A wildland firefighter is suing the U.S. Forest Service, claiming that he was “blackballed” after speaking out publicly about loose coronavirus safety regulations during last year’s historic fire season that scorched millions of acres across several Western states.
According to a complaint filed with the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Pedro Rios, a firefighter with 13 years experience, was “discriminated and retaliated against due to protesting lack of COVID-19 protocols and protections for the fire crew, families and the public.”
Rios says he was denied rehire rights, the hiring process federal firefighters undergo each fire season, after he publicly criticized his boss’s handling of safety guidelines.
He also filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel alleging that his free speech rights as a public employee were violated. Both complaints were received in February and investigations are ongoing, according to his lawyer, Tom Dimitre.
In an emailed statement, the Forest Service declined to comment on pending litigation and said “as a matter of policy, we do not discuss personnel matters.”
The federal complaints stem from a message Rios posted to a Facebook community page in July. In the post, he warned residents of his small Northern California county that his fire crew would be returning home to the Klamath National Forest without first quarantining after spending a week in Southern California, which was considered a Covid-19 hot spot during the summer and for many months after.
“We chose this job and know the dangers, bringing us back to Siskiyou exposing an older public population and our own families is absolutely short sighted in our view,” he wrote in the post.
He went on to post a screenshot showing the names of Klamath National Forest officers whom community members could contact with questions or concerns.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic spread throughout the country, Rios worried about his son’s compromised health and what could happen if the 4-year-old came down with a respiratory infection.
Like both his mother and father, Felix Bell-Rios was born with severe asthma that can trigger attacks at a moment’s notice. In 2019, he was airlifted to an intensive care unit after a particularly vicious episode and spent two days in the hospital. He now uses Flovent medication and a nebulizer machine to keep his air passages clear.
When Covid-19 arrived in the United States last year, Rios wondered what that would mean for the upcoming fire season and for his son’s safety. After talking it over with his girlfriend and members of his fire crew, he said he felt confident the Forest Service would have Covid-19 safety measures in place.
But that was not his experience when fire season started, he said.
His crew was given hand sanitizer and masks, but they were not instructed to quarantine before traveling to Southern California or after. Instead, his crew was told to self-isolate if they experienced symptoms after returning to Siskiyou County, a rural community near the Oregon border.
Rios worried these mitigation plans were insufficient, he said. He and others in the crew used public bathrooms and grocery stores while in Los Angeles, and they did not wear masks around each other or while fighting fires.
During his time in Southern California, he said, he voiced concerns to his managers that traveling to an urban region with high Covid-19 rates could endanger his son and elderly residents in Siskiyou County.
“They left us out to dry,” he said of the Forest Service. “They didn’t care about us or our safety, the public’s safety, our children’s safety.”