[This is the “One of Our Own” section from the Fall 2019 issue of Two More Chains.]
First the Tree Tries to Kill Him
Then the Bureaucratic Aftermath
Does the Same
By Alex Viktora and Travis Dotson
Kevin Reese lived the nightmare. He got mangled doing the job we all love. He survived the injury, but the bureaucratic aftermath almost killed him. Alex Viktora recently called Kevin and got the full story.
ALEX: Give us your fire profile.
KEVIN: I am an AFMO on the Huron-Manistee National Forests in Region 9. I’ve been out here for about three years now. Prior to that, I worked in Region 5 for 17 years. I started my career on crews, then did some prevention, fuels and worked on an engine for a bit. I stayed in North Ops, worked on the Six Rivers, the Klamath, and the Tahoe.
ALEX: I hear you got hit on the head?
KEVIN: Yep. August 11, 2013 on the Grizzly Fire, Northern California. High elevation, lightning fire. I had been the IC then it bumped up to Type 3, so I rolled into a Task Force Leader. Pretty remote, gnarly terrain, super steep, heavy timber, lots of roll out.
Anyway, toward the end of the shift I was sending the majority of my folks down the hill and I get a call that a helicopter is coming in and I got maybe half a fuel cycle, so we need to work ‘em for everything I can. I had my engine walking down the hill and they ran back up and started working the ship in a fairly steep drainage trying to kind of hang it up for the night.
It was a 205, so a pretty quick turnaround. We started higher on the slope working down into this drainage. The last drop, he was right over the top of us. He had a long line, but he was going down into this drainage so his rotors were a lot closer to the timber and we were getting a lot of rotor wash.
He came off the drop and was pulling away. The sound transitioned from that “womp, womp, womp” of a 205 to the groaning of holding wood. I looked up and there’s a tree coming down right on top of me. I figured if I could get out from under the trunk . . . I just bailed down the super-steep embankment, kind of a scree field. Supposedly your life flashes before your eyes and there’s all this regret. I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t have time!
Because of the terrain, the trunk hit the ground before the top. I heard it hit 20 feet behind me, then 15 feet, then 10 feet—and I realized this is going to happen and had that “Oh sh*t” moment. And then something hits me right in the middle of my back, right on the pack. Knocked me down. I got hit across the right shoulder and that kind of threw me forward and off-kilter. I totally had that “I’m going to die, that sucks” kind of moment.
And then I got hit right on the back of the head. The last thing I remember is my red hardhat just flew off my head and it’s flying straight out in front of me. I saw it spin a couple of times, and then I’m out. I don’t remember anything else.
The next thing I know, one of my crew members, this smaller dude, Javan, is right there and he is pulling me out from under whatever is on top of me. I have no idea what’s going on, but he grabs me by my shoulder straps and lifts me up. I’m 6’3” and he’s probably 5’6” and he just shoulder pressed me and he’s like, dragging me away. And then another dude, Frank, is there and he is a bigger dude. He grabbed me and then all of a sudden, there’s another guy, Ed, and they got me out. I was pretty sure I was dying.
I thought the entire back of my head had been completely crushed—like it was gone. I kept rubbing the back of my head with my left hand from the side of my head back to my neck, just waiting for my fingers to stick into my brains and realize that I’m dead.
Getting Off the Hill
I’m dead. I have accepted this. They’re trying to figure out what’s going on. Ed’s running the radio talking to the IC and making notifications and it’s starting to get dark by now. Nothing is really in our favor. It’s super steep. They’re trying to figure stuff out and I’m having a really hard time tracking.
They’re talking about getting the helicopter. There’s some discussion about the marine layer. They’re trying to get a ground ambulance and things are happening, I don’t know. They’re doing their stuff.
They’re talking about how to get me off the hill, scratching their heads and coming up with a plan. I looked around and there’s only four dudes, maybe five, with two local volunteers. There’s no way they can pack me out. I’ve done that, it takes way more than you think.
So, completely absolute wrong thing for me to do, but I figured I’m going to walk 10 feet. That’s 10 feet those dudes don’t have to carry me. And we’re just going to do it like that until I can’t go anymore. Hopefully, I’ll get them far enough that they can get something coming up from the bottom.
I end up walking out, wearing my hardhat and line gear pack—not because I wanted to carry it. More because the situation has gone to sh*t when you drop your pack. I wasn’t ready to admit that yet.
I probably walked three quarters of a mile, or a mile. Some pretty nasty, rocky drainages. I was just absolutely jacked up to the gills with adrenaline. And my heart’s beating like 200 times a minute. I’m just thinking: “I have to get out of here because if I don’t, nothing good is going to happen.”
So I get down to the Drop Point. The original ambulance that they called broke down, of course. So they called a second ambulance. That was a delay. Eventually, it gets there and they load me up and send me down the hill.
