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'Hotshots' Are Under Fire for Racy Photos

Forest Service: Elite firefighting force is accused of sexual harassment for displaying pictures of scantily clad women.

October 06, 2002|WILLIAM OVEREND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA BARBARA — The 20 members of the special crew of forest firefighters barracked in the mountains east of here--19 men and one woman--are part of an elite national force known as the Hotshots.

Based at the Los Prietos Ranger Station in the Los Padres National Forest, they travel the country wherever needed, fighting fires 12 hours a day for weeks at a time and sleeping on the ground. They go as far as Colorado and New Mexico, usually in trucks called "crew buggies."

The U.S. Forest Service takes a special pride in its Hotshots teams. But now the group in Santa Barbara County is at the center of something the federal agency is not so proud about.

In the latest in a long series of sexual harassment controversies, the Forest Service is trying to figure out what to do about numerous photos of scantily clad women plastered inside the Santa Barbara team's two crew carriers.

A complaint was officially lodged with local supervisors Sept. 17 and reported to the state's highest forest officials by the following day. It was backed up with photographic evidence secretly taken, and Forest Service critics saw it as a final proof of what they have been saying for years.

The top management of the Forest Service has turned a blind eye to sexual harassment for too long, they say. And worse, they charge, the agency has taken a punitive approach to anybody who complains about it.

Lesa Donnelly worked for the Forest Service for 14 years. But now, under terms of a class-action lawsuit settled last year, she is one of three monitors tracking the agency's approach to sexual harassment claims involving female Forest Service employees in California.

"The pictures have given us tangible evidence of what we have been saying for years. The tone is set by management, and there are sexual harassment issues all over California," she said.

"But the Los Padres National Forest has one of the biggest problems, and management simply hasn't done its job. There are Hotshots groups throughout the country, and they do a wonderful job. But the Los Prietos Hotshots are not professional. They have brought shame on the entire Forest Service."

Almost two weeks after the Sept. 17 complaint about the photos in the Hotshots trucks, California's top Forest Service official, Jack A. Blackwell, announced what many in the agency's management ranks consider a tough response to the incident.

Repeating earlier statements that the Forest Service has a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment, Blackwell called the photos offensive and added that "this behavior is intolerable."

Last Monday, Blackwell ordered one-hour sessions for all 8,300 permanent and temporary Forest Service personnel at the 18 national forests in California "to ensure that all employees understand our zero-tolerance policy." About 33% of that group is female.

According to Donnelly, nobody on the Hotshots crew at Los Prietos had objected to the photos, including the one female member. But Blackwell said that wasn't the issue, and he ordered all agency managers to report back by the end of the week that no inappropriate material existed anywhere.

Blackwell defined inappropriate material as "pictures of nude or scantily clad (swimsuits or the like) people, magazines and books with such pictures or with sexually explicit information, or inappropriate objects."

The incident in the Los Padres National Forest wasn't the only blatant problem in recent months, he noted. There were suggestive photos found at the Tahoe National Forest in July, which resulted in the firing of two employees and the resignation of three others. And there has been pornographic e-mail floating around, he said.

"Jack was pretty upset," said Matt Mathes, spokesman at the Vallejo headquarters of the agency's Region 5, which covers all of California.

"We are a large and diverse organization, however," he added. "There probably are some people who don't treat it as seriously as Jack does, but our response is you will treat it."

None of that was very persuasive to Donnelly and other entrenched critics of the Forest Service. She noted that it took almost two weeks for Blackwell to announce his actions, and speculated that both the words and actions were aimed at U.S. District Judge Lowell Jensen in Oakland, who is monitoring the class-action settlement to make sure that all sides act in good faith.

"He's not doing anything to work with us to get the supervisors to really take this seriously," she said. "At Los Prietos, one supervisor started off by telling everybody she knew they all worked hard and played hard. That wasn't the tone to take. It was a way of winking and saying I really don't care."

In Donnelly's opinion, the Hotshots at Los Prietos should be disbanded and management officials disciplined or replaced. Along with the secretly taken pictures of the semi-nude photos, there were photographs inside the Hotshots barracks showing stacks of six-packs of beer.

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