able to achieve this by staying flexible, being willing to move to get an opportunity and never giving up.”
During the Waldo Canyon fire, her leadership also meant a personal connection to as many of the 1,700 firefighters who battled the erratic blaze in steep, rugged terrain at high altitudes during unseasonably hot weather.
“I made it my goal to talk to every new firefighter that was on that incident. Every time a new crew came in, I introduced myself and I asked every one of them to remember to be safe and stay hydrated and not just let this be another fire,” said Marr. “I watched as the incident commander did the same thing. To have success in safety, I believe we have to present our expectation and then live it out ourselves every day and make it a part of who we are.”
No firefighter suffered serious injury during the blaze.
While keeping an eye on those who fought the fire, Marr knew another concern would be the children in the community. It’s one reason she started a “Smokey Cares” outreach to the kids affected by the fire.
“Kids were weaved throughout those blocks and neighborhoods. They not only lost their homes, they lost their friends, familiarity and a sense of security. All things that are not easily found, kept, or re-created,” she said. “We set up an email address and asked kids to write Smokey because he cared. We had lots of kids write in, and Smokey sent them a care package.”
Her decision to use Smokey Bear, the iconic face of wildfire prevention education, is a natural part of her job.
“My desire is to continue to reach kids and help them to embrace the role of fire in our ecosystem and not to fear it,” she said. “Rather, I want to help them to understand what it means to be fire wise. Hundreds of kids were so deeply impacted in a negative way by the fire, and we now have an opportunity to impact kids in a positive way.”
And the outreach seems to have helped.
“In our community, now more than any other time since I have been a line officer, I hear young people saying, ‘I want to be a firefighter or a forester when I grow up.’ Or ‘I want to help bring the forest back when I grow up,’” she said. “I see a part of my job as helping these future generations understand the various volunteer and career opportunities they have to be a part of the Forest Service and join us in managing the ecosystems that we live in.”
Whether calming a community, protecting a firefighter or embracing kids, Marr understands her actions are part of a legacy that does not belong to her.
“We are the guardians of the American people’s national inheritance and as the guardians of their inheritance, they deserve nothing but the best,” she said. “I want to make sure I give them exactly what they are expecting from me every day.”