Upside down and backwards, flying down Highway 36, full of morphine. I started to lose the feeling of my right arm. And everything is starting to really, really hurt.
My Forest Safety Officer, Damien, was already at the hospital when I got there. He covered all the paperwork, everything that comes along with getting hurt.
I have compression injuries in my neck and my right shoulder, pretty much my entire back, my cervical, thoracic and lumbar. I have compression injuries in my right hip, my right knee and my right ankle. I joke that I’m a half-inch shorter and 20 pounds heavier.
I do have nerve damage in my right arm. I don’t really think about it anymore, which is kind of funny. I don’t know if it’s getting better or if I’m getting used to it—probably somewhere in between. The best way to describe how it feels—it’s like if you take a capful of something carbonated and you pour it right in the palm of your hand, that’s it. It happens in the middle of my palm.
Sometimes it will buzz, sometimes it just kind of vibrates. But more often than not, it’ll feel like my pinky, ring, and middle fingers and that portion of my palm is wet and that there’s air kind of blowing over it. It feels like they’re wet and kind of cold.
As for running, since I got hurt, I can go about two-and-a-half miles and my right hip just locks up, gets super dull and achy. And then I’ll get about four or five days where my leg doesn’t bend, I feel like a Lego man. So running is no longer an option. I can’t smell anymore. My memory is affected. I didn’t have a great memory before, but I definitely don’t have one now.
There are real life consequences for what happens to us.
ALEX: No doubt. What was it like right after the accident?
KEVIN: I’m lucky. I worked on a really, really, really good Forest. I mean, before Hospital Liaisons were a thing, this Forest did it. My AFMO was mowing my yard, bringing me groceries, watching my kids, so my wife could have a break.
I had Chief One, Mike Minton, calling all the time checking up. My Forest Supervisor, Tyrone Kelley, called me every day, just checking up on me. My Ranger, Tom, came down to sit with me and told me: “Don’t worry about work. We’ll deal with it.” I had dudes stopping by, just random fire dudes stopping by and checking in on me. People dropping off groceries. People calling and texting. Amazing support. The Forest Service family showed up.
I’ve got a younger brother and we are super close. He was on a different fire the night that I got struck. David Martin up on the Six Rivers drove out to the line and found my brother. He told him what was up and he stayed with him until they figured out that I wasn’t dead. Just an overwhelming amount of support from everybody.
Then I start getting into care, and I start getting into OWCP. My claim has already been filed, and I’ve been in this pretty rad opiate haze for a while. So I got my OWCP caseworker who seems to change like every two weeks. So I call one person and it’s someone else, so they reroute me. I’m constantly playing phone tag. They’ve got me seeing a general practitioner and an orthopedist. The orthopedist puts in a bunch of requests to get me to a neurologist. And so all this is happening and that’s when OWCP starts declining things.
They declined the request for a surgical orthopedist to take a look at me. They even declined the orthopedist that I was seeing. They’re starting to decline the payments he is submitting. And so, these doctors are being super cool, but they are like: “Hey man, you’re not paying your bills.” I am super naïve and being like: “It’s cool, it is Workman’s Comp, they’re going to pay.” And they totally didn’t. They really didn’t pay for anything.
They paid for the CA-1 which covered the first four hours. The rest of it just started stacking up. I started getting calls from St. Joseph Hospital. I started getting calls from the ambulance company. I got calls from everybody. I’m calling my caseworker, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
By the way, they’re not treating me in any way. They just keep giving me Narcotics.
I can’t go see a neurologist. But they’ll give me a garbage can full of Narcos. They’re like: “Just stay on your normal dose.” Well, that gets pretty tasty after a while. One of the nurses even told me: “You could start slinging these pills for like, two or three bucks a pop.” I said WTF? You’re telling me to sell pills? Oh, man. That guy bounced quick—right out the room!
So I’m hurt. I don’t know what I’m doing with work. I’m telling folks: “Hey, man, they’re not paying my bills.” And all my super-supportive dudes are like: “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got you.” Okay. Cool, man.
Now I’m getting creditor calls. I call ASC and they tell me to make a payment plan. And I’m like, what are you talking about? Like this is a work-related injury. I got hit by a tree on a fire at work. And they’re like, yes, unless you want your credit to be completely destroyed, you need to show a payment plan.
This is madness.
I’m losing my mind because I’m not making sh*t for money. I can’t work, both physically and mentally. We’ve got two little girls at home, my wife is trying to clean houses to pull some money in. And, again, super-supportive bros are like: “Hey, man, I got you. Hey, man, if you need anything. Hey, man, here’s a hundred bucks.” Crazy supportive.
And that starts the guilt cycle because you’re like, I know how they earn their money, and I’m super appreciative of it, but they can’t carry me forever.
I was on light duty for a while. And then you know, whether I’m good or not, I’m back in the seat, I gotta get back to work. So I came back and I just kind of hung-out being broken and didn’t really do anything. I realized, I’ve got “real life” bills to pay. No matter how supportive my dudes were at work, the Department of Labor and the U.S. Forest Service are wildly different beasts and the Forest Service has no pull with DOL.
And I’m broken. I need to get back up.
I was back at work. Creditors call like, six, seven, eight times a day. They started calling my family. They called my dad. They called my mom. My dad’s like, how did they did get this number? Financially they’re ruining my life, but now it’s expanding.
So my FMO, is like: “Hey man, they’re burning up on the Orleans District. If you want to go, we’ll throw some overtime your way.” Hell yeah, I’m ready, put me in.
So it’s more Klamath River drainage stuff—super steep and nasty. The engine was up there. We’re helping them burn. Heavy timber, and trees started coming down and holding wood groaning and trees thumping the ground. I had a straight-up gnarly panic attack—just feeling like I’m losing it.
I’m trying to tell myself, I’m good. I’m good. I really have to do this, c’mon, you’re good. And I just kind of holed-up behind this big Doug fir and I completely lost my mind. I couldn’t move, couldn’t make decisions, I just melted. And I had never done that before.
It was terrifying. One of my buddies grabbed me and he’s like: “Hey, man, let’s go for a walk.” And he hid me away. Not that anyone would dog me up there, but they might just be like: “What are you doing?”
And that’s when I started to think that there might actually be something wrong with me.
The engine stayed, I left. A runner had to come and get me. I thought: “I can’t do that. That sucks.”
I remember sitting down with my wife. I was like: “I guess we’re going to file for bankruptcy.” We just bought a house and we had a car payment. My credit wasn’t spotless, but it was pretty legit. Now it’s nothing.
Then I just tanked. I’ve got overwhelming debt. No one at the Department of Labor is helping me. I wrote my congressman. I tried everything. I decided I’m just not going to pay them. Again, I get told: “Set up a payment plan.”
ALEX: It sounds like “set up a payment plan” is literally in a handbook or part of some script. And that is how they deal with it. Like it’s the only play they call in that situation.
KEVIN: For real. Thinking back, it really broke my heart. This is what they read to people every day.
Kevin’s Second Close Call
KEVIN: So, I’m still kind of working. Luckily, it’s the end of the season and my temps are laid off. I don’t know what I’m going to do financially. I don’t know what I’m going to do for a job.
Then one day I’m in the grocery store with my little girl and we’re walking down the aisle and one of the employees is stocking shelves and they have a flat of canned goods. And, it’s got the shrink wrap plastic on it and we are walking past and they rip that plastic off. I swear, it’s that same damn groaning like holding wood, like a tree coming down. And I totally lost it again.
I just shut down and couldn’t move. I’m staring at these candies and some macaroni and cheese. I can’t breathe. I’m losing it, man. And during this whole thing, I still have this boatload of Narcotics. So I get pretty cool with eating Narco, drinking Rolling Rock and getting down with some daytime television.
I’m just super depressed. I’m getting crushed physically, mentally, and financially. And they keep giving me these tasty little candies that wash down super smooth. Luckily, my wife is like: “Hey dude, this has got to stop.” And she just shot me straight. She’s like: “You’re going to quit that sh*t today. We’re not doing that.” She’s a super strong, super direct lady. And she just took control and said “Nope, not doing it.” She got me off opiates. I am super lucky.
So then I’m getting pressure from the doctor’s office to fill these prescriptions: “You need to be taking your medicine.” I’m like: “I’m not taking this anymore, man. I’m going to just eat ibuprofen and try to focus on managing pain.”
I kind of took some grief over that, like I really should be on the pills. I’m like, “Okay, copy.”
Then life goes on. I realized that I’m not going to run again. I need to work. I genuinely like fighting fire. I guess that’s the thing I’m addicted to. Big fire, structures threatened, radios blowing up and everyone firing on all cylinders. There aren’t many things better than that.
ALEX: Right. Purpose, community, shared hardship, we all know that stuff matters.
KEVIN: For sure. And so I resigned myself to the fact that I’m financially crushed. I’m never going to buy another house, there’s no way that’s going to happen. But I’m going to keep fighting fire.
Two Years Later . . .
Fast forward two years. I’m down at McClellan for an Engine Captains Group. At a break, I run into Pete Duncan, who was Regional Safety at the time. I knew he had one of his bros get smoked by a tree. I went to him straight-up and said: “Hey, I got hit by a tree. You went through it with your dude. I’m totally getting screwed. Nobody is helping me. No one knows what to do. The Forest Service can’t seem to get through.” Pete is like: “Okay, man, shoot me an e-mail.” I ran back and got my computer fired-up and sent him an e-mail with this same sob story.
I was all stoked, like things are going to change. And, a day goes by. A week. A month. By four months in, I’m like, okay, he was cool, at least he listened to me. Then out of the blue, I get a call from the head of ASC proper. She says: “Hey, I talked to Pete and he briefed me up on what’s going on. I apologize. The whole thing is a shameful process. We hang our folks out to dry and we just abandon them on the roadside.” She said some nice words.
I said: “You were the ones who told me to set up a payment plan!” I was still fairly cynical. And she said, “Anyone who is contacting you for money, send it directly to me. This is my e-mail address, this is my FAX at my desk, and we’ll take care of it.” And I did. And they paid the entirety of my bills with federal funds. The U.S. Forest Service paid the entirety of it.
So I think, all in all, that was probably three years after I got crunched. Credit-wise, it still ruined me. But the Forest Service owned up, they came through and paid my medical bills.
Are You Kidding Me?
ALEX: Did you ever get the DOL’s or OWCP’s rationale?
KEVIN: I was told the reason my claim was denied was because there was a “billing error.” And because the billing department is contracted, they didn’t have any enforcement on the procedures of that contracted portion, so there’s nothing they could do. Are you kidding me? Like a coding number? Like 1-0-5 instead of 1-0-7 is why you’re financially killing me?
So, OWCP, I really hold no value in it. And I think it’s incredibly shameful how they carry themselves and that they deny claims because of the small percentage of people who abuse it.
All I want is to get back on the horse. I don’t want to sit here. I don’t want to snort pills. I was just absolutely typecast. They scrutinized me for fraud when I got hurt at work. It’s documented. Just pay my bills, so I can get back in there and work.
And it really bothers me, because in this business, it’s not if, it’s when you get hurt. So when it does happen, we need to support these folks.
ALEX: Does this event influence your perspective in day-to-day work?
KEVIN: Yeah, I’m not nearly as aggressive as I was. I’m hypersensitive to our commitment time in the deep dark, nasty holes that we send crews into. Some folks are like: “We’ve got medevac ships, we’re good.” I’m like: “Okay. Ask Andy Palmer about that.”
I think more about extraction. I think more about exposure and I definitely think more about that Risk versus Gain. Does the mission make sense? Or should we bump out two ridges, scalp it and burn it?
I still really don’t like the sound of holding wood. That gives me the worst damn bone chills. It almost makes me want to puke.
So I’m not a huge fan of falling.
What are Your Lessons?
ALEX: So what are your lessons? What would you pass on to others?
KEVIN: As far as anything I could offer so others don’t have to go through this—I’m focused on fixing the process with the Department of Labor. There’s got to be a better way to do it. We’re currently doing it wrong.
ALEX: Yes, and we keep hearing it over and over again. For some reason there are groups that are extremely reluctant to talk about it. I don’t know why. I don’t know if they’re worried that DOL is going to come and slap them around or something. I don’t understand why this is a hard thing to call out. I mean, it’s about taking care of people. It’s pretty simple. If something bad happens to our folks at work, we need to fix it.
And even worse, some folks think this is not a problem. I’ve been in so many meetings and group discussions, and somebody will say: “No, this is not a problem. People just need to fill-out their CA-1’s correctly.”
What do think? Is your OWCP story particularly gnarly?
KEVIN: Actually, I think it’s pretty standard. I’ve worked with multiple people who just started making payments. It’s more of a shocker when you hear that an OWCP claim went smooth.
And you just don’t hear that.
ALEX: Right. Any other lessons?
KEVIN: I mean, I know the PPE one is kinda lame. But when used correctly, it really makes a difference. And I’m not even a hardhat dude, I’ve never liked wearing hardhats. I’ve got really gnarly curly hair that I don’t really take care of, so it’s usually all matted and nasty. It’s therefore always hot and wearing a bucket sucks.
So, if I could ever get away with not wearing a hardhat, I would do that. But there is obviously a reason for it. Again, to underline the fact that my hardhat saved my life. It did its job, it fulfilled its little hardhat destiny.
This stuff can help. It can lessen the impact. It can reduce severity and that is super important. Are there better hardhats out there? I’m sure of it. One of the super frustrating things is that we are all about safety until it becomes cost prohibitive.
There’s better Nomex out there. It’s just expensive. There’s better hardhats out there, I guarantee it. You know, there’s chainsaws that don’t geyser. All that stuff is just more expensive. I feel like we look at how many ones and zeros are associated with the cost and then we’re like: “Oh well, it’s okay, a Kevlar blend is cool.”
I understand the balance with fiscal responsibility. But if you are going to restrict our safety because of cost, then you need to ease up on your propaganda.